Can Buzzy, Young Designers and Collaborations Help Jumpstart Heritage Brands?

Can a buzzy designer or unspoiled young talent alone change the fate of heritage brands facing a volatile economy and a crowded fashion landscape?

Opinions — and outcomes — are mixed.

Although the injection of fresh creativity is generally viewed as an effective strategy, the formula is not always a winning one as some observers underscore that it’s not enough to resurrect brands that are struggling to carve out a niche in the current environment.

Over the past two years, a slew of Italian heritage labels have been testing the recipe of tapping young creatives for one-off collaborations or as head of their fashion divisions in the hopes that those personalities could attract their cult followings.

In 2019, in the wake of the acquisition of the Italian company by independent asset management firm QuattroR, Trussardi said it was shifting its fashion division from a seasonal model to a series of drops or capsule collections under the Archive+Now moniker developed by international talents tasked with creating a personal interpretation of the leather goods house’s heritage.

Meanwhile, Borbonese, the leather goods house established in 1910 that rose to a peak of success in the Seventies, tapped M1992 creative director Dorian Tarantini and Matteo Mena, also part of M1992’s creative team, to launch the company’s fashion division, with concise women’s collections to bow each season. “The choice of Dorian and Matteo is the result of a careful analysis of the strategic direction, which I intend to give to the company,” Borbonese chief executive officer Alessandro Pescara told WWD at the time.

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Saint Laurent RTW Spring 2021

“The main goal will be to reach a new consumer audience expanding Borbonese’s traditional one with a focus on Millennials,” he added.

Borbonese RTW Spring 2021 Courtesy of Borbonese

Most recently, following the acquisition in 2019 by Marco Marchi, founder of contemporary label Liu Jo, through the newly formed Eccellenze Italiane holding, Blumarine tapped Nicola Brognano as its creative director. A young Milan-based designer who’s gained a reputation with his bold eveningwear embellished by multiple tulle layers, Brognano’s first show for Blumarine received mixed review. WWD wrote: “The clash of prints, the overabundance of details and embellishments and the heavy-handed styling didn’t help Brognano’s effort to look fresh and elegant.”

These brands have seemingly yet to harvest the fruits of such partnerships. But are they really fruitful?

“When it comes to heritage brands and how to keep them relevant, creative directors are called on not only to design, but to increase brand awareness and hopefully bring in new customers. This formula has proven successful at the luxury level,” commented Melissa Moyland, vice president, creative women’s wear at trend forecasting and consulting firm Fashion Snoops.

Although luxury juggernauts have charted a similar course by tapping into marquee names, smaller brands — which used to be family-owned businesses that have more recently been backed by investment funds — can follow that strategy and succeed, too, some experts noted.

“I think for smaller dusty brands and especially [for those which used to be] family-owned businesses, they definitely need a fresh, objective view from outside because it’s so difficult when you are small and you’ve done [business] for so many years and you have your own idea of what the brand is about,” contended Carmen Haid, a luxury brand specialist and vintage fashion collector who’s worked at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in the past.

“These brands have a strong brand image and the new talent needs to come in and identify it, but sometimes it’s just good to dissect the DNA and go back to the core….I think it’s always good to tap into a different, fresh mind, regardless of the size of the company,” she said.

In Moyland’s view, the Trussardi strategy, for instance, makes it more aligned to a commodity business, due to its limited edition and exclusivity based on the hype of collaborators. They have included United Standard’s Giorgio di Salvo and London-based designers Fiona Sinha and Aleksandar Stanic, among others.

Trussardi RTW Spring 2021 Courtesy of Trussardi

“This particular strategy on a seasonal basis has challenges in finding creatives that align with the brand’s vision and retaining or growing a customer base from one collection to the next,” Moyland said. She also stressed that in light of the pandemic, brands are scaling back and designer collaborations must really be on-point and meaningful to succeed.

“I think we’ve seen it being very successful for a lot of companies,” commented Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, citing the Moncler Genius project as one such example. “In other times it seems more instrumental, as if they were like, ‘Yes, we’re trying to get an outsider,’” she said. Steele ascribes the success to the degree of sincerity and commitment from both parties.

“Is this just a one-off, like a one night stand you’re having with someone you picked up at a bar and that you don’t really care about? Or is it somebody that you would like to continue to be friends with…so you will continue offering some advantages and your friendship would help them continue their career?” Steele questioned.

