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Hermés’ New Jockey: Luxury Group Hands RTW Reins to Gaultier

Hermès International tapped Jean Paul Gaultier to replace Martin Margiela as designer of its women’s ready-to-wear.

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PARIS — Fashion’s revolving door spun Monday at Hermès International, where Jean Paul Gaultier was tapped to replace Martin Margiela as designer of its women’s ready-to-wear collection.

The change will take place beginning with the fall-winter 2004 season, to be shown in Paris next March. Margiela’s contract with the house expires after the Paris shows this October.

Gaultier will continue to design couture, rtw and men’s wear for his own house, founded in 1976 and famed for collections bristling with sexual innuendo and chockablock with multicultural references and Parisian chic.

The news marks an end to Hermès’ six-year collaboration with the reclusive Belgian Margiela and further strengthens the relationship between Gaultier and Hermès, which took a 35 percent stake in the house of Jean Paul Gaultier for $23.4 million in 1999.

On Monday, Hermès chairman Jean-Louis Dumas thanked Margiela for making a “major contribution” in defining and developing its women’s fashions, but said Gaultier’s creativity and imagination made him an obvious choice for the future.

“Jean Paul is a man of talent, and the idea was to give him a chance, and us a chance, to develop his talent with a new challenge,” Dumas said in an exclusive interview. “We love tradition, but we are not tradition-bound.”

At first glance, Gaultier’s sometimes avant-garde styles and out-there personality might seem even more at odds with Hermès’ conservative nature than the quirky Margiela. After all, this is the designer who put men in skirts and Madonna in a bustier with conical breasts. But since launching a couture collection in 1997, Gaultier has shown great finesse reinterpreting quieter styles like trenchcoats, pantsuits, tunics and shirts, all staples of the upscale Hermès wardrobe.

While acknowledging Gaultier’s taste for folly and provocation, Dumas said his arrival would mark no dramatic change in clothing at Hermès, which has stood for sporty chic, elegance, comfort and uncompromising quality since the Twenties.

“The challenge is to create a continuation of the Hermès style, which has the quality of being fashion and nonfashion at the same time,” he said. “There are few people who can understand this, but Jean Paul does.”
Not that Dumas won’t welcome a bit of Gaultier’s razzmatazz. He said, for example, that the house might pump up the way it presents his rtw. Since Margiela’s arrival, Hermès has staged a low-key procession of models in its flagship here on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré.

Gaultier was traveling Monday and could not be reached for comment. He is in London promoting an upcoming retrospective at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a series of catwalk shows there May 30.

But in a statement, the designer said: “I am really excited about this new adventure. For me, it represents a fascinating stylistic challenge within a very fine house that upholds a certain idea of tradition and is renowned for its pursuit of excellence.”

While welcoming Gaultier with open arms, Dumas also applauded Margiela’s reign, stressing: “There is no economic reason for this decision.”

While Margiela’s collections have rarely been raved about by the press, Dumas maintained all along that he was happy with the designer’s work at Hermès. However, Margiela’s tenure at the group took place at a time of explosive growth in rtw and leather goods at other luxury houses with big-name designers, such as John Galliano at Christian Dior and Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, who both generated significant buzz around their collections.

Women’s and men’s rtw remains Hermès’ second-most important business after leather goods, accounting for 14 percent of sales in 2002 and totaling $198.9 million, converted from euros at current exchange rates. Sales of rtw vaulted 19 percent in 1999 and 35 percent in 2000, but then slowed down along with the overall luxury sector. Last year, sales of rtw at Hermès slipped 4 percent.

“Martin succeeded in creating a contemporary language for Hermès,” Dumas said. “He understood very well our ways.”

Yet Dumas noted that Hermès’ contract with the Belgian designer is expiring at the same time he is focusing on the growth of his own business, having last September sold a majority stake in his 19-year-old house to Renzo Rosso, owner of Diesel SpA. Margiela, a Gaultier design assistant from 1984 to 1987, will present his final collection for Hermès in October during Paris fashion week.
In a statement, Margiela congratulated Gaultier on his appointment and wished “the Maison Hermès and all of its management and team every success and good fortune in the future. Maison Martin Margiela and Mr. Margiela are more than happy with their collaboration over the past six years.”

While declining to give projections, Dumas made it clear he sees more opportunities to grow the Hermès fashion business within its network of some 216 stores. He said new locations like the Ginza flagship in Tokyo devote considerable space to apparel, and many units are being expanded and renovated to that end, as well.

Dumas noted that Gaultier would design only women’s rtw at Hermès. Men’s wear will continue to be designed “by our star Veronique Nichanian” while other categories, from silk and leather goods to watches, are presided over by separate design teams.

Hermès has a long history of designers who have worked incognito. Before Margiela joined Hermès in 1998, the rtw team included Marc Audibet, who went on to design for Salvatore Ferragamo; Michel and Olivier Chatenet, the team behind E2, and Thomas Maier, now creative director of the Gucci Group-owned Bottega Veneta.

The appointment of Gaultier at Hermès should end rumors over the past three years that Hermès had been courting Jil Sander as its new designer. It also underlines a trend toward putting more established designers at the helm, rather than untested young talents. Last year, for example, luxury giant LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton installed one of its star couturiers, 52-year-old Christian Lacroix, to reinvigorate the Italian house of Emilio Pucci.

Dumas stressed that Gaultier’s appointment would not change Hermès’ involvement in the Gaultier business. “We are very happy in our position,” he said. “We meet regularly and the company is developing.”

When Gaultier welcomed the Hermès investment four years ago, company principles said the funds would be used to build its retail network. Since then, Gaultier has opened flagships in New York, London and Paris, designed by design guru Philippe Starck. Most of Gaultier’s business is licensed, including rtw, produced by Aeffe. The brand generates annual retail volume estimated at $350 million.
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