House of Poiret gets a second life

Fashion’s revival of long-dormant labels continues apace, with the house of Poiret now on the market, 85 years after closing its doors. Alexander Fury wonders why an industry built on new ideas is so obsessed with old names

The potential revival of Poiret, announced late last month, has generated fevered attention and anticipation.

At least, it has among the fashion industry. To the rest of the public – the vast majority – the assumption could easily be that everyone has been getting in a tizz over the successor to David Suchet as Agatha Christie’s Belgian super sleuth.

To the rest of the public – the vast majority – the assumption could easily be that everyone has been getting in a tizz over the successor to David Suchet as Agatha Christie’s Belgian super sleuth.

That’s because Poiret is a dusty, forgotten name – the house closed in 1929, its founder Paul Poiret dying in near-obscurity in 1944. He’s been referenced repeatedly since, his designs inspiring designers as different as John Galliano, Dolce and Gabbana and Rick Owens. In 2007, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York staged an exhibition devoted to his work, titled “King of Fashion”.

Because Poiret was.

This year, his name is set to be sold off to the highest bidder, by Luxembourg-based investment company Luvanis, which has spent years gathering together the trademarks. Friday was the deadline for stating an interest and the signature of non-disclosure agreements. The trademarks will be sold by online auction, initial bids submitted by the end of this month and the final transaction expected before the end of 2014.

Why now? The time would have perhaps been riper a few years ago, when the Met staged that exhibition, or when the first series of Downton Abbey hit television screens with ladies Mary, Edith and Sybil sporting frocks that dribbled down from Poiret’s fervid imagination. Nevertheless, the idea of breathing new life into an old house – any house – has never been more popular. Poiret is just the latest in a series of grand brand revivals from the vaults of fashion history. Forget Dior, Chanel, Givenchy. Today, labels that have long been languishing on garments in museum collections – Schiaparelli, Vionnet, Charles James, now Poiret – are being yanked into the 21st century, with new headquarters, new designers and new clothes. Indeed, the only thing that’s old is the name on those labels.

“It is like choosing between renovating or modernising an old castle, versus creating a new building,” says Arnaud de Lummen, managing director of Luvanis and the man who spearheaded not only the Poiret revival, but also the relaunch of Vionnet in 2006 (now owned by Goga Ashkenazi). He adds, somewhat pessimistically, that “the culture of the past is currently more important than creating a new future”.

De Lummen is French and we correspond by email, which may perhaps give those words a fatalistic undercurrent he doesn’t intend. Nevertheless, his assertion is true. Fashion is obsessed with the past and while investment in new talent has surged over the past few years (Kering acquiring stakes in Christopher Kane and Altuzarra; LVMH in Nicholas Kirkwood and J W Anderson), it is dwarfed by the number of reanimated labels.

The Paris fashion week schedule in particular is cluttered with couture zombies: Rochas, Vionnet, Carven, Balmain and Nina Ricci show within a 24-hour period alone, a veritable litany of former triumphs, revived with varying degrees of success over the course of the past decade. There’s a hefty price to be paid for these dormant designer names – Poiret is anticipated to sell for a figure in the mid-single-digit millions, according to the industry’s go-to tome, Womenswear Daily – whereas young talent can be snapped up for a comparative song. So what’s the appeal? A readily-established aesthetic, for one. “If you are aiming to build a fashion house, Paul Poiret enables you many shortcuts,” states de Lummen. “You would start with a legitimacy... an existing aesthetic, impactful codes and a label known for its inventiveness and boldness.”

He’s trying to sell his wares there, of course, but his points are valid. It’s the same with houses such as Vionnet – known as inventor of the bias cut and a proponent of neoclassical draping, both of which are referenced in the house’s contemporary reincarnation (at least, their most successful).

The historical hallmarks of old-school houses offer investors – and designers – guidance. They’re like stabilisers on an unsteady bicycle. “With a lot of people, you say ‘Dior’ and they know what it’s about, even if they don’t really know what the clothes are about, or who’s doing the clothes,” says Raf Simons, since 2012 the creative director of womenswear at the house of Christian Dior – the multi-national, multi-billion pound historical house, spectacularly revived, that every young-old pretender wishes to emulate.

That’s the second appeal for investors: total control. “Reviving a heritage brand, especially a couture label, is much less risky than investing in an emerging designer, for one simple reason: an historical house allows you to change designer, while you cannot remove a young designer from his namesake label,“ reasons de Lummen, citing the recent departure of Marco Zanini from the house of Schiaparelli, owned by Italian billionaire entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, after just one year.

De Lummen reasons pragmatically: “If Mr Della Valle would have invested into Mr Zanini’s [own] label and had fired him after two seasons, he would have lost all his investment”.

He’s now on the hunt for a new creative head to channel the spirit and success of Elsa Schiaparelli, just as Poiret’s eventual buyer will be eager to fill the post, pronto.

Despite seeming to be a fast fix to money men eager to capitalise on fashion-hungry consumers – take a ready-made label with pre-prepared legacy, just add talent and see your profits rise – it’s trickier than one may think to perfect the marriage of old and new. And besides, if no-one invests in the next generation of Schiaparellis, Poirets or indeed Diors as talents in their own-labelled right, where will that leave us in a century’s time?

Still rehashing the same labels rather than moving onto something new? As great as this spate of revivals seems at first glance, it isn’t taking us anywhere fresh