Great designers never die – they are merely dormant.
Paul Poiret, the Parisian couturier who died in 1944, is the latest to be excavated from the fashion graveyard. His house went bankrupt in 1929, but his name is now being shopped around anew. In 1991, Poiret's fragrance brand, Les Parfums de Rosine, was loosely revived by a perfumer whose grandparents worked with Poiret on his original formulas; the actual Poiret trademark is currently owned by Luvanis SA, the same company that initially resurrected Vionnet in 2006 and which, according to the European Union Trademark Database, also owns other sleeping-beauty fashion brands, including Mainbocher.
In recent years, the marketing bonanzas that are the Costume Institute shows at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – and, specifically, the star-studded Met Galas that often coincide with them – have been instrumental to the Resurrection of Dead Designers.
In May, visitors had barely digested the exhibition Charles James: Beyond Fashion when the Weinstein Company announced that it had bought and would be reviving the long-defunct label. Similarly, Tod's CEO Diego Della Valle revealed on the heels of Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, a Costume Institute show in spring 2012, that he would be reviving the Schiaparelli brand, which namesake Elsa had shuttered in the fifties.
Obviously, such companies and individuals – fashion-world Dr. Frankensteins, if you will – are banking on the allure of a legendary figure. But when a persona such as Poiret or James doesn't much resonate in the public imagination to begin with, what's the point?
Poiret, a modernist who draped the female body in a corset-free silhouette of hobble skirts and harem pants, is very important to the history of fashion (and not long ago proved a pivotal reference in a season-one episode of Downton Abbey), but even I am at a loss to see how anyone might capitalize on him today. There is always talk when these endeavours are proposed of "house codes," aesthetic DNA strands that revivalists attempt to reanimate, Jurassic Park-style. Frankly, though, they would have more luck sequencing the genome of a woolly mammoth: If there are any Poiret "codes" in existence, they mean about as much to brand-driven fashion as Morse code does to a Millennial.
For Poiret or any revival to work financially, a point of view has to resonate, be easily identifiable and, most importantly, lend itself to the marketing of lucrative accessories and perfumes. Even where there is a cult of personality to exploit, success can be elusive – look at the attempted resuscitation of Halston, the emblematic label of the disco era and a big influencer of contemporary designers. After a failed comeback attempt spearheaded by Harvey Weinstein, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tamara Mellon et al, the company has changed hands yet again, relocating operations to Los Angeles.
The potential for a profitable Schiaparelli revival remains similarly uncertain. After all, reductive glove appliqués slapped onto skirts, surrealist eyeballs on handbags and fur-covered shoes are hardly original. And, indeed, the designer charged with reviving the label, Marco Zanini, made an abrupt exit last week, just over a year into his gig.
Tellingly, most designers don't aspire to posthumous continuity – and would likely disapprove of today's zombie branding ventures. In The Master of Us All, journalist Mary Blume's 2013 biography of Balenciaga, the author recounts how, after the designer closed his fashion house in 1968, he made it clear that he wanted his brand name to die with him (and it did, for a time, after his 1972 death, but then it was revived in 1986). Giorgio Armani, who turned 80 in July, has no obvious successor in the wings. Neither did Oscar de la Renta, until the week before his death in October, when he named Peter Copping as his successor.
The history of fashion apprenticeship and succession is something of a Russian nesting doll. De la Renta had worked for Balenciaga in Madrid, while Poiret cut his teeth as a dressmaker first at Doucet and then at Maison Worth. Yves Saint Laurent worked for (then took over from) Christian Dior, who had himself worked for Lucien Lelong alongside Pierre Balmain. Before founding her own brand, Donna Karan laboured for Anne Klein.
Then there's Valentino, a case study in how a baton pass from a living designer also has its challenges. Before Signor Garavani retired in 2008, Giambattista Valli reportedly interviewed for the job to replace him, but had the good sense to start his own house. Valentino's ultimate successor, Alessandra Facchinetti, wasn't so lucky: She was fired barely a season after the maestro had departed. "There is an existing archive [from which a designer] can draw and take inspiration to create a Valentino product that is relevant today. It is a shame that [Facchinetti] didn't feel this need," Valentino huffed at the time. Despite his passive aggression, the emperor and his ego may have been on to something: Thoughtful adaptation is always preferable – and more successful – than pastiche. For example, the best to come out of Alexander Wang's stint at Balenciaga so far is the Balenciaga. Edition line – re-issues, with tweaks and updated materials, of its founder's brilliant creations. That and the handbags and perfumes.
Could it be, then, that most attempts to assume another designer's identity fail because they feel less like posthumous homage and more like brand necrophilia? The financiers shopping for heritage brands might do well to remember that the raising of Lazarus was considered a miracle.