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what’s my name? the curious case of designers leaving their namesake labels

sass & bide’s Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke are the latest designers to divorce themselves from a fashion label that they founded, and subsequently lost control of. Why does this keep happening?

It’s surprising how many fashion designers no longer own nor have any creative role in the labels that they’ve dedicated most of their lives to: Calvin Klein, Christian Lacroix, Helmut Lang, Hubert de Givenchy, Jil Sander, John Galliano, Martin Margiela and so many more. It’s not necessarily for the worse – not everyone wants to keep doing what they do, and it’s important to offer opportunities to younger talents – but it certainly sets the fashion world apart. This is an industry that relies on a constant flow of new ideas, and of course there’s usually vast reserves of capital at stake; like football it’s a constant maelstrom of rumours about corporate takeovers and falling stars and the poaching of top talents (designers, editors, models, photographers, stylists) and such clandestine intrigue is a compelling part of its appeal. Some houses are on the up, others are very much on the way down. 

sass & bide’s Heidi Middleton and Sarah-Jane Clarke are the latest designers to leave their own label, and as always it’s hard to tell whether they jumped or were made to walk the proverbial plank, but the hard facts are that: they sold 65 per cent of their company in 2011, sold the other 35 per cent in 2013, and finally relinquished their Creative Director roles this month. sass & bide started with their stall on Portobello Market, and really took off after a chance encounter with Sarah Jessica Parker led to them dressing her on Sex and the City, so without them things will inevitably be very different. Sometimes it’s fun to walk away from things, but surely it’s sad to walk away from something you started, and abandon it to the money-men; like when Bart Simpson becomes Mr Burns’ heir, and is left to languish in the millionaire’s mansion on his own. Of course these things happen all the time, because there’s so much money in fashion. The quickest way for a designer to make millions is to sell their label. The quickest way for a fashion investor to make millions might be to buy a popular label and install its own team there. Surely a lot of designers lose their names because the most important things about their businesses often are their names, and all the aura, glamour and history that they evoke. Of course we fall in love with clothes and images – that’s what i-D’s about after all – but there’s also something so magical about words like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent, something that transcends even the top designers in their employ. A name can become very powerful; that’s why the characters in Harry Potter are scared to say “Voldemort”.

Designers lose their names in lots of ways, such as:

Some are brilliantly talented but tempestuous, like John Galliano who was filmed drunkenly declaring “I love Hitler” in a Parisian bar. LVMH subsequently fired him from his roles at Dior and John Galliano, both of which they own, and after vanishing for a while he, of his own volition, paid an odd penance in the form of an “internship” at Oscar de la Renta’s studio. Sometimes, for those in the know, rumours of scandals-to-come start circulating early as a self-fulfilling prologue to a powerful designer losing their role at an even more powerful house.

Others appear to just like leaving, as if they’re storming out of a perpetually “it’s complicated :(“ relationship, slamming the door behind them only to eventually be wooed back. Jil Sander sold 75 per cent of her company in 1999, and resigned as Creative Director only six months later. Then she came back. Then she left again. Then she came back. Then she left again. 

Some are shrewd businessmen and know when it’s the right time to sell up. Calvin Klein no longer has a creative role in the company that takes his name, and doesn’t even attend its shows, however he still holds a financial stake in his company; on top of the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s made from selling most of it. Honestly I think a fair few creative types would be willing to hand over their names in return for untold riches, and actually a couple of young designers have told me as much in the pub. Wouldn’t it be interesting to draw a line under your life’s work and try something else (with lots of money, mind)? 

Some designers just don’t want to design anymore. Helmut Lang sold his company and quit fashion and – after a year out in the Hamptons – chose instead to become an artist. When he lost most of his fashion archive in a fire in 2010 he shredded the charred scraps and cast them into resin sculptures for an exhibition. Even though the fashion world adores him and the art world appears somewhat disinterested in him, he’s happier pursuing his true passion. It’s never too late.

Others are just mysterious, like mythical beings. Although his name is still a byword for style and his signature stitches are still a mark of minimalist excellence, no-one actually knows where Martin Margiela is or what he’s doing. He hasn’t been photographed since 1997; even the Loch Ness Monster is photographed most years. Margiela never took a bow after his shows, he was always elusive, and even his models were usually hidden behind masks; but after selling his brand to Diesel in 2002 he slowly vanished until, in 2009, he wasn’t there. All that was left were those four white stitches, like the Cheshire Cat’s disembodied grin. Today’s designers are treated like celebrities and yet many cannot abide the limelight or the pressures of a many-billions-of-pounds industry. If you want to disappear completely losing your name is a good place to start, and certainly a lot easier than faking your own death like a 60s rock star.

Certainly it is odd that a designer’s house can continue without them when they’re alive and well and making tree sculptures, or working in a Russian perfumery, or hiding in the woods, because it doesn’t happen in other industries, not yet anyway. Although artists are often mocked for employing studio assistants and fabricators to make their own work, none have lost control of their own name. Although musicians have continued to put out albums after their death – and in the case of Tupac’s hologram have even headlined Coachella – none have auctioned off their identities, not really. The Sugababes have come closest in the way Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan were slowly edged out and dropped, one by one, in favour of younger and more pneumatic singers. Recently they were allowed to reform the original line-up, and even sing their early songs, but only under their new name MKS. To be honest it hasn’t really worked out for them.

The thing is though, we have to embrace change, because change is the mana of the fashion industry, the life-force that keeps its cogs turning. Style is timeless but fashion’s about the cycle of new trends, new faces and, of course, new designers; and more importantly it’s about the idea of changing how you look and maybe how you feel, the very possibility of reinvention. We’re allowed to change what we wear every month, and so must fashion houses be allowed to continually change their designers and evolve their forms. Sometimes they even have to cast off their founders, just as an invention occasionally kills its inventor; consider the Parisian tailor Franz Reichelt, whose coat-parachute unfortunately failed him when he leapt from the first deck of the Eiffel Tower on a test flight in 1912. No-one can stay on top of their tower forever, and change is exciting. Without Jil Sander walking out on her own company we never would have had Raf Simons’ astounding collections under her name – such as spring/summer 11 with its towering silhouettes and cascading Busta Rhymes drop – while without John Galliano disgracing himself on the terrace of La Perle we wouldn’t have Raf at Dior now!

Furthermore fashion is increasingly a business of branding and rebranding, so if you lose your name you could just come up with a new one: what would the Sugababes do? Or Snoop Dogg, or Puffy, or Prince? Indeed, Hervé Peugnet found fame and fortune as Hervé Léger – after Karl Lagerfeld advised him that Americans wouldn’t want to even try to pronounce “Peugnet” – and, much later, after losing the rights to that name he simply started again as Hervé L. Leroux. Likewise Christian Lacroix now uses Monsieur C. Lacroix. However the most startling reinvention is surely that of the talented Thierry Mugler, one of my favourite designers ever, who has taken to calling himself “Manfred” and through a mixture of hard workouts and Muscle Milk transmogrified himself into a sort of half-man, half-wolverine. Not that I’d recommend Manfred’s routine to the lovely ladies of sass & bide, but it certainly shows what’s possible when you have a lot of money, a lot of time, and you’ve lost your name.