There’s always some degree of exploitation, observers noted. Haid said this is common also at marquee brands teaming up with artists, but she questioned whether they would have gained the same recognition without partnering with those established labels. “I think definitely a good partnership should benefit both parties, it should be structured as such,” she said.

Haid sees collaborations and limited editions as the way forward, especially for brands that need to expand their reach and increase hype despite a less loyal customer base.

“Less customer loyalty requires investment in good storytelling to enroll the consumer in a new brand experience. Teaming with a strategic partner epitomizes a brand’s DNA and brings a new, fresh perspective. Collaborations can communicate a strong message in an enticing and unique way, which can change the brand’s perception visually and culturally,” she offered.

“People used to buy for 20 years the same brand and now the younger generation is not doing it anymore, they’re cherry picking one thing from a brand and another from a totally different brand. It changes the equation completely, leaving smaller space for brands to leverage returning customers,” Haid .

Among the fashion powerhouses tapping into a similar recipe, Emilio Pucci unveiled earlier this year its first collaborative effort with Christelle Kocher of Koché as part of its new strategy to invite guest creatives to interpret its rich heritage. Sidney Toledano, chairman and ceo of LVMH Fashion Group, said at the time the approach would inject more creativity.

A look from Pucci. Kuba Dabrowski/WWD

“It has to be fresh, it has to be new,” he offered. “We give them some freedom and they give us their own vision.” The Kocher tie-up was fallowed last September by a second installment for which Pucci tapped Tomo Koizumi, he of the fantastical ruffled creations, to do a capsule.

In a recent interview with WWD, Kocher praised the partnership, noting she was able to bring a new vision to the brand. “They gained new customers and new visibility and myself I’m lucky I was able to do a show in Milan. It was a beautiful way to tap into a wider audience for me. I think when the relationship is like that, it’s beautiful, but it needs to make sense,” she explained.

Alessandro Maria Ferreri, founder and ceo of The Style Gate consulting firm, said not every other company has the same financial resources as the LVMH brands. He sees these partnerships, especially at a smaller scale level, as a quest for disruption following in the footsteps of, for instance, Louis Vuitton tapping Virgil Abloh as its artistic director of men’s wear.

“If you are a big group, you can support your creative director or roster of collaborators by leveraging and consolidating or strengthening their work through other functions that encompass merchandising, marketing and communication,” he said.

“Smaller-scale brands think they can follow a similar strategy but in the end, partly because those brands have less brand identity, partly because the creative types they tap lack the needed strength in terms of awareness, that approach is less successful,” he added, mentioning Blumarine as one such example.

To further prove his point, Ferreri underscored that at those Italian heritage brands the game of musical chairs for top-level management reflects the same test-and-try approach seen on the creative front. To be sure, since the QuattroR acquisition Trussardi has tapped two ceos, including Valentino and Prada alum Sebastian Suhl last month.

“These acquisitions to me look more like they’ve been made as financial operations tout court rather than as the outcome of a serious evaluation of the opportunities those brands can offer,” he said. “These funds do not hold the right recipe…as they’re unable to carry out a technical due diligence beforehand.”

“I wouldn’t say that creative directors or chief executive officers are responsible for these missteps. On the contrary, owners and companies that overtake these brands should come in with a prepared recipe like when you’re up to cook something and you need to know all the ingredients,” he said.

Ferreri stressed these are often short-sighted approaches aimed at fostering buzz and hype around the brands, which would need more than that for a turnaround.

“If an executive is required to turn a company around following the tested and tried formula there is little chance to succeed….They are somehow forced to implement short-term solutions because they are viewed as magicians who can turn things around quickly. On the contrary, I believe it would make more sense to implement approaches whose fruits can be harvested in, say, two years rather than a few months,” he said.

One of the most debated issues is how a new creative direction should balance the trade off between legacy and innovation.

Moyland said that in order to be successful “[new] designers need to align with the brand’s core values and bring something new and exciting to enhance the collection without alienating the existing customer base. The stronger the presence of the creative director, the better to draw in a new audience,” she said.

“I think it’s really important to understand what the brand was about…if you revamp the brand I don’t think you can completely invent a new realm, you need to really look at what there is and make the best out of the old world and combine it with the new world and with what is necessary to have today,” echoed Haid, adding there’s no added value in being a heritage brand if the latter is disregarded entirely.

“Heritage brands are exciting because you can really tell a story, also from a marketing perspective,” Haid noted. “If you keep it small, if you keep it local, if you keep it limited edition, if you have fresh talents and new collaborations, that’s where you keep it fresh and exciting,” she said.

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