Saint Laurent or Celine - the fashion buyers’ conundrum
The controversy that followed the eagerly awaited first show by Hedi Slimane for Celine has died down, and it is business as usual for fashion buyers, who have been busy sealing their deals. But how did buyers spread their purchases between the Saint Laurent collection by Anthony Vaccarello and Celine’s by Hedi Slimane, between two closely competing maisons, one owned by the Kering group and the other by its main rival LVMH? It was a tricky choice, as buyers were faced with two collections infused with the same rocker, black, ultra skimpy aesthetic.
“It’s simple, we bought tailored clothes from Celine and shirts and dresses from Saint Laurent,” said Massimiliano Nardiello, in charge of womenswear purchases for Milanese multibrand store Antonia, who couldn’t hide his dismay. “Clearly, the sales directors at both labels weren't happy. But for us, it was awful. On the same day, we saw first Celine, then Saint Laurent. We had the impression of watching the pre-collection in the morning and the collection in the afternoon, or vice versa!”
By and large, after seeing sportswear take the catwalks by storm in the last few seasons, buyers witnessed a return to glittering glamour by the majority of fashion labels. Yet, as some buyers observed, “certain brands interpreted this trend in a rather repetitive fashion,” making it even more complicated for buyers to place their orders.
“All this black and sequins ... The womenswear we sell cannot be reduced to that alone. The women who come to us have a global outlook, and many of them are professionals. They seek high-end, sophisticated clothes they can wear every day, in which they feel at home. Phoebe Philo’s Céline catered to such a public. No longer having her clothes in our store is a great loss for us,” lamented Nardiello.
It was clear that Hedi Slimane could not jettison his rocker style, nor his typically slim, dark silhouettes. With that as a starting point, all he could do was to apply to Celine the same recipe for success which worked at Saint Laurent, whose style and image Slimane was in charge of between 2012 and 2016.
The boss of LVMH, Bernard Arnault, was well aware of this when he gambled on Slimane replicating the feat he accomplished at Saint Laurent, whose revenue leapt by 75% to reach €974 million in 2015. And it is equally understandable that Anthony Vaccarello would continue with, in fact push even further the rock-glam style which proved so profitable for Saint Laurent. In other words, the situation was predictable.
Some retailers, like Russian group Mercury, which distributes most major labels in its region, including Celine and Saint Laurent, do not see it as a problem, and will continue to buy both labels. Riccardo Tortato, in charge of fashion e-tail and menswear at Moscow department store TsUM, owned by Mercury, even refuses to talk about similarities between the two labels, since “the two collections differ in terms of silhouettes and volumes.”
“Except for some products, for example black jeans, we did not see a marked overlap between the two collections. It's true that Hedi Slimane’s influence is visible at Saint Laurent, but Anthony Vaccarello has evolved the label’s look. Vaccarello’s woman is less grungy, less Californian. She's sexier, younger, the clothes are more flowing and generous. At Celine on the other hand, volumes are minimal, the lines much tighter. And there were a lot of evening dresses on show. We mustn’t forget that, at the show, Celine presented seven or eight couture items, while the showroom featured several items not seen on the catwalk, many men’s suits in particular, as well as overcoats and sleeved items for women,” said Tortato.
“Of course, Celine’s style has completely changed. But you may remember there was the same outcry when Alessandro Michele replaced Frida Giannini at Gucci. And the label has not just survived, its sales have skyrocketed! We must accept that the Céline style we saw in the last few years is dead and buried. But this doesn’t detract from the fact that Celine, just like Saint Laurent, has a great history and a distinctive expertise. Some items will sell better for one label, others will sell better for the other. In the end, consumers will have the final say,” said Tortato, adding that “there are three labels in the world women will never do without: Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent.”
“Saint Laurent is unique. It remains one of the finest brands in the history of fashion,” said Beppe Angiolini, proprietor of the Sugar boutiques in Arezzo, Italy, and new creative director of Italian luxury concept store Excelsior. “It’s true that [Saint Laurent's] style is currently very similar to Celine’s, especially for womenswear. Having said this, Anthony Vaccarello has evolved the Hedi Slimane style into something still very luxurious, but also ultra feminine and more geared to evening wear. I found there was even an ethnic touch in the latest collection,” said Angiolini.
