Women's Fashion

Revival of the chicest

A quartet of almost-forgotten fashion houses have been dusted off and are once again covetable, says Lucie Greene.

November 03 2010
Lucie Greene

Ever since 1983, when a German freelance designer called Karl Lagerfeld was tapped to breathe new life into a fusty and then-dwindling Chanel parlaying it into a global fashion megabrand, historic fashion houses have been doing a brisk turnover in morphing dusty relics into prime fashion real estate. The model of buying up a heritage label and reanimating it with a buzzy, emerging designer, some edgy ad campaigns and a much-photographed celebrity clientele is one that has come to define the fashion business, and has given rise to some of its most covetable labels, from Balmain to Lanvin to Burberry.

This year saw a new clutch join the landscape. Carven, the 1940s Parisian couture house, was taken over by former Givenchy designer Guillaume Henry. Vionnet, the iconic label founded by Madeleine Vionnet in Paris in 1912, has been moved to Milan and successfully relaunched under new designer Rodolfo Paglialunga. Meanwhile, Irfé, a fashion house formed by two Russian aristocrats in Paris in the 1920s, now has model-turned-designer Olga Sorokina at the helm.

Carven has been the buzz name in the industry since it was unveiled earlier this year as a seamlessly executed ready-to-wear line; this autumn marks its third season for womenswear. Erin Mullaney, buying director for Browns, where the line is stocked, praises its original and directional designer-brand aesthetic – and its diffusion-line costs: “It’s one of only a few that has a beautiful design sensibility to it, but at accessible prices.”

One of the smaller Parisian couture houses, Carven was founded by Madame Carmen de Tommaso in 1945 on the Champs-Elysées. Initially launched to cater to petite women, it quickly became known as an antidote to the formality of Dior’s collections, with an emphasis on chic, wearable leisurewear that paralleled the aesthetic of US designers Tina Leser and Claire McCardell.

“We have continued its spirit. Carven was always an intimate label,” explains Henry. “It was not about trends, the revolving door. It was about a mood and emotion; those who wore it were their own women. And that’s how I work, too.”

New-look Carven has a distinct, seemingly effortless cool, with daywear pieces that are both relaxed and elegant in a palette of neutrals and black. Deftly cut camel winter coats (£595) come belted and swinging, imbued with carefully considered flourishes. They join slim, empire-line tailored blazers (£500) and flared shorts (£235). “I wanted to create clothes that could be worn anywhere,” says Henry. “The Carven girl could always switch from country to city, from casual to evening. That’s what I hope these clothes do.”

Prior to joining Carven, Henry worked at Givenchy under Riccardo Tisci and later spent three years at Paule Ka. “I learned to be comfortable with big business and that’s been so valuable. You learn to respect the client and work for her,” he says.

The story of Vionnet’s most recent relaunch under Paglialunga is similar; it seems to have finally struck gold after being unveiled in June last year. The collection has been picked up by Saks Fifth Avenue, Net-a-Porter and Harvey Nichols, and has been worn by a host of starlets on the red carpet.

(In February, Carey Mulligan was much-photographed in a printed floral piece from pre-fall 2010 at the Bafta awards.)

The success story was less seamless for this label, though. Vionnet had been relaunched twice in recent years under designers Sophia Kokosalaki and then Marc Audibet – both short-lived ventures. The turning point came in February last year, when the label was acquired by former Valentino chairman Matteo Marzotto and relaunched from Milan. New creative director Paglialunga, who was a womenswear designer at Prada for 13 years, has given Vionnet new chic credentials; spring/summer was a pleasing enfilade of diaphanous tunics and draped, knee-length, Grecian-style summer gowns.

Meanwhile, autumn’s collection is a Ballets Russes-inspired tour de force, updated with equal doses of gothic rock and Parisian femme fatale. Hand-appliquéd lace dresses (£1,950) were shown alongside decadent, dark fur coats (£1,950-£4,925) and seriously sexy draped silk cocktail dresses (from £1,437). “The response from our customers globally was so impressive that we’ve increased our buy. They love its femininity,” says Holli Rogers, buying director at Net-a-Porter. “It respects the heritage of the house while moving it forward,” adds Colleen Sherin, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It is a delicate balance to strike – not all designers are capable of doing this.”

“I’ve tried to recreate her [Madeleine Vionnet’s] idea of ‘simple complexity’, but in a way that’s relevant to our present,” explains Paglialunga. He certainly had a lot to live up to. Vionnet revolutionised women’s clothing in the 1910s and 1920s: she is particularly known for the invention of the bias-cut evening gown and for her decadent fabric draping, creating a new, elongated silhouette for women that was adopted in every major world capital.

At its peak in 1932, the Vionnet house had 1,200 seamstresses working from its Avenue Montaigne headquarters, and was dressing Hollywood stars from Marlene Dietrich to Greta Garbo. It had a huge American following and was one of the first French couture houses to open a New York subsidiary.

Vionnet shut in 1939 after the outbreak of the second world war, but has continued to exercise a potent influence on designers, many of whom still use the original patterns for reference. “I first discovered it as a student,” relates Paglialunga. “You have to feel and weigh one of her gowns in your hands to fully understand what an amazing designer she was. The way she cut and worked the fabrics was extraordinarily accurate – and modern.”

