The Taste with Vir Sanghvi: Like the late Hubert de Givenchy, the real faces behind Chanel, YSL, Dior are fading away
In this week’s column, Vir Sanghvi investigates why the real men and women behind iconic labels such as Chanel, Dior, Saint Laurent and Givenchy are being forgotten.vir sanghvi Updated: Mar 21, 2018 12:22 IST
An editor from The Hindustan Times phoned me last week. Would I do an obituary of Givenchy, the designer who had just died for the next day’s paper?
Givenchy? As in Hubert de Givenchy, founder of the fashion house that still bears his name?
The very same.
Gosh, I said, I was sorry but I didn’t think I knew very much about old Hubert. I had seen photos of him, in his old fashioned lab-style white coat. I knew that Audrey Hepburn had been one of his most famous clients, and I knew that his fashion house had put its name to some great fragrances, created by some of the best perfumers of that era. But that was about all. And I didn’t think that was enough to base an obituary on.
Ok, said the HT person. Could I think of somebody else who could do it?
I racked my brains but the more I thought about it, the more I came up against the same problem. I could think of people who would write about the house of Givenchy as it now exists. But virtually nothing about the house is as it was when the old boy sold out to the giant corporation that became Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy. It has been run (often very successfully) by LVMH with a series of designers who have had in nothing in common with Hubert and his style. It was no secret that the house’s founder was appalled by the things that the likes of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen did in his name. And I suspect he would have poured the crap fragrances that the house now produces straight down the toilet.
And yet, the name Givenchy survives, even if it has so little to do with the guy whose surname it was.
But that, I guess, is what fashion and branding is all about now. Christian Dior died in 1957 and the man himself is largely forgotten.
Fashion historians may talk about the New Look but I would imagine that something like 95% of those who now buy a Dior product have no idea that Christian Dior was a real person. Dior himself would probably have keeled over in shock had he been around to see John Galliano, one of the designers who took over his house, preening and prancing about on the catwalk.
Today, the house of Dior’s sole connection to the legacy of the man who founded it are the fragrances. The classics, many of them composed by the great Edmond Roudnitska, are far superior to the stuff the house is now churning out. (Have you, for instance, smelt Sauvage?)
I imagine that the same fate will befall the legacy of Yves Saint Laurent, easily the greatest designer of the 20th Century. Saint Laurent sold his house to Gucci when he was still alive and then made it clear that he had total contempt for the clothes that Tom Ford was designing for the label.
Eventually Gucci fired Ford and it has installed new designers over the years but the legacy of the founder is fading: the house’s name has even been changed to Saint Laurent (the ‘Yves’ has been dropped). The great perfumes remain one of the last links to the original house.
It would be tempting to say that the shift away from the founders of fashion’s greatest houses has to do with corporate ownership (most of the great French houses are owned by LVMH or Kering) and the desire of the new owners to make the brands designer-neutral.
Certainly, there is something to this view .Bernard Arnault the owner of LVMH, once backed Christian Lacroix, an individual designer, because he believed in his talent. But Lacroix never really made it in commercial terms.Since then, Arnault has had much better luck with taking over such existing houses as Givenchy, Dior, Celine and Kenzo, and making sure that the founders and original designers have no involvement.
This is as true of Kering, the conglomerate owned by the Pinault family who first acted as a white knight for Gucci when it was under attack from LVMH . Later the Pinaults sacked Tom Ford, the man who had revived Gucci and created Kering.
At the very first Hindustan Times Luxury Summit, over a decade ago, Robert Polet, the former ice-cream executive who the Pinault family appointed to run Gucci after Tom Ford’s sacking, said in his speech that he much preferred brands such as Bottega Veneta (part of Kering) to designer-led houses. This has quickly become the conventional wisdom.
But, of course, generalisations can be misleading . A talented individual designer may still get the backing of a LVMH or Kering-like conglomerate, though it is rarer and rarer for the big boys to give the designer his or her own label .
And then, there’s the Chanel phenomenon.
Chanel was founded by Coco Chanel but made most of its money from Chanel No. 5, the fragrance (created by Ernest Beaux) that was made for Chanel by the Wertheimer family. During the Second World War, the Wertheimers (who are Jewish) fled France as the Nazis marched into Paris while Coco Chanel was happy to stay on and consort with the Germans.
When the War ended, the Wertheimers moved back to France and Chanel went into exile following suggestions that she had collaborated with the Nazis.
That should have been that. But the Wertheimers proved be magnanimous and far-sighted and brought Coco back to France. They set up her fashion house again and though they were now the owners, they remained behind the scenes. Coco died in 1971 and the house survived on its fragrances till 1983 when the Wertheimers hired Karl Lagerfeld to revive the clothes business.
Unlike LVHM and Kering however, the Wertheimers insisted that Lagerfeld made clothes than conformed to Coco Chanel’s conception of fashion. Such is Lagerfeld’s talent that, by drawing on Coco’s past work, he was able to create a distinctive Chanel style that is updated for the catwalk each season so that it seems contemporary while remaining classically Chanel. (Lagerfeld has his own style which he uses for other labels).
Despite the bad blood of the past, the Wertheimer-owned house of Chanel reveres the memory of Coco and not only insists on using her life and likeness as its signature but also backs movies and books about Coco, perpetuating the legend and photo-shopping away the unhappier parts of her history.
People who buy Givenchy or Dior may have no clue that these are not just brands but the surnames of forgotten founders. But at Chanel, you are left in no doubt that the house is continuing the legacy of a single individual.
I often wonder if the future of fashion will follow the Chanel route or the Dior route. My guess is that there will always be some brands that will depend on the designer’s presence. For instance Donna Karan sold her company to LVMH but the brand has sunk without a trace without Karan’s own involvement. So it is with Calvin Klein. Ever since the designer cashed out, the brand has been mainly associated with underwear. Likewise with Ralph Lauren. The designer is more or less out of his own brand (which is in trouble) and I very much doubt if it will remain a significant name in fashion over the next decade.
Of today’s more high profile designers, I think Tom Ford has still to create a brand that can outlast him. There will be a Gucci long after Ford has been forgotten. On the other hand, Michael Kors has been able to parlay his TV visibility into a very successful top-of-the-high-street range that may well outlive him because of its sheer ubiquity.
The real challenge, I am guessing, will come with the Italian designers. Valentino has left his house but he is still very visible. Once he becomes less visible, will the brand survive? If you have been watching The Assassination of Gianni Versace on TV (or Hotstar), you will be familiar with the tensions at that house once Versace was shot. His brand survives but I don’t think it is a major force any longer.
And what of Giorgio Armani, the most influential menswear designer of the last few decades and easily the pre-eminent Italian designer of his time?
Armani is 83 years old and continues to run his own empire with an iron hand. He is worth around eight billion dollars and has turned down offers to sell his company for even more. Will the house of Armani outlast its founder? Nobody knows the answer to that one.
In the long run, individuals will count for less and less in the running of fashion houses. Each year, LVMH picks up more and more luxury companies. As its ownership of these brands persists , will anyone ever remember that there is a family called Bulgari or that the Fendis are real people? Or that there was a person called Berluti long before the first shoe was sold?
Which is a bit sad. I didn’t know that much about Hubert de Givenchy. But I knew enough to recognise that we should have remembered more about the man and his achievements.
Instead, he left us at a time when his name was no more than a byword for dodgy duty free shop perfumes.
Poor old Hubert!