Calvin, Donna, Ralph: The Struggle of American Fashion Empires
Calvin Klein is retired, the brand that bears his name no longer producing a runway collection and trying to redefine its sex-saturated image for a new era. Donna Karan sticks out in recent memory more for her comments defending Harvey Weinstein than her “7 Easy Pieces.” Ralph Lauren remains busy but his empire’s value is shrinking as it struggles to course-correct after years of sailing on the status quo. This trio is not only emblematic of the second half of 20th Century American fashion, it is a prime example of what fashion businesses can achieve when well-timed and executed. They are also, perhaps more infamously, representative of the American fashion system’s failure to produce legacy brands that can survive their respective founders while maintaining relevance in comparison to European counterparts. America has managed to produce a handful of such brands––Mark Cross, Tiffany & Co.––but those, while very beautiful, are based on accessories, not fashion. With staggering recognition, sales which were at one time robust and clear talent, these labels should remain on top. But they haven't.
Truth be told, this pattern isn’t unique in American fashion. Bill Blass, Halston and Geoffrey Beene among many others reached the pinnacle of the field only to flounder and eventually disappear after either their death or a series of consequential business decisions, their names now found only on cheap, vampiric licenses that merely suggest their original grandeur. While it’s true that the American fashion industry is younger than that of Europe, as early as the 1920s the states began producing notable fashion talent. A century later, why is it that American fashion brands face such difficulty establishing longevity, especially when they become household names?
Granted Paris has a couture tradition that the States does not—likewise with Rome and alta moda, but New York’s 7th Avenue certainly isn’t new. It seems then, the differentiation lies in the general attitude towards fashion held by the people of those various cities and the nations surrounding them. France and Italy see fashion as cultural institutions, things worthy of protection, fostering even, a crucial element of national identity and international recognition. America’s relationship with fashion has historically been utilitarian. Jeans are, after all, one of its largest sartorial exports––something Klein harnessed and radicalized through brilliant advertising before giving the same treatment to an even more practical category: underwear.
But the fundamentals of business are another critical aspect to consider. It is often neglected that it was at one time considered perfectly natural for a fashion house to cease operations following the death or retirement of its founder, like many other relatively small businesses, with a few like Chanel operating only based on the sales of classic perfumes. Many of the brands that we consider the height of luxury today––from Christian Dior to Louis Vuitton to Gucci––were all on the brink of disappearing before being gobbled up by moguls who wound up reshapeing the high-end retail landscape in their own image. No such thing happened with American labels, whereas those founded more recently took entirely alternative routes.
Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren all became so globally successful that they branched out creating sub-labels at lower, more accessible price points––CK, DKNY and Polo Sport just to name three. All of these achieved cult status in the ‘90s and to specific audiences were just as coveted. Each house essentially became an umbrella under which their stable of namesake brands could flourish rather than acquiring outside businesses.
LVMH then, the largest and luxury goods group in the world, was in a perfect position. Rather than form their own mass conglomerates, American fashion houses were swallowed up whole as LVMH expanded into the American market. First, the French company acquired the Donna Karan label in 2001 for a reported $643 million. Only a year later, after making the decision to retire, Calvin Klein sold his brand to mass shirtmaker PVH for $400 million in cash, $30 million in stock and $300 million in royalties tied to revenue planned for the forthcoming 15 years. Both labels enjoyed several more years of noteworthy runway shows, Klein’s bolstered for a brief period by the installment of Raf Simons, before ceasing entirely––though not without some attempted comebacks. Lauren remains the king of his castle, but it’s troubled by a dissapointing sales numbers and a general sense of resting on its laurels unwilling to update its aesthetic, one once considered aspirational but now viewed through a more cynical lens as worshipping the lifestyles of the obscenely wealthy—the company’s diminishing stock value drives the point home. This isn’t to say that the Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren brands have suddenly vanished. Those names remain stamped across the ads printed on glossy pages and stretched across billboards, but they are not the driving forces they once were and two of the three no longer exist in such a way as to allow fresh talent to revitalize them.
It all begs the question: If fashion superstars of such magnitude can’t maintain their share of the cultural market, how are emerging brands expected to fare in an industry (and world) far more fragmented than the one previous generations inherited? Will the industry go the way of premium television with its prophetic but short-lived series and produce talented but niche designers who burn brightly if only for a minute? There is one distinct advantage American fashion has over its European cousin: the designer, not the house, reigns supreme. Perhaps the labels they found won’t be around in 100 years. But it’s just possible that they’ll cement themselves in fashion history.