As for accessories, the majority of buyers are waiting to see the full range in the coming seasons, since Hedi Slimane has only introduced a few models so far. In the meantime, the creative teams have changed. According to an industry expert who wishes to remain anonymous, LVMH transferred the creative team which designed Celine handbags to Loewe, another of the group's labels, since Hedi Slimane brought over his own staff.
“At Celine, Hedi Slimane is sticking to his own groove. He wanted to reaffirm his identity. His first show for Saint Laurent was just as controversial, though it didn’t reflect the work which was later done on the brand. From next season, Slimane will probably evolve. I found [Celine’s] menswear very interesting, quite different from what Slimane did at Dior Homme. What surprised me was that there was no sign of a t-shirt, or sweatshirt, nor of a single pair of sneakers. He broadcast an important message to the market,” said Angiolini.
The new Celine menswear was a big success with buyers. “In menswear, Celine is completely different from Saint Laurent. There is far less overlap. The products are very nice, the quality is high and above all, the line is already complete. There is notably a wide range of formal clothes,” said Tortato, who is happy to be one of the lucky few able to distribute the collection. “They made it available to a small number of retailers only, 30 to 40 worldwide,” he added.
With the launch of the menswear line, Celine clearly wants to score a brace with fashion retailers. The revenue of the label, which currently operates nearly 140 stores, is estimated at €1 billion. The ambitious goal is to double sales in five years.
To kickstart the new strategy, the company didn’t stint on resources, transforming the huge marquee erected behind the Invalides museum complex in Paris for the first show by Hedi Slimane in a gigantic showroom, featuring as many men’s items as women's. Of course, Celine is keen to capitalise on the personal hype the star designer of Italian-Tunisian origin is able to generate around himself, hoping to attract the Slimaniacs who were stranded at Saint Laurent. And not just those, as Celine is relying on menswear too.
“The new-look Celine will be a shade more masculine than feminine. Hedi Slimane is undeniably more himself with menswear, while Anthony Vaccarello is less at home with it,” opined Nardiello. “Right now, Celine has an incredible potential in menswear. They did some very smart work,” said Silvano Vangi, in charge of womenswear purchases at Luisaviaroma. Celine will not fail to attract a new male clientèle. Nevertheless, the erasure of Phoebe Philo’s Céline womenswear will be a loss some multibrand retailers will have to compensate for.
A loss that undeniably left a gap in the market, over and above the wave of nostalgia which spread chiefly on social media, as shown by the Instagram accounts which hatched in the last few weeks to perpetuate the memory of the work of the British designer during her ten-year tenure at Céline (2008-2018), like the @oldceline account, which totted up 97,000 followers in two months, or the more recent @phoebesceline. Further proof of this are the booming sales of vintage Céline handbag models on pre-owned fashion websites. Philophiles aren't about to disappear.
“Phoebe Philo succeeded in creating a fashion language which was able to communicate with women through softer, more feminine clothes. She catered to consumers who were looking for ultra-classy day wear that was also easy to enjoy,” said Vangi. “Women with very specific tastes, busy with work and who felt perfect wearing Celine,” echoed Nardiello.
To satisfy women like these, retailers will have to scout elsewhere. Some looks by Chloé or Givenchy were mentioned as possible alternatives. A few buyers were also won over by the timeless style and quality of the looks by Gabriela Hearst, a Uruguayan-born designer now working in the USA. The same goes for The Row, another luxury US label, masterminded since its launch in 2007 by the sisters Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen.
But the luxury label which could benefit most from this complex situation is more likely to be found within the Kering stable. There are in fact great expectations for Bottega Veneta, ever since Tomas Maier left last June, after 17 years of distinguished and loyal service. He was replaced by Daniel Lee, 32, a British designer and a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins College, who worked among others for Maison Margiela, Balenciaga and Donna Karan... before joining Céline in 2012. With him, a sizeable part of the team which previously worked with Phoebe Philo relocated to Bottega Veneta.
The latter label did not show this season, though it did present a handful of initial models at its Milanese showroom. “The first looks we glimpsed made it immediately clear there is the intention of going down that road,” said an Italian buyer.
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