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The Rebooters

For M’s spring issue, Style.com deputy editor Matthew Schneier considered the recharging of the fashion guard in 2013.

In fashion as in any other arena, history casts a long shadow. History confers authority, which is one reason to trumpet it (Prada dal 1913, say). In the face-off between fashion (fickle, changeable) and style (stable, constant), history sides with the latter. But fashion houses, like fashion designers, age, and history is not necessarily a perpetuation of quality. Classics get dusty. Eminences go gris. The care and keeping of a fashion house sometimes calls for fresh blood. Resurrection, rejuvenation, reconceptions abound. Transfusions are available. Reboot is rampant.

The great houses of Paris and Milan—even the younger houses of fashion’s start-up capital, New York—have swapped their iron-clamped doors for revolving ones.

Labels live on long after their namesakes have departed, whether they’ve left the mortal plane or merely the building; others die for a time before springing, like Lazarus, back to life. The fashion calendar is more or less a directory of the old turned new: in New York, Calvin Klein; in Milan, Gucci, Brioni, Berluti; in Paris, Carven, Kenzo, Valentino, and Vuitton. They can change dynastically (Cavalli, Missoni) or diffusely. They can boot up (Dior Homme, born under Hedi Slimane in 2001) and then reboot (born again under Kris Van Assche, 2007). This is to name only a select few. Time and space are in short supply; reboots are not.

The revolving door of fashion is forever spinning, but the present moment may be an especially good time to investigate the phenomenon.

In November of last year, Nicolas Ghesquière, the 15-year creative director of Balenciaga, abruptly announced his departure from the house he himself so signally revived; to put fashion terms in real-world terms, this amounted to more or less the abdication of the oracle at Delphi. Into the break rushes Alexander Wang, the 29-year-old American phenom whose New York–based line has nearly conquered the world on the strength of slouchy T-shirts, It handbags, and the designer’s perpetually unruffled cool.

His ascension to the helm of Balenciaga’s space-age headquarters on Rue Cassette was all the more surprising because of how hidebound Paris fashion, unlike its counterparts in New York and London, is seen to be. But PPR, the luxury conglomerate that owns Balenciaga, was looking for change, and they found it. And many welcome it.

“When I saw a brand trust him, a young talent, it made me happy, because I feel like we are starting to change, in some way, the fashion world,” the young designer Olivier Rousteing, who is stewarding the much-rebooted house of Balmain through its most recent rise, told me. “I don’t know if it will keep working like that; I think we have to prove to the world that we are good where we are, to make sure that it continues. I think it’s the beginning of a new era and that makes me happy.”

It will take a few months before Wang’s hand is evident in Balenciaga’s menswear. It will also take a few months before that of Stefano Pilati, who breathed new life into Yves Saint Laurent, is seen at his new post, recharging Ermenegildo Zegna. (For more on that, see page 44.) More immediately felt will be the latest turning of the page at Brioni, whose new designer, Brendan Mullane, presented his first exercise in “shining the diamond that is Brioni” in Milan in January.

Elsewhere, the English moto-fashion label Belstaff, having hit the heights circa the midcentury—Che Guevara and Steve McQueen were fans—is enjoying its renaissance under former Burberry designer Martin Cooper. At its wheel (or should that be handlebars?) is ebullient American magnate Harry Slatkin, a former home-fragrance mogul who bought Belstaff, in partnership with the Swiss luxury group Labelux and his friend Tommy Hilfiger, to satisfy a long-held desire to run a storied English heritage brand. When I met him at the brand’s New York showroom, he joked that desire was worthy to be psychoanalyzed. But he is not the first New Yorker to have come down with a case of Anglophilia.

What is reboot? Reboot is a form of fantasy. It is the next chapter of a story already in the telling. And fantasies are powerful drivers.

“Recently I had lunch with the editor in chief of Town & Country,” Slatkin told me. “I walked into lunch and I said, ‘You’ve ruined me!’ I’m from Montclair, New Jersey. I grew up in a normal lifestyle—walk to school, that kind of thing. And for me, my looking out at the world beyond was when my mother’s magazines would come: Town & Country, all those sort of things that you’d look at it and say, ‘There is a life beyond all over this world that looks awfully glamorous.’ The first time I went to St. Moritz, I was let down. Because the glamorous St. Moritz growing up and looking in magazines is very different than the reality of when you first arrive in St. Moritz to the hotel that’s aged and old, and where’s the glamour? Where’s Elizabeth Taylor pulling up in the horse-driven carriage with a lynx throw on her?”

Fashion is the lynx. Fashion outfits the dream.

“When I went out looking for a brand, I was looking for a lifestyle,” Slatkin said. “Because I’m a storyteller, and I wanted to tell a story, because to me there’s nothing more wonderful than a story. You know, I love old movies. For me, Belstaff is a movie.”

Not for nothing is Hollywood, the fantasy machine, its own bellwether of reboot. The Star Wars trilogy has stretched into a planned octalogy (so far). Batman rises, begins, becomes forever every couple of years. Movie myths reset, reboot, reshoot. By some estimates, less than 50 percent of the films in theaters last summer were based on new material.   

And not for nothing were Dorothy’s ruby slippers designed by Salvatore Ferragamo.

