Saturday, March 14, 2009

Fashion master or mentor? An agonizing choice for young talents

PARIS: Stretching, floating, spreading like ectoplasm or retreating into an oval shape -Gareth Pugh's collection was a screen full of inspiration. The clothes were unmistakably his dramatic and graphic vision; but the diamond patterns, sun-ray pleats, inserts of studs and even the model's floating ponytail slowly spread and then evaporated.

After a dramatic menswear runway show a month ago, the 27-year-old British designer took his collection to video, offering an intuitive expression of his world. And on the first day of the Paris autumn/winter 2009 season, he chose a different, off-the-runway approach.

"I wanted to express what we wanted to do with the collection," Pugh says. "Even if it did look more like a long perfume ad!"

When - and surely it is not "if" - this hyper-talented designer builds his brand, he will produce fragrance, handbags, makeup or even home furnishings. But for that he will need big money. And like all start-up designers in their 20s, he is faced with an agonizing choice: master or mentor?

Since he graduated from Central Saint Martin's fashion school in London in 2003, Pugh has been taken under the wing of the designer Rick Owens and his partner, Michele Lamy. Although Pugh's first collections were more show biz than business - making it as costumes for Kylie Minogue's tour - his extreme club clothes, with their inflated shapes and checkerboard patterns, have been turned into a buck.

"We sell the clothes - we really do," Julie Gilhart, design director of Barneys New York, said after congratulating the designer and making a showroom appointment to see the clothes.

But it is no secret that Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, sponsored Pugh's menswear show in Paris in January and that his people have their eyes on this designer. Asking for anonymity, a person familiar with the situation said that, after Karl Lagerfeld advised Arnault to scoop up Pugh as a major creative talent, the LVMH team approached Pugh and Lamy.

"LVMH is a very big company with lots of people, and they saw something in me that they wanted to bring out," Pugh says, adding that he is extremely happy with the Rick Owens collaboration and wants to "tread water" in these difficult times, having the confidence in himself "that I am going to get to a certain level." Asked if he would ever join the corporate club, Pugh replied: "If someone came along and it was right - never say never."

It has been 25 years since Lagerfeld joined Chanel, setting in motion the idea that, to reinvent themselves, famous old houses had to tap fresh designers. Since then, high fashion has swallowed dozens of burgeoning talents - most famously John Galliano, firstly at Givenchy and ultimately at Dior. But also Alexander McQueen, also first at Givenchy (owned by LVMH) and then at the corporate rival PPR, where the designer has his own line.

Any fashionista could chant a litany of these two-prong careers, those who are working for a big house and also for themselves, kicking off with the famous collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs and embracing the more recent fashion hookups, as when Riccardo Tisci gave up his own Italian label to design for Givenchy.

Now that the economic climate is rougher than ever for fledgling fashion companies, it is a brave designer who would turn down the corporate blandishments.Kris Van Asscheis a case in point. On Wednesday, the Belgian-born designer sent out a poetic collection of masculine/feminine clothes, illuminated with metallic torques and bangles. Mannish tailoring, like wrap coats or a four-pocket jacket, layered over soft gaucho pants (slightly too many of them) made for a good and wearable collection.

This latest play on the man/woman theme expressed - not least in the program notes that quoted the French poetBaudelaire's "Les Fleurs du mal" - an elegiac romance. And it could not be more different from Van Assche's other day job at Dior Homme, which gives him the finances to keep alive his own men's and women's lines.

Delphine Arnault, daughter of the founder and an executive at LVMH, was sitting front row. "I've always liked young designers - I find it super interesting, and, anyway, Kris works for us," Arnault said.

As the first generation of the "two-prong" designers reaches maturity, it is easy to see what has happened. Although Jacobs has recently (after an open clash with LVMH) grown his own brand, it is still light years short of the Louis Vuitton sales numbers. The Galliano brand is puny compared with Dior, and the collapse of Ittierre, Galliano's Italian manufacturer, will put thebrakes on any hope of rapid expansion.

The story continues at The International Tribune Online

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