Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Sunset Boulevard - Paris Style:

Backstage after the Lanvin show late Sunday afternoon, when most editors were feeling the strain of two months of endless fashion shows, Suzy Menkes was sipping champagne while reaching for a tray of macaroons. "I haven't even had a day of weeks," she said. "And since the New York Times isn't publishing things, I've got to get something up about Gucci."

The thing about Gucci - well that was the bitter final volley that marked Tom Ford's swan song collection for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, a subsidiary of the Group. The war of words between Mr. Ford and Serge Weinberg, CEO of PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute), which owns 67.3% of Gucci, was bitterly played out in the media.

The most interesting part of the story, however, is told only off the record. PPR's executive staff balked at the enormous salary demand made by Mr. Ford during contract negotiations last fall, while both François-Henri Pinault and Mr. Weinberg were adamant that Ford relinquish artistic control of the company's consortium of labels (including Saint Laurent), in order to concentrate exclusively on Gucci. The reason? The trail always leads to money. The truth is that Gucci accessories earn the profits that have been used to offset losses at YSL, which is still in the red, Balenciaga, where sales are abysmal, and Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen, both struggling. Sources have indicated that sales of Saint Laurent are absolutely flat, with days (not hours) passing between purchases at the Place Saint Sulpice boutique.

In the end, PPR decided to cut the losses. The company has chosen four successors to Mr. Ford: Stefano Pilati, formerly No.2 at YSL, will take the top spot, while three unknown designers have been recruited internally for Gucci: Alessandra Fachinetti for women's wear, John Ray for men's wear and Alfreda Giannini for accessories.

But perhaps on a deeper level Tom Ford's departure is reflective of an organic change in the fashion industry. The days of the high flying star designer, touring the world in a private jet, and turning out collections driven by sex and glitz have fallen victim to changing times. The world in 2004 is a completely different place than it was in the early 1990s when Mr. Ford revived Gucci, and to some extent, the pace of change has accelerated in the wake of 9/11. For good or bad, this is a more conservative era, where executives in the fashion world go more carefully, thinking twice before investing in new ideas or fated conquests. Companies with a name are more inclined to safely market the label, rather than the person behind it. Witness Calvin Klein, where Francisco Costa is doing what he can with little support. Or Bill Blass, where Lars Nilsson was fired last year with 24 hours notice - though he's arguably had better success at his new home, Nina Ricci.

Even at Chanel, retailers have the jitters. "He was trying to look young," confided Menkes. "It was certainly not his best work, and from a retail standpoint it's going to be a disaster." That might explain the glum look on the face of many a buyer when the Chanel show ended last Friday. Up until now, Karl Lagerfeld has had free reign, but with his contract set to expire only in 2010, the powers that be will almost certainly be looking more closely. Sydney Toledano, President of Dior Couture, who has been acting as consultant to another troubled LVMH holding, Fendi, sat front row at the Lagerfeld Gallery show the day before, examining every detail that went down the catwalk.

At Hermès, not one American buyer came away with a thing good to say about Jean Paul Gaultier's premier collection for the label, held at the Equestrian riding school of the École Militaire (where young recruits in tight pants providing entertainment). Selling leather corsets and whips, with a strong sadomasochistic streak, is perhaps more difficult than pushing the scarves and sacks that have traditionally ridden to the rescue.

At Dior, clauses have been added to the contracts of both John Galliano and Hedi Slimane, tying their salary and bonuses directly to the earnings their respective collections generate. Is it any wonder that Dior invited all guests to a second showing of the Ready-to-Wear accessory line, and kept the Avenue Montaigne headquarters open on Sunday to do it?

Elsewhere, three straight years of falling sales did Julien McDonald in at Givenchy, though the Welsh designer got the last laugh in the end. Suddenly panicked LVMH officials asked him to stay on until a successor had been named. His answer was, quite simply, 'au revoir'.

But back to the big story, that of Tom Ford's departure from the fashion stage. One could make the argument that he fell victim to the same pitfalls that have long plagued others who practice the business of marketing allusion. As times change, so must the people who orchestrate it all. In the 1950 classic film "Sunset Boulevard", starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden, Billy Wilder blends fact and fiction to expose the price of fame, greed, narcissism, and ambition that runs just below the surface of Hollywood, and dare one add, the fashion industry.

So as Tom sits in his Beverly Hills playboy mansion, counting his millions made on stock options and awaiting his facial and botox refresher, perhaps he can pop in a DVD.

Then, as now, Nora Desmond's immortal words ring out:

Joe: You're Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma (bristling): I am big. It's the pictures that got small.

- Timothy Hagy

Timothy is a freelance journalist living in Paris. He is our Paris correspondent. He can be reached at hagy@noos.fr



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