How Does a Storied Heritage Brand Reinvent Itself for the Current Age?

From left: Courtesy Patou; Courtesy St. John

A clever creative director helps.

For the young designer assuming the mantle of creative director of a legacy brand, a Goldilocks conundrum is bound to present itself: How does one breathe new life into it while remaining true to the original DNA that made it famous? For the designers now at the helm of these four classic houses, balancing the past with the present is part of the joy of getting it just right.

Patou

When LVMH Fashion Group CEO Sidney Toledano approached Guillaume Henry for the role of creative director of Patou, the Carven and Nina Ricci alumnus had just visited Jean Patou’s gravestone at the Passy Cemetery. Henry was there to pay his respects: Patou rivaled Chanel in its 1930s heyday and is credited with having invented modern sportswear. But putting his interest in its rich history aside, Henry is careful not to rely too heavily on the past at Patou. “I think the key thing is to know your Patou really well and to forget about it,” he says by phone from the company’s neo-Gothic headquarters on the Île de la Cité. “You have to dig for it, digest it, and then you have to let it go. For me, Patou is not a dress: It’s a mood, it’s a spirit.” More precisely, it’s a spirit he’s evoked with louche opera coats and marabou-trimmed trousers that reference the couturier’s glamorous uniform for Jazz Age society swans like Louise Brooks and tennis ace Suzanne Lenglen. (Lenglen was the first to wear a tennis skirt—a Jean Patou invention.) “You have to please the people who know about the brand and you have to also please the people that actually don’t really care. So bring it back to life, but also make it new.”

St. John

Fall 2020 marked the debut of Zoe Turner at the helm of St. John, an American stalwart known for luxe sportswear that expanded the possibilities of knitwear amid the gilded glamour of the 1980s. During her early career at Dior, Turner would often escape to the American Library in Paris and leaf through 1980s issues of American Vogue. The St. John ads stood out, she explains via Zoom from her office in Irvine, California, where the company is based. “The ’80s ads with helicopters,” she says. “Really rich, luxury imagery.” So the MaxMara veteran set out to create that same esprit with her own twist. “I wanted to connect to that heritage and identify the codes and icons of the brand but build that new story for here and now.” That new story includes updates on the classic animal prints, with white tiger for fall and water snake for spring. It also pays homage to the original knit dress in unexpected ways, like the pinched-hook clasp of the new Loop bag—“the clasp is a single stitch,” Turner points out—and the sumptuous cashmere sweat suits ideal for a work-from-home world.

heritage brands
From left: Hervé Léger; Schiaparelli | From left: Courtesy Hervé Léger; Courtesy Schiaparelli

Schiaparelli

For Daniel Roseberry, the highest priority when taking on the role of creative director was to not fall into the trap of being limited by Schiaparelli’s legacy, a shadow that has loomed large over every successor to take the reins since Elsa Schiaparelli herself. “Schiap,” as she was known to her friends, used her signature irreverence and moxie to create collections defined as much by their surrealistic bejeweled lobsters and trompe l’oeil motifs as by the deft drape of a Grecian-style gown. “When you look at the many brands that try to be resurrected and how it often doesn’t work, I think it is because they just try to re-create what happened in the past,” he explains. “Which is either no longer relevant or not true to who the designer really is.” So he captured the brand’s wit in unexpected ways, such as by placing himself in the middle of the runway at a drafting table during his first couture show in July 2019, sketching as the models traipsed by in tailored jackets with billowing sleeves and dresses dripping with dazzling flora and fauna. “I ask myself,” says Roseberry, “if Elsa were alive today, what would she be saying through the language of fashion?”

Hervé Léger

Christian Juul Nielsen argues that mining the archives is the key to success. “It is so important to figure out what the essence of the house is,” says the Hervé Léger creative director, who cut his teeth at Dior under Raf Simons. “You must figure out what made a brand special and relevant at its peak and translate that into something that’s relevant today.” For Nielsen, the challenge has been how to make Hervé Léger more than just a bandage dress. He has introduced new offerings like a pointelle midi skirt and mock-neck top, reimagining Léger for the 9 to 5 set while still embracing the clinging frock’s iconic cut and shape. Like everyone, Nielsen spent 2020 adapting to a world where fashion is worn differently. Despite this, he says, “We continue to see a demand for cocktail dresses. I guess some people do dress up at home after all.” Let’s hope so.