Over the years, no fashion house in the world has had a more pretigious name than Christian Dior. Founded in 1946, it created a fashion revolution in 1947 when an obscure designer named Dior created "le new look," an elegant long style that brought women out of the ration era and back into feminity.
Since then, Christian Dior has been known for luxury, affluence and grace - continuing through the 1960s, when designer Mare Bohan succeeded the late Dior.
But last week, in the culmination of a long drama that the French called "L 'affire Boussac", Christian Dior changed owners. It was formerly owned by Marcel Boussac, 89, in his prime the "cotton king" of France with 60 textile mills in the north of France employing 30,000 workers. Starting out with a small shirt factory, Boussac acquired mills, founded the House of Dior and eventually owned a stud farm, horses and two major newspapers. In France, to be wealthy was to be "rich as Boussac."
But in recent years, Boussac's began to fail. By last spring it was on the verge of bankruptcy, and since July has been in the hands of a Paris commercial court. On Aug. 18, the court decided to sell the boussac group - including the still-profitable House of Dior - to Agache Willot Inc. - France's largest textile group with annual revenues of $1.4 billion - a holding company which dates back 30 years to an ace bandage factory in Lille.
The Willot group is reported to have purchased that Boussac holdings for $164 million and a promise to repay much of the combine's substantial debt within 15 years.
The decision to sell to the Willot brothers came as a surprise to the fashion industry. "The Willots have no experience in luxury ready-to-wear. The Dior people were trembling last week," said a former Willot employe. But according to a public comunique, Christian Dior was "highly satisfied with the decision" which would enable to make substantial investments and to more than double its revenues, now $240 million, in five years. While a sokesman for the Willot brothers said there would be no changes at Dior, the future of the house still seemed up in the air.
I was a peculiar denoument to the career of one of the most flamboyant tycoons in French fashion. Although Marcel Boussac had built a fabulous empire dating back to World War I, he was unable to keep up with the times. AN authocratic manager, he refused to decentralize his diffuse empire and reportedly boasted that he held the keys to each of his factories on one heavy keychain. A Boussac employe says one executive never knew what another was doing and there was often wasteful overlap.
In the mid 1960s, with the arrival of cheaper cottons from Italy and synthetic fabrics from the Far East, the textile sector of the empire began to succumb to competition. Boussac refused to convert from cotton to less expensive fabrics, and refused to modernize the look of his cotton checks and prints.
("Look at these fabrics," joked an executive at a rival firm, "who would wear these today? Anyway, Boussac kept on producing fabrics that could be acquired elsewhere cheaper.")
While he was on the way up, Marcel Boussac was one of the most colorful men in France. He had a penchant for lavish living and at the age of 23, owned his first rolls-Royce. At 26, he was already a rich and powerful man.
Over the years, in addition to astud farm and racing stables, Boussac acquired a 17,000-cre estate in Deauville. His horses won more than a dozen prize races around the world, and he was a president of the French racing federation for 15 years.
Boussac was, and still is, a private man. He has consistently refused to be interviewed. But he was a public personality. President Harry Truman received Boussac at the White House, Nikita Khrushchev saw Boussac in Moscow, and Queen Elizabeth visited Boussac in his racing stables.
Boussac's employes "adored him," said Le Monde, although he paid them poorly, was "paternalistic in the divine right tradition" and tolerated no contestation." He founded rest homes, camps, clinics and spas for his employe all over France.
"Until one year ago," said a source in the fashion industry here, "Boussac would come to the final rehearsal of the haute couture collection at Dior, which was on Saturday. When he entered the room everyone, from Dior President Jacques Rouet down to the lowest worker, stood up. It was like the Queen walking into the room."
As he aged, Boussac refused to loosen his hold. As losses began to accrue, he closed down textile mills. In 1973, he sold off Christian Dior perfumes to Moet Hennessey, the champagne and cognac group, to raise money for investments. And eventually he began to invest authority in his nephew, Jean Claude Boussac, who was also fond of the authoritative manner. But even with the nephew's reorganization efforts, one year later, the group reportedly was losing $2 million per month.
But even after Boussac sold his horses to the Prince Aga Khan and his newspapers to a group of businessman close to President Giscard d'Estaing, the Paris court placed the entire empire under its jurisdiction and began looking for a buyer.
The search was not difficult: The House of Dior was on everyone's "must acquire list," including Robert Hocq, president of Cartier Paris, which had bid $65 million for Dior in June.
Dior is by far the largest couture house, with revenues of $240 million per year. Over the years, it has expanded overseas and into franchises which produce its line and accessories. Today, 80 percent of its revenues are in royalties from 150 licensees who make 45 different items. Dior has boutiques in 14 countries and has arrangements with major department stores in the United States.
Jacques Rouet, 61, has headed the company since 1947 and managed to preserve its image and profitability. But some elements in the industry criticize him for having been too conservative and too late - in building boutique around the world, for fumbling in pret-a-porter marketing, and for having maintained an overly stodgy image. (Rouet made a museum of the late Christain Dior's office.)
By contrast, Yves St. Laurent, a much newer house with smaller revenues, has built a network of about 150 boutiques aroung the world. By the end of this year, Dior will have only 31.
"There would be so much you could do with Dior," said an executive at Bidermann, another French clothing business with revenues of $300 million a year, which makes clothing under the labels of Daniel Hechter, Yves St. Laurent and Calvin Klein.
Others apparently thought so too. By the end of July, there were two serious contenders for the Boussac empire: the Willot brothers and Maurice Bidermann - a tall man with a boyish face and chipped front teeth - is an upstart. The son of Polish Jewish immigrants and the half-brother of Regine, the European discotheque impresario, he started from almost nothing when he took over his uncle's company in his early 20s. (He had dropped out of school at age 15 to join the Irgun in Palestine and stayed on to fight in the Israeli war of independence.)
The Willot brothers hail from Lille in northern France and according to one former Willot employe, "They're so unsophisticated, only one comes to Paris. The others don't step foot out of Lille." After their father funded the Ace Bandage plant, the brothers went on to acquire textile mills as well as two Paris department stores, an appliance chain and the distribution rights to Ted Lapidus, another pret-a-porter house.
Bidemann, with a smaller financial base, has proven a genius at nursing ailing companies, as well as in managing high class ready-to-wear.
At the last minute, despite Boussac's announced preference for Bidermann, the Paris court announced its decision for the Willots. The Willot purchase, according to government sources, was the only one the banks would accept. And the government preferred Willot because the corporation could buy Boussac without government aid.
While Bidermann planned to make some changes at Dior - to liven up the image and probably reduce the price of Dior pret-a-porter - the Willots insist there will be no changes. One executive insisted that "Dior will remain exactly what it is."