Versace, Versace: So Good They Killed Him Twice?

With the announcement that Versace is to be bought by Michael Kors, hardcore Versace fans are up in arms at the prospect that their beloved brand’s products might soon show up on the racks at Ross. Some have even proclaimed the takeover to be an act of violence comparable to the slaying of label-founder Gianni Versace in 1997. This being the case, perhaps now is the right moment to officially rename the brand Versace, Versace? So good they killed him twice.

“Versace is elegance and high-class,” commented one dedicated enthusiast on Twitter. Although not everyone will agree with this description, the takeover has certainly raised many eyebrows: “one of the worst things to happen to high fashion,” said another – referring not to Versace itself but to the buyout.

But does the deal really spell the end of Versace’s luxury status?

As with any other area of global industry, the trend within luxury fashion is increasingly for power and money to sift into the hands of a near-monopolistic minority. To date, the main players here were all European. Now though, to LVMH and Kering will be added the name of the newly formed Capri Holdings: a group comprising of Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo, and Versace.

Much is being made of the symbolism of the buyout: the rise of the first American luxury conglomerate. And no doubt many will view the sale of one of Europe’s most iconic fashion houses to American investors as indicating a significant regional shift in power, influence, and even creativity within the industry.

Yet the move is perhaps not as unexpected as many would have us believe. To be sure, Versace’s designs are of a maximalist Greco-Roman style that in all likelihood only an Italian could have produced. However there is simultaneously something quite American about the neoclassical symbols of luxury favored by the label: a kitsch fable of European heritage that has always appealed to a certain sector of the North American public.

Not only this, but the Versace clan’s fate has long been entwined with that of the US. Gianni himself spent a great deal of time in the States, and famously his life would also end here: gunned down in front of his Miami Beach villa.

Following Gianni’s murder, his sister Donatella became the brand’s creative director, with a 20% stake in the company. In the early ‘80s Donatella married the American model Paul Beck, with whom she has two children. Before the buyout, the largest share of the Versace empire was owned by their daughter Allegra – herself half American. Arguably then, Versace was already American-owned long before the Kors group came sniffing around.

Thus in many ways the move stateside is just a logical continuation of Versace’s evolutionary arc. Perhaps even a spiritual homecoming of sorts. Still, this hasn’t stopped numerous Italians from mourning the label’s move across the Atlantic, and it’s easy to see how the loss of a national icon such as Versace could feel like a betrayal to some.

In reality though, this sartorial patriotism is somewhat naive, reflecting an outdated view of the world and the way in which major business currently operates. The luxury fashion industry as a whole – and the Italian fashion industry in particular – have long capitalized on a heritage of fine craftsmanship. To be sure, plenty of true artisans still exist, but the postwar economic boom brought astonishingly rapid growth in this sector. Many businesses that began as one-person hole-in-the-wall operations soon found themselves scrambling to take on scores or even hundreds of new employees to meet demand.

In the world of corporate fashion, annual growth that is anything less than stratospheric is viewed as a failure; simply continuing to make good quality products while providing a modest income for your family and employees is an indignity. Expand or die.

In accordance with this modus operandi, family tailoring teams moved to managerial positions, and small ateliers were quickly traded-in for enormous factories. Since then, the trend over the last few decades has very much been for family-run labels to sell the majority share of their business’ to private investors. Indeed, Versace was actually one of the very last major European luxury labels to remain family-owned.

Within this context, the positioning of designers as “artists,” and the suggestion that the business is in some way still connected to the cottage industry that originally spawned it can be viewed as little more than marketing hype. The Kors group may not enjoy the same prestigious reputation as Versace, but this is just a question of poor business decisions on their part, not because Versace is run by altruistic creative geniuses. Versace is a business like any other.

In any case, Versace has archives stretching back to the late ‘70s, displaying a strong and consistent brand identity. As mood-boards go, the direction to follow couldn’t be less ambiguous: anyone stepping in to fill design duties at Versace today could probably reinterpret and recycle this material for another few decades without risk of scraping the barrel.

Ultimately then, the idea that the sale of Versace to Kors Holdings will be the nail in the coffin for the brand is likely little more than alarmism. While Versace family members will no longer directly own the label, they will become shareholders in its new parent company, Capri Holdings. On top of which, the Kors group appears to have made this purchase precisely with a view to shifting public perception of its own products up a rung or two, rather than in order to drag Versace down.

Perhaps even more importantly though, Donatella’s continued presence as creative director is stipulated in the terms of sale. Margaret Howell quietly sold 98% of ownership of her eponymous label to Japanese investors way back in 1990. The transaction didn’t in any way diminish Howell’s creative involvement with the brand, and nor has it caused a drop in the quality of design. Similar scenarios have unfolded at countless other fashion houses since then, without negatively impacting either output or market position.

Did people stop eating Ben & Jerry’s when the multinational conglomerate Unilever added the company to its roster of over 400 brands? No. And in the same way, the buyout of Versace will likely just mean business as usual. Indeed, for the luxury fashion industry such deals are no longer the exception but the norm.

Having said this though, if you want high quality home-made ice-cream, produced using natural ingredients, you’ll likely have the sense not to purchase from a company that makes a large portion of its annual revenue from the sale of chemical cleaning products. It should be the same for clothing.

Major-label corporate fashion is a global industry like ice-cream, detergent, or indeed any other: intended not to offer consumers outstanding quality products at a fair price, but to persuade us to hand over as much of our money as possible, and for products produced to the lowest standards the manufacturer can get away with without damaging its reputation. As with any other big luxury brand, this was just as much the case with Versace before the takeover as it will be after.

If you want to receive high quality products while simultaneously supporting the future of fashion design, your money would be better spent on buying from smaller, independent clothing brands. Of course, a company worth $2.1bn will be largely indifferent to such individual gestures of protest. Yet for tiny labels struggling to compete against the luxury Goliaths, your purchase can mean the difference between life and death.

In reality, the Kors buyout of Versace is unlikely to make all that much difference to the brand’s fortunes. But even if it did, would it really be such a loss to anyone but the company’s investors?

Heading photo courtesy Turinboy on Flickr via C.C. 2.0