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Lang and Lacroix, Cutting Some Threads

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page C02

This week, two of fashion's best-known sugar daddies finally ran out of patience with their creative darlings. The disenchantment was such that Helmut Lang resigned from the company that bears his name but is owned by Prada Group. And LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton sold its Christian Lacroix brand after waiting 18 years for its namesake designer to turn a profit.

The departure of Lang is disappointing, as no one likes to see an entrepreneur walk away from his baby. Still, Prada chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli announced in a statement his resolve to "develop the brand's potential."

After 18 unprofitable years, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton ended its relationship with Christian Lacroix. (Lucian Perkins - The Washington Post)

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There is nothing to say that with patience, the dedication of the design team that Lang left behind, and a bit of luck, Bertelli cannot transform Helmut Lang into a profitable brand. After all, the departed designer was by no means the attention-grabbing face of the collection. Lang is a reserved man, inclined to send an emissary to accept an award, and uncomfortable with runway bows. The clothes were the message and an optimist can readily believe that there are others to interpret such a well-defined philosophy.

But there are daunting hurdles for Bertelli to clear. In addition to cultivating Helmut Lang, he must nurture the Jil Sander label, which also lost its namesake designer -- for the second time, no less. And while Helmut Lang was considered a fashion leader in the late 1990s with its sleek, urbane, minimalist sensibility, at least within fashion's inner circle, it has become less influential as trends have shifted to more ornate, overtly feminine apparel. Today, it is still an interesting brand that espouses thoughtful and personal design principles, but it has lost a good deal of steam. It may be that Bertelli's optimism is simply bullheadedness.

But that is the nature of the fashion industry. Investors regularly throw good money after bad, believing that their patience and dedication will be rewarded. Observers like to talk about the good old days when department stores and specialty shops would get behind new designers and give them all sorts of business breaks to help establish their labels. Bloomingdale's and the now defunct Bonwit Teller were famously supportive of companies such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. The same kind of retail support no longer is common, but investors -- both public and private -- still tolerate a lot of red ink on the basis of a glamorous dream, an emotional bond with a designer or pure pride. Unsuccessful fashion houses never seem to die; they linger on, cleaving to life through private clients, sympathetic magazine editors and the charity of wealthy glamour chasers.

What, pray tell, does it take to make a convincing case against a designer and his ability to build a profitable company? LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault first invested in Lacroix in 1987 when he bankrolled the designer's couture house. Lacroix is unquestionably inventive and artful. As the designer of LVMH's Pucci collection, where he will continue to head the creative team, he has perked up the moribund label. It is worth mentioning, however, that there, Lacroix works within the confines of the Pucci aesthetic, not the limitless expanse of his own sensibility.

Lacroix established his reputation while working for Jean Patou when he created le pouf, the puffed-up party dress that made the wearer look like she was wearing an elaborate tutu. In the heady excitement of the ostentatious 1980s, Arnault believed he had discovered the next star brand. But despite the addition of a ready-to-wear line, fragrance, and a secondary division, the brand has been a losing proposition from its inception.

For almost two decades, Arnault poured resources into the company. Sometime during its first decade of losses -- maybe around year five or six -- Arnault was transformed from a businessman into a patron.

At long last, Arnault threw in the towel and decided to sell the company. And confirming that the fashion industry's greatest flaw may be its boundless optimism, someone -- the Falic Group of duty-free stores -- actually bought it.

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