Reboot is a form of economy. It carries an undeniable financial incentive. Half the battle of luxury sales is creating brand awareness and desire, and it’s been estimated that it costs twice as much in marketing dollars to launch a new brand as it does to relaunch an old.

Fashion may be the work of man, not brand, but a brand can be turning tidy profits in the absence of a designer. Before Mugler, the label founded and since abandoned by Thierry Mugler, was rebooted under the stylist-turned-creative-director Nicola Formichetti, it chugged along happily, turning a nice profit in fragrances. It still does. Anything Formichetti sells on top of that is so much icing on the rebooted cake.

Reboot is a form of history.

“People are interested in history,” confirmed Nick Wooster, the retailer who logged years at Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman before alighting at JCPenney last year. “Anything that has a story is inherently more interesting than something that doesn’t—otherwise it’s just stuff.”

Reboot inserts its architects into history. “I would imagine there would be something enthralling about following in the footsteps of someone who’d made fashion history,” said Tim Blanks, the editor at large of Style.com, and a critic seasoned enough to have seen many spins of the proverbial door, “not just following in the footsteps, but remodeling the shoes too.”

And yet heritage can be a millstone, too. Any history is history that can be betrayed, and much carping is heard about whether or not X’s interpretation of Y’s work is true enough, reverent enough, or consonant enough with “house codes.”

During a stormy period of Stefano Pilati’s tenure at Yves Saint Laurent, one august critic privately griped that complaining that Pilati’s YSL was not sufficiently Saint Laurentian was akin to complaining that thrillers post-Hitchcock were not sufficiently Hitchcockian. Must the dead be raised?

“‘House codes,’ ‘designer DNA’—that gurgle you hear is a rising gorge,” said Blanks. “I think the question of reboots is colored with more ‘whys?’ than it used to be, because there have been some truly pointless ones. There may have been a point where you could have had legitimate creative expectations—and been thrilled when such expectations were fulfilled—but, in the slipstream of the successful reboots that launched the whole phenomenon, I think the expectations with too many of the reboots we see now are largely commercial—and all the more unreasonable for it, with very little respect or common sense.”

And yet, for every reboot that flops, there is a reboot that soars. Karl Lagerfeld made Chanel into a must-see, a jewel in Paris’ crown, and a savior of the bottom line, despite warnings that the house, when he took it over in 1983, was past saving. “Everybody said, ‘Don’t touch it, it’s dead, it will never come back,’” he said in a much-quoted remark to The New Yorker. “But by then I thought it was a challenge.”

If it was a challenge, he has bested it. Chanel is now the behemoth of Paris: Lagerfeld has icebergs airlifted in from Scandinavia to set-design his shows, creates haute couture, ready-to-wear, menswear, accessories, and the kind of befuddling bric-a-brac (fishing lines, bags strung through giant hula hoops) that few others could manage. This is in tandem with his work for several other lines (Fendi, his own namesake line, a new diffusion line) and more collaborations than anyone else in the business (most recently, with the Brazilian plastic-shoe company Melissa). He seems thrilled by the relentless whirl, and rather than dig in at 70-plus years young, prefers to stir up controversy with hints at who he feels should replace him when it is inevitably time to re-reboot Chanel.

Lagerfeld is far from the only one who’s made merry with an old house. Miuccia Prada turned Prada from a family accessories company into an avant-garde game-changer. John Galliano, before his disgrace, worked wonders at Dior. (So did Yves Saint Laurent, Dior’s protégé, who took over the house following its founder’s death in 1957; and so, it looks like, will Raf Simons, who’s rebooting the house once again since Galliano’s departure.) In the nineties, Tom Ford remade Gucci as the sex kitten of Milan. By coincidence or not, two of his acolytes there, Christopher Bailey (now at Burberry) and Tomas Maier (at Bottega Veneta), have gone on to reboot two houses themselves.

Men reboot houses, and houses reboot men. Galliano remade Dior, and Dior made Galliano; Bailey wouldn’t be Bailey today without Burberry. Even customers get in on the act. Lagerfeld made headlines—and eventually, a diet book—when he lost nearly a hundred pounds with the stated aim of fitting into then-Dior Homme designer Hedi Slimane’s ultra-slim suits. Slimane, for his part, having left Dior Homme in 2007, is the latest of Yves Saint Laurent’s many revivers. His first proper men’s runway show arrived in January.

Few reboots have been as avidly watched as Slimane’s of YSL, which he rechristened Saint Laurent Paris and recast as a rock ’n’ roll atelier for goony sylphs. His tenure has, so far, been attended by roiling debate about his overhaul. “Anything that makes the house more Saint Laurent is welcome,” Pierre Bergé, the late Saint Laurent’s partner, told Women’s Wear Daily, though Slimane moved the label’s studio from Yves’ Paris to Slimane’s preferred L.A.

What would Yves have made of Slimane’s grungy, upscale-vintage take on YSL? No one knows—and among the young guns in Generation Slimane, it’s hard to imagine many care. Not that it’s a strictly generational divide. Bergé and Saint Laurent muse Betty Catroux were grooving along front row. At least one important retailer left the show enthusing about its cool. That’s new.

And that’s reboot. History casts a shadow, but it ends yesterday. The dreamers tweak the dream, remold the shoes.

Brendan Mullane, formerly of Givenchy, is the new steward of Brioni, Rome’s suit-maker of record. Photo by Giovanni Gastel.