2013 was full of surprises — Marc Jacobs leaving Louis Vuitton after 16 years at the helm; Dolce & Gabbana’s embarrassing tax evasion charges; Hudson Bay Company’s acquisition of Saks Fifth Avenue — but none were as unexpected as the news that Ann Demeulemeester was leaving her namesake brand.
Sure designers often get shuffled from brand to brand, but losing the founding designer is somewhat of a tragedy. Especially when the designer in question is someone as idiosyncratic as Ann Demeulemeester. Same can be said for Jil Sander, although her departure this time wasn’t a crazy surprise: she has left her brand three times!
While we’ve had brand founders pass the torch upon retirement (Yves Saint Laurent to Alber Elbaz or, more recently, Valentino Garavani to Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli), but when a designer considered still in formative years does so, it’s truly sad. In the past decade, four famous names left their namesake labels, three of which left the fashion business altogether. Perhaps, Helmut Lang started a trend back in 2005?
Austrian-born Lang debuted his collection during Paris Fashion Week in 1986, and very quickly gained cult status. Known for superb combination of minimalist and deconstructivist tailoring, the designer captured the aesthetic of the 1990s perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. After relocating to New York in the mid-90s and expanding his brand with the Prada Group partnership, Lang became a household name. In 2005, he left the fashion business to concentrate on his fine art career — with much success! Prada sold Helmut Lang to Japanese-owned Link Theory in 2006, whose CEO said they would welcome Lang if he ever chooses to return.
The queen of minimalism, Jil Sander founded her line in Hamburg, Germany in 1968 at the age of 24. Five years later, she made her international debut, with much acclaim, when she showed her ready-to-wear collection in Paris. Like Helmut Lang’s, Sander’s aesthetic defined the ’90s. Not surprisingly, Jil Sander label was also acquired by Prada (good taste!), a set up that ultimately didn’t work for its namesake. Jil Sander left the brand in 2000, only six months after the Prada acquisition. Following a $30 million dollar loss, she returned to the company in 2003, only to leave again in 2004. Raf Simons (now at Dior!) took the helm of Jil Sander and did so very successfully until Sander’s return in 2012. Her most recent departure was due to “personal reasons” — basically a big question mark. Who will get the coveted position now? And what’s next for Sander (fingers crossed she goes back to Uniqlo)?
The biggest enigma in the fashion industry, Martin Margiela launched his maison in 1989, after two years at Jean Paul Gaultier. Member of the Antwerp Six, Margiela rejected the idea of mainstream luxury, and followed steps of Japanese avantgardists, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto, with deconstructed, highly conceptual silhouettes. Needless to say, Maison Martin Margiela instantly gained cult status among fashion insiders. He let the work speak for itself. Margiela himself never did any publicity — only the above photo exists from a 2008 NY Times article. The brand was acquired by Diesel in 2002 and rumours began to swirl of Margiela’s exit. He finally left the industry in 2009. Both Raf Simons and Haider Ackermann were allegedly offered the reigns of the label, but both turned it down. Maison Martin Margiela is currently designed by a team of designers, with Croatian-born Ivana Omazic, formerly of Céline, in a senior creative role.
A fellow Antwerp Six-er, Ann Demeulemeester launched her line in 1985, with husband Patrick Robyn. She caught the eye of fashion media with her 1992 Paris debut, and four years later added a menswear line. Demeulemeester’s aesthetic was instantly identifiable: tough and somber moods with impeccable eye for that fine moment where draping meets construction. Throughout her career, Demeulemeester resisted investments from larger conglomerates and remained independent — a rarity in the fashion industry. Last November, the company released a statement of its founder’s departure. “A new time is coming both for my personal life and the brand Ann Demeulemeester,” she wrote in a handwritten letter. The same letter states that the brand will continue, stating that the brand has “its own identity and legacy that is able to continue growing without me.”