The Name Game

Since the news broke last week that Peter Copping was out as creative director of Oscar de la Renta, it’s been the topic of discussion among industry insiders and unsurprisingly, many have offered their opinion and sought to make sense of yet the latest in a string of designers’ firings. Let’s just say that even though many thought that on paper, due to many similarities, this pairing had all the earmarks of a success, I generally found Peter’s collections generally unexceptional, lacking the exuberance and excitement that had been there before, and never thought it was a match made in heaven.  Obviously, the bottom line is that Copping did not perform well at retail, and he apparently did not do so since the beginning (things would have been very different if he had). End of subject. Let’s just say that there were several factors at play.

We’re undeniably at a moment when there is just too much of everything: too many designers, too many brands, too many companies, too many stores, too many websites, too many bloggers, too many seasons, too much fashion, and a proliferation of fast fashion coming at the customer at breakneck speed. The customer, who has access to everything and sees everything, is confused, has a short attention span, and is fickle. But the bottom line is that what she wants is “amazing” fashion she can “respond to emotionally”; she doesn’t necessarily care what seasons it’s from or who the designer is. This is precisely what Neiman Marcus’s VP, Fashion Direction, Ken Downing had to say during the course of Fashion Group International’s “Tastemaker Series” last Thursday. Let’s face it, there are not too many designers like Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, whose fan base has reached cult like proportions and who can singlehandedly drive in sales.

Needless to say, these are challenging times for businesses and retail, and it’s especially difficult for established brands, particularly when they are faced with reinventing themselves and flourishing without the original designer at the helm. Sure there are success stories like Valentino, Chanel, Gucci, Calvin Klein, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen, to name a few, but there’s also Halston. Geoffrey Beene and Bill Blass, among others. Both iconic labels bore witness to a succession of talents taking over at the design helm but they could not manage to restore their original glory after the designers’ passings.

It can’t be underestimated that Oscar was the breath, the soul, and the face of the label for over 40 years. While Peter Copping preferred to keep a rather low profile in his rather short tenure, Oscar was a celebrity and an icon in his own right, and he seemed to revel in his role. Always dapper and debonair, he was inducted to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1973. He was a commanding presence, undeniably attractive (inside and out), and quite seductive (who could forget his gleaming eyes and broad smile when he walked out on the runway after his shows, flanked by his favorite models?)

It didn’t hurt that both of Oscar’s marriages were to elegant, highly cultivated women who were internationally known for their exceptional taste in clothes and decoration (both were also celebrated hostesses).   It certainly didn’t hurt that his first wife Francoise de Langlade de la Renta (who had been fashion editor and editor in chief of French Vogue and passed away in I983), and his second wife, the philanthropist Annette de la Renta, were celebrated hostesses who wore only his designs. In both marriages, they were a high profile couple, formidable fixtures on the social scene (Oscar was on the board of the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall among other things). And it most certainly didn’t hurt that many of Oscar’s most ardent fans and most loyal customers traveled in the same social circles.

The fact that the focus these days, is on streetwise, relaxed, casual fashion, is yet another hurdle for Oscar de la Renta, a company synonymous with elegant, ladylike, feminine, opulent, clothing. While there may still be a customer for the sort of designs which have been the hallmarks of the label since its inception in 1965, under the guise of Peter Copping; and more importantly, without the driving force of the man himself, Oscar de la Renta, there was unfortunately nothing much to distinguish it from just another collection of expensive, chic suits and pretty dresses. My overall impression was, “Meh!” And there’s just too much competition. “Meh” just doesn’t cut it these days.

Looking towards the future, I am intrigued by the list of possible replacements that have been mentioned thus far: particularly, Alber Elbaz, Francisco Costa (who worked in Oscar’s studio in the 80’s), and former Oscar de la Renta designers Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia. They launched the highly acclaimed label Monse last fall and are also consulting with Carolina Herrera where they are imbuing their youthful spirit into the line.

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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