The third recent revival label to hit the fashion circuit is Irfé, a small capsule line new to Browns this season. After an 80-year absence, it has returned under Olga Sorokina, a former model, and Countess Xenia Sheremeteva-Sfyris, the granddaughter of Irfé’s original founders.

Irfé was launched in Paris in 1924 by exiled Russian aristocrats Prince Félix Youssoupoff and wife Princess Irina, Alexander III’s granddaughter (Irfé is the first two letters of both their Christian names). It only existed for five years – the house shut in the aftermath of the crash of 1929 – but was known for flapper daywear, simplified cocktail dresses and early sportswear designs, echoing the silhouettes then popular with European aristocrats and wealthy Americans.

This time the new incarnation is simple: edgily contemporary daywear with statement knits (from £800), sculpted black winter coats (from £1,290) and leather biker jackets (from £2,359). Since launching three seasons ago the label has been taken on by stores in 22 countries globally, and the word is spreading fast. A flagship is set to open in Paris in the next year, and there are also plans for a jewellery and watch diffusion based on the family jewels of the Yousoupoff, Sheremetev and Romanoff clans. “[Irfé] has the look of Balmain but it’s easier [to wear],” says Mullaney of the line. Its black leather miniskirt (£1,025) seems tailor-made for French Vogue editrice Carine Roitfeld. “I love its story, too.”

Heritage labels hold a unique allure for fashion lovers. They hark back to a time when designers were very directly involved in the clothes; pieces were created expressly with a single client in mind, and were made to last and be relevant well beyond one or two seasons. They represent a romantic vision of how fashion used to be, a time when craftsmanship and quality reigned supreme.

The relaunched versions often bear no resemblance to the original houses (for no other reason than they’re usually ready-to-wear rather than couture), but their names still resonate – which is why, of course, they’re still attractive to fashion investors.

“They’re part of our collective consciousness; their names mean something,” explains Rita Watnick, owner of Los Angeles vintage fashion boutique Lily et Cie. “Vivienne Westwood talked about the past conjuring images of our nobler selves, and I think that’s true; these labels have a certain romance to them. They will always be attractive [to revive] because it’s better to start in a place that was good, and go from there, than start from scratch.”

“It’s also cheaper to buy an old house than start a new brand,” says Cameron Silver, founder of Los Angeles luxury vintage store Decades. “Norell was apparently bought for $25,000 a few years ago, which is incredibly cheap, [considering] he was one of the great American fashion designers and the name still has huge resonance.”

No one has parlayed the cachet of a name into a patent global success more spectacularly than Karl Lagerfeld. Back in 1983, Chanel was a dwindling, outmoded house known more for its fragrances, with just a clutch of boutiques. Its legendary owner had died 12 years before and the company’s chairman, Alain Wertheimer, was looking for a way to revive it. He approached Lagerfeld about taking on the task. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it; it’s dead, it will never come back,’” Lagerfeld told The New Yorker in 2007. “But by then I thought it was a challenge.”

Lagerfeld shook up the label, focusing on ready-to-wear and commandeering the brand’s iconic logo for irreverent purposes. The company’s famous bouclé suits were sent down the catwalk in mini-skirted versions, with oversize interlocking “C” jewellery and cropped T-shirts showing bare midriffs. The collection was a hit with young European fashion lovers and instantly put the brand back on the map.

Lagerfeld’s triumph has inspired legions to follow in his footsteps. But the pool isn’t infinite; the major houses have all been acquired, and now smaller boutique brands are the ones getting the attention.

Nevertheless, heritage isn’t a surefire guarantee of success. Legendary disco label Halston, for one, has been relaunched numerous times over the years. (The label was acquired in 2007 by Hilco Consumer Capital and Harvey Weinstein; Jimmy Choo president Tamara Mellon assisted in its relaunch. Sarah Jessica Parker is now on board as chief creative officer, heading up the design team for the Heritage diffusion line.) Others have closed; Ossie Clark was revived under Israeli-born designer Arsh Alom Gur in 2007 but shuttered last year after mixed reviews. (Industry insiders also blamed ambitious price points.)

“People interpret houses differently,” explains Silver. “Some capitalise on the romance of the name but produce collections that are total departures; others adopt the visual codes. Azzaro is a great example of a heritage brand revived well – the label maintains the spirit of its predecessor but the clothing is new and fresh.” Browns’ Mullaney is decisive on the matter: “You have to move it forward, in my opinion.”

Success, both critical and commercial, can depend in many ways on how strong the brand’s original image was. “There’s more freedom when the brands aren’t so identifiable with their visceral past,” explains Watnick. “Dior will forever be associated with the New Look. Carven, on the other hand, was never linked to any particular aesthetic.”

Carven’s Henry, for one, is grateful for that: “She [the house] is an old treasure. We want to build things slowly, and not [grow] too fast. There was no pressure at first because it’s an old house, and not that many people remembered it,” he says. “But now that it’s back, I don’t want to damage the name. I don’t want it to put it in the closet again.”