The Business of Artistry in Fashion

Fashion is not art, it's made to be worn and lived in.  Or so say designers from Marc Jacobs to Karl Lagerfeld.

Even in the world of luxury clothing, where customers demand items to be artfully designed and unique, brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Versace produce clothing that can be worn out into the world, although, possibly only on very special occasions.   

So how then do those companies fare that create items more closely resembling outrageous works of art than wearable pieces of clothing?

Well, it seems. But only if they are able to use their business acumen to expand their brand past the outrageous ensembles they design for the runway.

Alexander_McQueen_Spring_Summer_2013_RunwayTake the most shining example of this: Alexander McQueen.  Founded in 1992 by its namesake designer and currently owned by PPR under the helm of Sarah Burton, the creations from the house of Alexander McQueen are nothing short of works of art.  And yet, the atelier continues to grow, operating in more than 50 countries worldwide, according to PPR.

Alexander_McQueen_Savage_Beauty_ExhibitHow is this paradox possible?  It’s partly due to the genius of McQueen himself, who so fascinated the fashion world with his creativity and set trends, still in existence today. And it’s also due to the business savvy of PPR, who was able to save the company after McQueen’s untimely death. Sarah Burton, who had worked with McQueen for 14 years, was installed as Creative Director of both Alexander McQueen and its new extension McQ. And a museum retrospective of McQueen’s work, Savage Beauty, was created to both celebrate his life and mourn his death.

In an interesting twist, the house of Alexander McQueen has gained a new ounce of notoriety in the past few years, as Sarah Burton designed the lace wedding gown worn by the Duchess of Cambridge at the Royal Wedding.  This dress, and the subsequent Alexander McQueen pieces worn by the Duchess, is less outlandish than the atelier’s standard wares, but no less artfully crafted. Plus the Duchess Effect is no doubt increasing the brand’s reputation and client base.

Viktor___Rolf_Spring_Summer_2010_EditorialA perhaps lesser known, but not less interesting case is that of the company, Viktor & Rolf.  The Amsterdam-based design house, ran by the design duo Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren, has garnered a reputation for creating outrageously crazy pieces, ones that would rarely been seen anywhere but a museum or catwalk.

Like the house of Alexander McQueen, this company finds itself in a very success position in the market.  But unlike the British brand, Viktor & Rolf changed their company strategy in the early 2000’s to adapt to the changing wave of the fashion industry.  They started designing prêt-à-porter collections, instead of haute couture, and set out on introducing a number of extremely successful collaborations.   The company created an exclusive mainstream line for the mass market retailer H&M and unveiled their fragrance Flowerbomb in collaboration with L’Oréal. The latter of which is still in stores seven years after its initial release.

The case of Viktor & Rolf shows that an outrageous fashion company can find success with a mainstream audience, while still retaining its artistic integrity. Looking at Viktor & Rolf’s most recent collections, the company certainly hasn’t lost its edge.

Not every artistic fashion company benefits from business collaborations and brand extensions, as in the case of Maison Martin Margiela for H&M, but certainly those that are most successful in today’s fashion industry too.  But in the future, as Alexander McQueen and Viktor & Rolf continue to expand, so will the outrageous fashion companies that take that risk too.