Can Galliano's Paris match avoid the pattern of failure?

When a creative fashion designer joins forces with a hard-nosed businessman, it usually adds up to trouble

Hugh Sebag Montefiore
Saturday 15 July 1995 23:02

THE announcement last week that the British fashion designer John Galliano has been hired by the luxury goods tycoon Bernard Arnault and his Paris-based LVMH group to design its Givenchy haute couture collections has been hailed as a big step forward for Galliano and for British fashion.

It is viewed as an ideal combination. If a talented but poverty-stricken designer is given unlimited finance by a hard-nosed businessman, they should in theory be able to make a fortune. However, experience in Britain and France has shown that such partnerships are just as likely to end in failure.

Courtaulds' 1990 decision to back the British designer Arabella Pollen was overturned three years later when the recession made it apparent that it would take longer to break even than anticipated. Ben de Lisi, the designer backed by Jacques Vert, ended their two-year relationship in 1993 after being put off by the allocation of group overheads and the bureaucracy.

Edina Ronay experienced similar problems when working with Dawson International. However, it was Dawson who dropped Ronay last year when Dawson's finances proved to be less robust than had originally been claimed.

Julia Blake, textiles and stores analyst at BZW, explains: "The large textile companies have been reluctant to support high-fashion businesses because of their low returns in the short term. Martin Taylor at Courtaulds [now chief executive of Barclays Bank] took a clinical view of Arabella Pollen's business when the numbers did not stack up.

"It is hard for high-fashion designers to be commercial enough. The designers feel that they are not being paid or appreciated enough by their backers and culture clashes can occur.

"The most successful relationships have involved retailers or their regular suppliers obtaining advice from high-fashion designers in return for a consultancy fee." M&S suppliers SR Gent and Claremont have had good consulting relationships with the designers Joseph and Caroline Charles.

Difficulties may also be caused by incompatible personalities and cultures. British designer Jasper Conran is a case in point. In 1991 he eagerly leapt into the arms of Marchpole Group plc, the British Yves Saint Laurent licensee, which is co-owned by Bidermann, the French clothing manufacturer, and Marchpole's directors, Michael Rainer and Michael Morris.

Three years later, his hopes were shattered as he realised that he and his backers had very different objectives. On one hand there was the designer who was quite prepared for his designs to be sold relatively cheaply on the high street as long as he was allowed to carry on creating an expensive, ready-to-wear range which would enable him to preserve his image as a high fashion designer.

On the other hand there were the businessmen who could not see the point of continuing to back the luxury line if it had little positive effect on the short-term bottom line .

These differences were exacerbated by Marchpole's failure to give Conran the control he wanted over the clothes that were being placed in the shops.

As the relationship fell apart, Conran sued his backers. The case was eventually settled at the end of last year, when Marchpole agreed to allow Conran to exploit his own womenswear designs. Marchpole retained the rights to his men's designs.

Conran's experiences could be compared with similar problems experienced by the fashion designer Jean Muir during the 1980s, when she was backed by Coats Paton, which later merged with Vantona Viyella to become Coats Viyella.

The arty fashion designer, with her white face and livid maroon lipstick, could not see eye-to-eye with the accountants.

As far as she was concerned, it was still her company. She was furious when an executive let himself into her office before she arrived for a meeting. She felt humiliated by being forced to pass off as samples the clothes which her staff had run up for her own use.

The Coats Paton executives put up with her idiosyncrasies. It did not matter if she blew up because a pattern cutter had messy hair or because one of her staff was eating a smelly orange in her presence. But they did mind when she obstructed the staff who were appointed to modernise the manufacture of patterns, by insisting on making up the patterns in the old way.

Within a year of the takeover, she and the Coats Paton management were giving conflicting orders to her staff and the partnership was dissolved four years after it had started.

These culture clashes have not been confined to Britain. Bernard Arnault, John Galliano's new boss, has had to face up to similar difficulties with the designers he has backed.

Frederic Castet, a star designer at Christian Dior during the late 1980s, disliked having to submit to the whims of a mere businessman after Arnault, the new proprietor of Dior, decided to cut its costs. Castet was incensed when his right to fly to America on Concorde was ended by a general circular.

Castet later shocked Arnault by announcing his resignation in the middle of his catwalk show after Arnault and the managing director of Christian Dior had failed to meet quickly enough to discuss Castet's contract.

Hubert de Givenchy, John Galliano's predecessor at Givenchy, has questioned whether high fashion and big business make good bedfellows. He claimed that he rarely had the chance to give Arnault his ideas. ''Instead I end up staying in my studio," he said. "I need to be stimulated and motivated.''

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