By Pema Bakshi

Do Fashion Brands Last Forever?

Whether it’s familial succession or outsiders being bet on, holding up a fashion brand’s history while moving it forward is a growing challenge in 2024. In the process, how does one live up to a legacy while forging their own?
The Jean Paul Gaultier Fall/Winter 1986 runway show. Photo: GettyImages

In early 2024, American designer Norma Kamali admitted that she was thinking about her retirement. Not in the sense that she was pinning holiday destinations or hobbies to take up in her downtime, but how the company she spent half a century building from the ground up could carry on her vision without her. Kamali isn’t just passing on the baton to a fresh face, though. Over the past few months, she revealed she’s been working with the AI-focused agency Maison Meta to create a tool that can generate new designs based on her personal creative DNA. By feeding the system thousands of images from her design archive, the hope is that it can recreate the essence of her style, continuing her legacy as she would. 

Though she concedes that it’s not a replacement for the work of individuals, Kamali sees it as a way forward—one that is helped by her singular vision. “The model will start to be in the process of downloading my brain,” she said at the time. “I have the advantage of that because it’s 56 years of content, and there’s only been one designer. It hasn’t had different identities. It hasn’t had that mix-up.” 

Some might consider the measures extreme or even dystopian in nature, but when it comes to who you leave your entire life’s work to, Kamali is right to be invested. Fashion is big business, after all. Just as easily as the right bag could see your business’ valuation hit the billions, the wrong one may collapse it entirely. It’s no wonder the pressure is on. With more options for consumers than ever, all it can take is one right hire to propel commercial and critical success.

From just 2012 to 2016, when Hedi Slimane was creative director at Saint Laurent, the French fashion house reported double-digit, year-on-year growth. During her tenure at Celine from 2008 to 2017, Phoebe Philo revived the somewhat dormant brand, thrusting it into the zeitgeist to take on a cult status that lives on today. Upon his 2018 appointment to the helm, Daniel Lee made Bottega Veneta one of the most talked about brands in the world, making it one of the biggest modern comeback stories in fashion. Before he departed in 2021, sales were up 8.9 per cent year on year.* And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, with the luxury market experiencing a renaissance in growth despite a global cost-of-living crisis. 

In recent years, though, we’ve seen an unprecedented frequency of changes within leadership. In what some have dubbed the fashion industry’s “musical chairs” era, brands seem to be falling over each other to find the fitting talent that’ll lead them to command their slice of the pie.

What sets designers like Philo and Lee (among many others) apart in their career-making roles is the absence of iconography that came before them. With today’s digitally fluent audiences, large fashion houses are less ripe for disruption as consumers fixate on vintage. Looking at trends among younger generations and how they interact with luxury fashion, consumers have never been so attuned to the history of brands, with TikTok and Instagram flooded with conversations around old collections. As they endeavour to keep trawling through the archives, contemporary deviations from the past become all the more obvious—and this poses particular challenges. 

When American designer Casey Cadwallader was tapped to take on the house of Mugler, the expectations around what he was going to bring to the table were high. With such an iconic, rebellious vision, the brand’s founder Thierry Mugler made his mark in fashion by putting sex and female power at the forefront during a time when these were provocative. But in 2024, there’s not a lot we haven’t seen when it comes to sexed-up fashion, so communicating the same zest for bodily autonomy is no easy feat. 

“The heritage of Mugler looms large in my mind,” he said in an interview before his inaugural campaign. “What are the ways I connect with Mugler, and what do I want to carry forward—and how do I make them today? The culture is very different, women are very different.” 

Mugler, who died in 2022, was still present when Cadwallader took over in 2018. For others, stepping into shoes has been more about continuing a prominent legacy. 

It was 1996 when a 21-year-old Sarah Burton took up work at Alexander “Lee” McQueen’s atelier on an internship placement from Central Saint Martins College. Following his death in 2010, she quickly took on leadership and remained there until announcing her departure in 2023. Though her collections were characterised by a softness that was distinctly hers, Burton is credited for carrying on Lee’s work with deep reverence. 

“He will always be such a huge part of who I am and such a huge part of me creatively because I grew up with all of his beliefs and creativity,” she said of his influence. “Lee was this storyteller, and I was kind of good at finishing his sentences, but I realised I had to begin the sentences, and it had to be about my stories.” For Burton, the challenge was actually in finding herself in the designs. “We were finding how to be true to what McQueen is—which I didn’t ever find a problem with because I was a part of Lee’s world—but, yet, make it our own,” she added. “That was the challenge.”

