23-Nov, 17:59

14:47, December 02 193 0

2016-12-02 14:47:18
On the Runway: DKNY Designers and C.E.O. Leave. Where Does It Go Next?

Fashion has become such a leaky balloon these days that by the time news officially breaks, it is often hard to muster up more than a halfhearted yawn because it had been rumored, expected or discussed for so long.

Such was the case after the announcement late Thursday that Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow, the creative directors of DKNY, and Caroline Brown, the brand’s chief executive, were leaving after less than two years.

This would normally have been kind of a big deal. The departure of three top executives at once is a rarity. Such dramatic change at the top has happened only twice in contemporary fashion: in 2004, when Tom Ford and the chief executive Domenico Del Sole left Gucci; and in 2014, when Gucci dismissed the designer Frida Giannini and the chief executive Patrizio di Marco.

But the crazy rate of churn in fashion over the last year and the agreement this year for LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to sell DKNY to G-III Apparel Group, a manufacturing and licensing company that produces Ivanka Trump’s brand, among other American names; and the fact that the sale just officially closed — an occurrence that tends to cause executive change — meant that there were no big shock waves.

In fact, the changes should probably have generated more commotion than they did.

The departures of Mr. Osborne, Mr. Chow and Ms. Brown effectively mean the top team put in place by LVMH after Donna Karan herself left the brand — a team that was announced with great fanfare and heralded as one that would make DKNY a power player in the contemporary market — is gone.

Despite LVMH’s insistence that its strategy was working and that the decision to sell the brand to G-III was a proactive one about growth, the moves on Thursday cast doubt on whether the collections were really selling (if a line is a hit, an owner presumably does all it can to hold on to the people responsible). Certainly, the reviews had been mixed. Personally, I had trouble figuring out where the aesthetic was going.

The fact that the departing executives attributed their exits to a change in strategy also raises questions around the approach. Though statements from the three were nice, predictable and anodyne.

“Given the company sale and subsequent change in strategies, we have decided to step down and focus on our own business Public School.” (Mr. Osborne and Mr. Chow)

And: “As Donna Karan International transitions to new ownership and therefore new directions, I have decided it is the right time to step down and explore new possibilities. I know the company rests in good hands under the new leadership of G-III for the next stage of its development.” (Ms. Brown)

Still, it is unclear what that next stage is, and that is what is interesting.

G-III has been mum on the subject and has not announced a new designer; Mr. Osborne, Mr. Chow and Ms. Brown were unavailable for further comment. But it’s possible to make some educated guesses, and it seems to me they could go one of two ways.

When G-III bought the brand, for example, Morris Goldfarb, chairman and chief executive of that company, described Donna Karan International as an iconic global fashion company.

“Its lifestyle aesthetic resonates well with consumers throughout the world,” he said. “We are excited to build upon its strong foundation as we seek to capitalize on a significant market opportunity. Donna Karan brings increased scale and diversification, while providing incremental growth on top of our portfolio of some of the best fashion brands in the world.”

So maybe they want to take the brand back to its former glory under Ms. Karan, the first designer ever to depict a woman as president in an ad and a figure who represented a real emotional connection with many of her customers.

Maybe they simply felt Mr. Osborne and Mr. Chow, designers known for their cool and street cred but not their feminist accessibility, were the wrong men to do it, and they plan to look for a less obviously “fashion,” but more inclusive, creative point of view. Given the current political climate, that might give the brand a certain currency it does not have.

However, G-III does not have much experience with the Fashion Week end of the market, so that also might be a stretch.

Perhaps more likely, given the rest of the brands in G-III’s stable — which includes the license for Tommy Hilfiger women’s wear and Calvin Klein’s women’s sportswear, suits, dresses, performance wear, handbags, luggage and cold weather accessories — is that they are planning to go more mass market with DKNY. That could indeed create an enormous business (Jessica Simpson is now in the billion-dollar range) — though I am not so sure.

All the “designer” brands that have gone big on the popular level have a clear identity and value system attached to their names, whether or not the designer is actively involved: They have a face and character that leaps to mind.

They also have a top-end line complete with the attached Fashion Week news media to provide a halo of buzz. With the end of Donna Karan, that is no longer true for DKNY, and Mr. Osborne and Mr. Chow were not there long enough to create a new identity for the brand. At the moment, it doesn’t really stand for much.

Whether G-III goes up or down with the price points, developing that identity should be its biggest strategic priority. It is crucial that they ground DKNY (or Donna Karan, if they revive it) in an individual who can give it personality and point of view, whether that person is a designer or (yes, let’s say it, it could happen) some other sort of celebrity.

Who they choose — if they choose — will tell us a lot about what they plan to do with what was once a truly wardrobe-changing brand. It will also determine whether it maintains its role in the fashion universe or fades away to become just another once-important, no-longer relevant part of the history of dress.

Meanwhile, Mr. Osborne and Mr. Chow are free to concentrate on their own brand, Ms. Brown is mulling her options, and the wheel of designer changes rotates on.