There's no occasion quite like the Fourth of July to celebrate all things American. Here at Fashionista, we'll be spending the week examining the fashion industry in our own backyard, from the state of U.S. apparel manufacturing to American-born models on the rise. You can follow all of our coverage here.
In January, American design darlings Proenza Schouler and Rodarte announced — just five days apart — that they were dropping out of New York Fashion Week to show in Paris instead. In the throes of an already difficult, confusing time for NYFW, losing two of the top domestic talents was something of an ego blow. The capitals have their myriad of differences, but what, exactly, does Paris have that New York doesn't?
If the American fashion industry is fragmented, the French business is flourishing, and nowhere is that more evident than Paris Couture Week, which concluded its Fall 2017 season on Wednesday. For a fledgling luxury brand, Paris's infamously insular haute couture schedule has remained the pinnacle of success and prestige.
But of course, Paris's fashion landscape is an entirely different beast than New York's. This is seen perhaps most prevalently in the front rows of the city's couture shows, often comprised of executives from leading French luxury groups LMVH and Kering. These two conglomerates operate nearly everything on the Paris Fashion Week calendar, aside from Hermès and Chanel, and dictate how much of the industry is run in Europe. Surely, much of Paris Fashion Week's success is to LVMH and Kering's credit; wouldn't it be to the U.S.'s benefit, too, to adopt a similar organizational model that bolsters so much of France's industry and economy?
If only it were that easy.
Decades ago, LVMH and Kering began as an "arms race" between two men — Bernard Arnault of LVMH and François-Henri Pinault of Kering — when they started buying up European luxury brands. A competitive element emerged, and soon both LVMH and Kering each acquired the jewels in their crown: LVMH with Dior, Louis Vuitton, Céline and Givenchy, and Kering with Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga.
It was a rivalry that could never have existed in the U.S., which has very few, if any, luxury labels comparable to those in Europe.
"What we tend to think of as 'luxury' brands are, by and large, all European," says Christina Binkley, former fashion and style columnist for The Wall Street Journal and author of The New York Times bestseller "Winner Takes All." "There are a few that aren't, but really, these are artisanal houses that grew over the last hundred years or so. When people figured out branding and realized that they could take these old names and grow them into lives of their own beyond their founders — that's what created the luxury business that we have today."
In this respect, the U.S.'s age is a detriment. Luxury brands don't exist here like they do in Europe, and those that do aren't nearly as large. But fashion — defined as savoir-faire — is woven into France's DNA, with LVMH and Kering drawing upon a history of luxury-making industries that were sanctioned by the French government.
"Historians often point to Louis XIV and his finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, for establishing a guild system that supported the luxury industries in France," says Mindy Meissen, curator of FashionREDEF. "This laid the groundwork for the birth of haute couture. And it tied the concept of fashion to French national identity."
During the initial period that France was sanctioning the first of the luxury industries, the U.S. had yet to be founded; the French federation of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, for one, has been operating since 1868, during which point the U.S. was less than a century old. While there's certainly a tradition of craft in America, Meissen says it hasn't been as organized and protected as haute couture is in France.
Heritage aside, LVMH and Kering's strengths also lie in their internal procedures and priorities. Now that the arms race is over, the two groups have put a premium on supporting creative talent and innovation. Binkley notes that now, this is taking the form of small upstart designers and buy-outs. Look no further than LVMH Prize finalist Virgil Abloh and his fledgling powerhouse brand Off-White: During the label's Fall 2017 show in Paris, a number of LVMH higher-ups, including CEO Bernard Arnault's 24-year-old son Alexandre Arnault, sat front row, promptly sparking rumors that LVMH intends to either invest in the brand or poach Abloh altogether. (Rumors abounded that Abloh was on the short list to replace Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy before Clare Waight Keller was announced as his successor in March.)
Fostering up-and-coming design talent is one thing — the Council of Fashion Designers of America does it every day with its Incubator program, now four classes in — but it's quite another to make that a tenet of your business. "That takes a healthy acknowledgement of risk and a willingness to invest in decisions that may be seen as risky," says Meissen. "It takes an environment where people are free to experiment, and the capital to support it."
But even an influx of resources wouldn't be enough to put a hypothetical U.S. conglomerate on the map, let alone on the same page as its French counterparts. Binkley surmises that any group in the U.S. would have to go beyond producing clothing, and it takes years and years of development before there's any real mass recognition on the scale of LVMH or Kering.
