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1 de agosto de 2011

European vs American luxury: is there a difference?

by Vanessa Friedman

Is there a difference between European and American luxury? And if so, does it have to do with aesthetics, or markets?

I’ve been pondering this ever since the news broke that, after a year of rumours, Andrew Rosen, the great NY garmento who founded Theory and re-invented Helmut Lang, and John Howard of Irving Place Capitol (a fashion-focused private equity fund) plus a few other investors, finally bought Permira’s stake in US brand Proenza Schouler. Proenza, of course, is perhaps the hottest of all the new generation of American fashion names. It is designed by Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez, who have won designer of the year at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards twice, and it has been 45 per cent owned by Valentino Fashion Group since 2007.

Conventional wisdom always had it that Valentino bought the brand with an eye toward installing Mssrs McCullough and Hernandez at the group’s eponymous brand, but when the European private equity firm Permira bought VFG that didn’t happen. Proenza has sat strangely in the portfolio ever since: far away and far undersized compared to Valentino and Hugo Boss (also part of VFG) with a buzz that dwarfed its revenues. Permira never seemed to know what to do with it.

Enter Mr Rosen and Mr Howard, who apparently have an idea. “We believe that the Proenza business is the future of American luxury, and uniquely poised to compete in a global marketplace, which is currently dominated by European designers,” they announced in an official release. (Note: they bought their Proenza stake, for an undisclosed sum, as private investors.)

Now, let’s consider that statement. Why didn’t they say “the future of luxury” full stop? Why qualify it with “American”?

On first glance you’d think it would have to do with style, that the point of difference for the brand was some sort of Yankee aesthetic that set it apart from those “European” designers and identified it as American. But Proenza often seems more design-led than many of its NY fashion week peers such as The Row, Jason Wu, and Derek Lam, which are more rooted in the American sports wear tradition of combining super-luxurious materials with super-uncomplicated shapes (that are actually very complicated to proportion correctly – but we’ll leave that for now). This is one of the reasons VFG bought them it the first place; its work does not, in fact, scream “American!” It sort of whispers “cool chic.”

I think the thing that makes Proenza American is: it is based in the US. Which sounds like a ridiculous distinction, but when it comes to launching a fashion business and negotiating issues of production, factories, distribution, copyright protection, retail relationships are meaningful. It is, in fact, one of the reasons so many American brands find it hard to crack Europe, and why so many European brands still see their US business as in the early stages. The logistics of the markets are different, and complicated to parse.

At one point, this might have been behind Proenza’s decision to team up with VFG – a European investor should theoretically be able to help a US brand crack Europe – but you clearly need a critical mass first, which Proenza didn’t have. By contrast, to have a backer who knows the NY fashion world from 7th Avenue up, is probably a faster route to developing a business, and on the base of a solid local business is international expansion built. In a world where young fashion businesses often receive outsize attention, it’s a worthy lesson for us all.

No pun intended.

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