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For Brioni and Ungaro, a fresh start, and for McQueen, a hope for rebirth

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010; E02

In the past week or so, fashion houses have been churning through designers, with more than a few announcing the comings and goings of their creative directors. Fashion is a business based on change, so the upheavals aren't unusual. But the news of who's-designing-where always seems to reiterate a truth about how the industry operates.

Even if brands already have a perfectly respectable business, most can't resist the temptation of bringing in unorthodox designers to generate buzz. Evidence of aesthetic compatibility is not required.

Another truism holds that companies almost always have a come-to-Jesus moment when they realize that even all the fizzy attention in the world can't compensate for ugly clothes.

Brioni, the Italian label respected internationally for its understated men's tailoring, recently announced that Alessandro Dell'Acqua has been hired as the new designer for womenswear -- a division that doesn't have much of a profile because its mix of stately neutrals and garish silhouettes isn't very good. Dell'Acqua is known for a sexy and lingerie-inspired approach to style. Brioni is not. Dell'Acqua is considered edgy. Brioni would like to be.

Meanwhile, the executives over at Emanuel Ungaro are repairing the damage after their short-lived dalliance with the unorthodox talent known as Lindsay Lohan. Last year, the brand made arguably the most cynical move in the history -- seriously, in the entire history -- of fashion, by tapping into the style expertise of the troubled starlet. The resulting collection, done in collaboration with designer Estrella Archs, was a disaster of breathtakingly trampy proportions. Archs, whose pained public expressions served as evidence that she recognized precisely how appalling the whole situation was, fled the scene in April with a formal farewell announcement. Lohan's departure was more informal. She simply evaporated like the mist. Now the house has hired Giles Deacon, who shows his namesake collection in London, has solid design credentials and, as far as could be determined, has no pop songs to his credit.

Both Dell'Acqua and Deacon are up against daunting circumstances. The former has to create a women's design sensibility for a brand known for its menswear. The latter has to build beauty out of some fairly dismal wreckage.

But designer Sarah Burton might have the most difficult task of all. She was recently named creative director at Alexander McQueen. Company founder Lee Alexander McQueen committed suicide in February. In March, the company had a small showing of the last garments imagined and crafted by the designer himself.

Replacing any designer is a difficult task. Fashion houses are almost always built on a singular vision that is one part technical skill and one part pure imagination. And in the case of McQueen, that imagination was daunting in its scope and drew deeply from personal experience.

His collections reflected his eccentricities and fascinations. They were inspired by his close friends and by his family history. They could even be a form of therapy. How does another designer pick up such an intimate creative thread and carry it forward?

Burton certainly has the best chance at success. McQueen founded his company in 1992 and she began working in his studio four years later. In 2000, she became head designer of womenswear. And like McQueen, she is British-born and went to London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design.

For 14 years, Burton's hand has been in McQueen collections. Yet what exactly does that mean? Unlike design houses that are distinguished by a particular design flourish -- or lack thereof -- McQueen's work was notable for its spirit and personality. He was a Savile Row-trained tailor and he revered the rigor of sharp lines and austere silhouettes. But there is no particular McQueen style.

He made a name for himself early on with his bumster trousers, which hung obscenely low on the derriere. But they did not become a signature. He used tartans in his work, but it wasn't a pattern with which he was identified. He liked embellishments, but a decorative sensibility wasn't his calling card. Unlike Gianni Versace or Yves Saint Laurent, there are no easily identifiable McQueen cuts, fabric techniques or cultural references.

McQueen's creative zest had a broad reach. His collections were linked by their grandeur, theatricality and unpredictable nature. Getting a handle on the essence of the Alexander McQueen mystique may prove impossible.

But at least Gucci Group, which owns Alexander McQueen, seems to have given Burton a fighting chance. She was elevated to creative director without public histrionics or gossip. The brand declined to bring in some flashy designer to reinventi the label. Indeed, the company was only just coming into its own; it's far too early for that. And thankfully executives didn't make the same mistake they did when Tom Ford left Gucci in 2004 and they appointed a team of designers to take over a job previously held by one man. Making clothes is a collaborative process, but except for rare occasions, design-by-committee leads to a watered-down sensibility or a confused one.

Since McQueen's death, the company has taken care to keep his name in the spotlight. Celebrities continue to wear the clothes on the red carpet. Actress Cate Blanchett cut a particularly dazzling figure at the Cannes Film Festival in a McQueen gown with a lavish crinoline exploding from its hem. There's nothing like a famous actress to underscore the continued relevance of a design house. After all, moths are attracted to flames, not dying embers.

On Monday, the American fashion industry will give McQueen a posthumous special award. He'll be honored at the Council of Fashion Designers of America gala at Lincoln Center, when Seventh Avenue celebrates its own and the people who inspire them. It surely will be melancholy celebrating the life of a designer who was only 40 when he died. And going forward, it will be odd to think of the brand -- that only recently had shaken off the label of "young" -- as having shifted into its next incarnation.

The folks at Alexander McQueen resisted the impulse to inject buzz where none was needed. The house is vibrantly alive. One hopes that Burton will be able to produce beautiful clothes that will not only do it proud, but also move it forward.

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