"To really be a luxury conglomerate, you've got to have brands like Dior and Gucci that are desirable globally by people who want to have a product that has that name on it," says Binkley. "The U.S. has just been smaller and scrappier, and frankly, not as competitive with those brands."
This starts with bolstering an aspirational image, either by heightening production or by acquiring brands that fulfill it. A U.S. portfolio may not look anything like what we've seen in Europe.
"What's compelling to me today is that brands seen as transcendent or aspirational in some way are not necessarily sitting at the highest price points, although they might command high prices on secondary markets," says Meissen. "This is a different vernacular for luxury. I hesitate to view this as nation-bound, but there are U.S. companies like Supreme and Patagonia who have it.”
With its shrink-wrapped branding, Patagonia represents a very discernible type of aspiration here stateside — that of sustainability and adventure, all tied up into one all-American package. Meanwhile, Supreme is more traditionally fashion-adjacent than Patagonia, and it already operates in a manner that's somewhat similar to a conglomerate. "If one considers the value that a company like Supreme has brought to fashion, not just in its own activities, but in spreading talent with labels like OAMC and NOAH, there's something brewing," says Meissen. "This spread of creative talent has yet to be centralized under a single entity."
And then there's Coach, which Binkley explains was originally considered a semi-luxury brand in its heyday, following its $30-million sale to the Sara Lee Corporation in 1985. "It's had a few adventures since then," laughs Binkley, referencing the logomania of the Reed Krakoff years, followed by the appointment of Louis Vuitton and Givenchy alum Stuart Vevers in 2013. Today, Coach is the closest to a stateside luxury group the U.S. has, having already acquired Stuart Weitzman and, as of this May, Kate Spade, the latter of which comprised a $2.4-billion deal.
"There's been speculation about Coach making moves toward a fashion conglomerate model, which I think reflects the desire for the U.S. to have one," says Meissen. "The company has been focusing more on brand heritage, foregrounding craft. It has maintained an archive for many years now. Yet it occupies a clearly different segment of the market."
A U.S.-based group would also need to implement patience; "luxury" cannot be created overnight, or even over the span of a decade. There should be a balance across a portfolio of businesses: those that need time to incubate and those that are already there. Company practices matter, too. To foster the best brands from an outside perspective, the conglomerate has to thrive from within. That comes from its employees.
Perhaps the largest hinderance to the American fashion community is its physical production — or lack thereof. According to Binkley, many of the U.S.-based designers with whom she's worked have had to move mountains just to get samples made.
"They have to fly across an ocean to do that because we don't have those capabilities here," she says. "When I'm sitting in the atelier of a designer in Paris or Milan, they can get in their car and drive and do these things. When you're working on something, particularly accessories, you need excellent access to the materials and the workmanship, and you've got to be able to sit with the people at the production facility and work out problems that happen."
If an issue does arise, it could take weeks to reship items internationally, and it can get expensive to fly pieces back and forth. "It's just a whole other complexity for [American brands]," says Binkley. "I do think that really holds us back the U.S."
The ecosystem, however, is changing, and the conflicts that afflict the American design space are also affecting LVMH and Kering. More than ever, it's crucial that the top-to-bottom fashion industry embraces fluidity as the market continues to evolve.
"Traditional ideas of luxury and scarcity change continuously over time," says Meissen. "Access, pricing and information are fluid." Right now, that's all taking the form of timed concepts like drops, limited-run pieces and rapid customization. "There are different ways of conceiving of luxury now that aren't limited to any one country or culture."
What if, Meissen offers, the next American luxury conglomerate could be something like Kanye West's aspirations for his multi-faceted creative agency Donda? But because the market is changing so fast, we don't even know what luxury might look like in the short- or long-term. Meissen asks: "What does luxury software look like? What does a bespoke online store look like? What are different revenue drivers other than licensing?"
The one factor that must be present, though, has to be a strong embodiment of American culture. Just as the French conglomerates have savoir-faire embedded in their national history, the U.S. has plenty of which to be proud, too.
"It may take years, but if there's an aspect of American culture that lends itself to this, it's a kind of bootstrapping, frontier mentality and a desire for innovation," says Meissen. "But the long-term mentality is crucial, as is creating an environment that fosters, incentivizes and retains key talent."
Perhaps, then, Proenza Schouler and Rodarte will come home.
Homepage photo: A look from Coach's Fall 2018 runway show during New York Fashion Week. Photo: Peter White/Getty Images