During designer Donna Karan's promotional appearances in New York City for her debut memoir, My Journey, this fall, Karan repeatedly cited the difficulty of operating a company that shares her name. "It's hard to be a name and a brand. I would open everybody's letters because it would say 'Donna Karan' and I thought it belonged to me," said Karan. "People would say, 'Donna, that's mine!' It was a name that belonged to more people than me."
Karan stepped down from her chief designer role at Donna Karan International in July, more than 30 years after founding her namesake company. Her departure struck a major chord in American fashion: Karan, along with Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren (who stepped down as CEO in September) and Oscar de la Renta (who passed away in 2014), no longer hold the top roles at their eponymous labels. (Lauren, however, still maintains creative control at his company.) To bring in new names and faces to labels that have been built upon one person's brand over decades is no easy feat — both on a personal and legal level. As Karan said earlier, there's a considerable sense of identity and attachment that comes with building a brand under your own name. Should young designers continue to start their own namesake labels? We asked industry experts to weigh in.
Susan Scafidi, fashion law professor at Fordham University and founder of the Fashion Law Institute, understands the tradition and artist's pride that comes with a namesake label; however, she advises students and emerging designers to think twice about using their names. "Fashion history is filled with designers who put their names on the label, brought on an investor or backer, split from that investor and walked nameless into the night leaving behind their name," she says, adding that a name on a label — its trademark — is a primary asset of a fashion brand.
Halston is a classic case. The legendary designer sold the rights to his name when he was bought by Norton Simon Industries in 1973. Although Halston's brand was ringing in licensing deals — and the money that came with it — he had no say over any business decisions regarding his namesake line. A decade later, he was fired from his own company.
"When you put your name on a label, that is a corporation and no longer belongs to you," says Scafidi. "It can be personally painful to have to walk away from your name." In an interview with Esquire magazine, designer Simon Spurr was vocal about losing his own namesake. "It is like I gave birth to a beautiful baby," he told Esquire. "And then it was ripped from me." Spurr built his eponymous line for six years, garnering a CFDA nomination for best menswear designer. He surprised the industry when he suddenly left his company in 2012; he continues to design today for the heritage menswear brand Kent & Curwen.
For designers whose namesakes have gone on without them, there's always the option to start a new venture under a different name. Devi Kroell left her accessories company in 2010; nearly a year later, she launched a new accessories brand under the moniker Dax Gabler. The designer Kate Spade left her namesake company a year after it was acquired by Neiman Marcus Group in 2006. Since then, Kate Spade & Co. has developed into a global lifestyle brand, while Kate Spade (the person) is currently developing a new shoe and handbag line called Frances Valentine, which will debut in January with its spring 2016 collection.
Sometimes, a designer can buy back his trademark. Adam Lippes, whose brand was bought by marketing firm Kellwood in 2010, reacquired his namesake and its intellectual property rights just two years later, and bought himself out of his own non-compete clause. It was a pricey move to gain control of his own business (and career). "I want there to be an appreciation for what we do. The business had lost its charm and intimacy," Lippes said in a 2012 interview about the repurchase. "We are able to really think about the brand and do it as we think it should be instead of having all of these other big voices coming and telling us what to do." Sometimes, in the case of Jil Sander, you leave your label and come back, then leave again — three times.
Despite the legal risks, designers will continue to name companies after themselves. Young designers like Christian Siriano, Rosie Assoulin, Thaddeus O'Neil and Sandy Liang make up a new guard of successful namesakes, following already established brands like Michael Kors, Tory Burch, Alexander Wang and 3.1 Phillip Lim, to name a few.
Consumers are more inclined to purchase from brands with a story or personal angle — so from a marketing perspective, a namesake label can have its advantages. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group, brought up the example of American Living, a brand created by Polo Ralph Lauren for J.C. Penney in 2008. It was a flop. "It didn't have the name 'Ralph Lauren' on it," says Cohen, noting the success of offshoot brands Chaps by Ralph Lauren and Ralph Lauren Black Label. That said, it takes time — years — to start from scratch and build a namesake's marquee value and brand equity, Cohen says.
Luxury fashion brand consultant Steven Dennis sees the advantage of having a namesake line — but only if you have a strong personality that captures the essence and aesthetic of the brand. "If you're a designer who doesn't have any particular story around why the brand should be named after you, then I would question that strategy," says Dennis. "Is adding your name hurting or helping you?" He is quick to mention that there isn't a simple answer. However, with the large costs that come with launching a brand — into an already-crowded fashion market — Dennis suggests it's best to think about what prospective investors would want.
One thing designers with namesake labels can do is insist on maintaining the rights to their names when taking on investors. When Karan took her company public in 1996, she kept possession of her trademarks by establishing a separate holding company for them, called Gabrielle Studio; the public company, Donna Karan International, had to pay the holding company an annual license fee to use them. This "clever protection" (as Scafidi calls it) is something potential buyers may be willing to accept. Or not: "Many investors, who are not very fashion-savvy, are running to invest in fashion," says Scafidi. "At the same time, there are more investors who are fashion-savvy and realize how important the name on the label is. They might not be willing to put the same price on a company if they don't actually own the name on the label."