Even for her final collection, presented at Paris Fashion Week in September 2023, Burton dedicated the show “to the memory of Lee Alexander McQueen—whose wish was always to empower women—and to the passion, talent and loyalty of my team”. 

But a route some luxury houses have chosen in handing over the reins is to keep it all in the family.

A Max Mara Fall/Winter 1993 campaign featuring Carla Bruni, photographed by Max Vadukul

Since she was old enough to walk, Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti remembers being surrounded by the legacy of Max Mara, the house her grandfather, Achille Maramotti, founded in 1951. 

“I grew up in the design offices. My mother was working in the industry, I lived within the designer offices, and I used to visit my grandfather at the canteen for lunch and spend my time at his office,” she recalls. “Overall, it was part of my upbringing, both from a fashion point of view but also for the beautiful memories.” 

Though her journey into the family business wasn’t assured, Maramotti knew that there was no one better to steer Max Mara. She opted to utilise her keen business acumen to help drive the business forward, and now serves as the group’s omnichannel retail director. 

“While I never felt drawn to the creative aspects, I always had a deep interest in the business side of the company, and I felt compelled to explore that,” she says.

A Max Mara Fall/Winter 1994 campaign featuring Bridget Hall, photographed by Max Vadukul

The third generation to run the family business, Maramotti no doubt had ideas for the company’s growth. But having grown up in the business, she says she has always seen the value of staying true to founding codes. 

“There is a real challenge in balancing modern needs, but you have to remember to stay true to your style, and that’s the most important thing,” she explains. “Sometimes it is easy to be ‘tempted’ to be more fashionable… but on the other hand, staying true to your values and DNA is essential. 

“The idea of being independent in our own way of making items, regardless of what the fashion industry dictates, I think that is powerful that we have always had our own voice,” she continues. “Our consumers always acknowledge that Max Mara is a brand that speaks to them.” 

The advantages of working with her family are invaluable, but Maramotti acknowledges the hurdles that can come with it. 

“There is a certain lifestyle that you lead when the company is such a big part of your life,” she says. “Private life is sacred, but there’s a lot of your mind and energy that goes into that.” 

All in all, though, she doesn’t see it as a drawback and credits her dedication to her inherent passion for the brand and its purpose. In fact, despite her closeness to the business, she still recognises when change is required. 

“We must be able to [communicate] our core values to the next generations whilst being open to the changes in the world,” she says. “At the end of the day, I have learnt that we started off by giving the clients what they could have wanted from our point of view, but nowadays we have to be prepared to give them what they need.” 

In continuing to keep her grandfather’s business thriving, Maramotti is also defying the odds. In the U.S. alone, the average lifespan of a family-owned business is only 24 years—or roughly one generation. Nearly 60 per cent of family-owned businesses fail to make it to the second generation, while almost 90 per cent fail to make it to the third generation.

A model walks on the Jean Paul Gaultier runway. Photo: GettyImages

There will always be a tug-of-war between the new and old guard, especially when there are such rich heritages to consider and literally billions to be made. But there are the few that embrace each with an openness that only enriches the industry. Miuccia Prada bringing in Raf Simons to steer the Prada ship is certainly a convincing case, but perhaps the best example is in Jean Paul Gaultier’s collection model. In 2020, after five decades of bringing his whimsical vision to life, the couturier announced that he would be stepping down from designing. But he wouldn’t just be choosing one successor. No, instead, he innovated a concept that would see different designers “guest direct” a collection every year during Paris Haute Couture Week. Having already tapped the likes of Chitose Abe of Sacai, Julien Dossena of Rabanne, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain and Simone Rocha of her namesake label, passing the baton has become a fun carousel for both new and loyal fans—each has succeeded in merging his revered past codes with their own. 

“The whole concept [of this couture collaboration] is about trusting a guest designer whose talent I respect. So I give them complete freedom,” Gaultier said of the process. “There’s no reason to influence [a guest designer], because that puts them in a position of trying to please you. I want to know his interpretation and his vision. Things have to evolve; it can’t just stay Jean Paul Gaultier.” 

It’s said that to know our future, we must understand our past. But just as the 2010s saw businesses thrive in reboots, it seems the challenge of centring heritage is not a job everyone is up to. Maybe we can be resigned to appreciating its various eras for the ephemeral stamp in time that they are, or maybe a house only takes on a life of its own when its offering is consistent. All that we can glean is that as far as the stakes are concerned, on both sides of the coin, it really does matter who came before you and who—or what—will step in after.

This story originally appeared on GRAZIA Singapore.