Will Independent Designers Become Extinct?

Posted June 22, 2018 11:42 p.m. EDT

For many years, a ritual of sorts has existed among members of the migrant fashion flock when they alight in Paris on their twice-yearly fashion show rounds. They drop their bags, they grab a baguette (or a green juice if they can’t stomach the carbs) and then, often on day one but almost never later than day three, they pay a visit to the Dries Van Noten men’s and women’s stores on the Quai Malaquais.

They go not necessarily to buy, though a lot of them do, but to marinate in the atmosphere, which is textured and emotive, like the clothes: full of antiques and oddities chosen by the designer from markets around the world, seemingly thrown together in unlikely yet mesmerizing combinations and colors. And they go because those two stores are the only ones in the Western Hemisphere (other than in Antwerp, Belgium, where the Van Noten brand is based), and the only ones fully controlled by Van Noten. They are perfect microcosms of what President George H.W. Bush once called “the vision thing,” which is what makes them so special.

I wonder if that will continue to be the case.

The news earlier this month that Van Noten had sold a majority stake in his company to the Spanish luxury group Puig (which also owns Carolina Herrera, Paco Rabanne and Nina Ricci) came as not entirely a shock. There had been rumors that, since March around the time of his last ready-to-wear show, the Belgian designer had been looking for what in fashion is called a “strategic partner”; that he was tired of the burdens of a business, which are heavy, and wanted the safety net of a bigger corporate parent.

Indeed, Van Noten has often said that one of the hardest things about running a fashion brand was not just the well-documented pressure to be creative on command but taking responsibility for the growing number of employees whose livelihoods depended on him. Van Noten is a worrier and a micromanager, and sweats the details. It’s part of what makes him so successful. But the change in ownership still should give the whole fashion industry pause.

Because it raises a very real question: Whither the independent designer in today’s fashion system?

There are other solo acts, of course (i.e. brands not owned by one of the big groups — LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Kering, Richemont, Puig, PVH — or by private equity): the megaliths that are Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana; the newly single Stella McCartney, who has ended her joint venture with Kering, and Rick Owens. And there are smaller indie designers who double-dip to support their own lines, such as Raf Simons, whose giant day job as chief creative officer of Calvin Klein funds his namesake brand.

But the sale of Dries pretty much halves the number of independent, critically lauded designers whose names resonate around the world and who are able simultaneously to work within the fashion system and to maintain a healthy distance from it; to just say no to endless pre-collections and shops in every port and celebs on every red carpet. They are increasingly looking like an endangered species. Now there’s really only one: Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons.

Van Noten said the deal was about long-term survival, not short-term growth — long-term survival being the bugaboo of the independent designer. It’s the question they are all forced to confront: What happens to the company they built and people inside it after they are gone?

There aren’t that many options: find an heir who will keep it going; sell to a corporate parent; become a private equity football; close. Van Noten, planning ahead, which is something he does, chose option B. Azzedine Alaïa, another famously independent designer, did the same when he sold his brand to Richemont in 2007.

And, to be fair, that group has done an impressive job of not acting like a big corporate boss, and essentially leaving the Alaïa house alone except to support it in whatever it wanted to do (sometimes have a show, sometimes not). Richemont was even smart enough not to try to parachute in a new designer after the unexpected death of the founder in November, and to let the studio carry on his legacy — which also happens to be protected by a foundation the designer created. But that approach has been the exception rather than the rule.

Despite the lip service paid these days to the idea of consumers in search of the rare and one-off in a world where the digisphere has made so much so available, the tendency has been, at least when it comes to the big groups, to make brands more available: to open stores and push e-commerce and make a bid for shopper’s attention at every point possible. But that was never the Van Noten way. It’s possible that Puig understands this and will simply let Dries be Dries. He will, after all, remain the creative director (or chief creative officer) and executive chairman. The brand is staying in Antwerp. (Van Noten was an original member of the Antwerp Six, the group of Belgian designers, including Ann Demeulemeester and Dirk Bikkembergs, who after graduating from Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, transformed that city into a center of avant-garde fashion in the mid-1980s.) And there’s a good chance Van Noten would like a few more stores, and a little more market share — more recognition of what he does — plus a perfume or two without having to worry about the capital expense. No one ever said he was not ambitious. Plus, there’s always vacation.

And it’s possible that Puig’s reputation as highly conservative investors in its fashion brands, an approach that has driven many of their designers batty, may actually work in Van Noten’s favor.

But it’s hard not to think growth is going to be a part of the plan (I mean: who buys a brand so it can stay status quo?). After all, the news is always about bigger and better: Gucci is aiming to become a $10 billion brand; Céline is poised to jump to a new level with new lines.

History says that’s how it works. But Dries represented, for many of us, a willingness to embrace a human scale. And that was part of the house’s value, because it was embedded in the brand values. This is a man who, instead of throwing himself a big 100th-show party, used what in other hands might have been a Champagne budget to fly in his family of former models from around the world to walk in his show.

Maybe not having to worry about bills and real estate will free him up to do more of this. Presumably that is the idea.

But the thing is, whenever students coming out of art school talked about their role models, they used to name check Dries, Rei and Alaïa as three creatives who defined their own styles and their own paths and stuck to them no matter what, in the face of relentless pressure to Get Bigger! and Do More Collections! and Use More Influencers! and so on and so forth.

They were the dream. What happens to those dreams now?