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BoF Exclusive | A New Chapter for Vionnet

  • Imran Amed

PARIS, France —Today, WWD and the International Herald Tribune will announce the acquisition of Vionnet by Matteo Marzotto, scion of the Italian fashion dynasty. The move had been widely speculated upon in fashion circles in recent days, and according to sources, Marzotto is not the only Italian fashion magnate who's in on the deal. Giovanni Castiglioni, husband of celebrated MARNI designer Consuela Castiglioni and CEO of her brand, is also said to be in the picture, both operationally and financially.

To add to the intrigue, the next question of who would form the final piece of the Italian triumvirate has apparently already been answered. The new Vionnet designer is rumoured to be the little-known Italian, Rodolfo Paglialunga, a former assistant to Miuccia Prada for the ready-to-wear collection at her eponymous label.

Last night, I got the seller's side of the story. I spoke to Arnaud de Lummen, the outgoing CEO and former primary shareholder in Vionnet, a brand which has been in his family for over twenty years. In an exclusive, in-depth conversation closing, in his own way, this chapter of the Vionnet story, de Lummen showed as much passion for the Vionnet brand as he did when I first met him in October 2007.

At the time, de Lummen described a seemingly impossible task. He aimed to resurrect a brand which had been dormant for more than 60 years, but which at the time of its demise was "at the heart of its artistic peak." It did not end because it was creatively exhausted, he said, rather because it was a bit of fashion collateral damage from the second world war.

Since then, Vionnet's bias-cutting techniques have been used by countless designers including John Galliano and Azzedine Alaia. Most recently, design prodigy Jason Wu, better known as the designer of "that dress" worn by Michelle Obama on inauguration night, referenced Vionnet in an interview with Eric Wilson of The New York Times.

With this kind of reverence in the industry, de Lummen draws a line between other recent brand revivals like Halston and Rochas, and that of Vionnet. He maintains that Vionnet was, and still is, different because over the years those other brands were kept on a form of life-support, through ongoing licensing activities between various attempted revivals. Vionnet, he said, had completely disappeared from the map, except to the most fashion-initiated. Only a very limited amount of high-end fragrances and accessories were produced under the Vionnet brand by his father, after he purchased it in 1988.

Stating a desire to set the record straight, De Lummen also spoke of the two celebrated designers, Sophia Kokosalaki and Marc Audibet, who he chose to head Vionnet, one after the other. The first, Kokosalaki, showed her debut collection in an intimate presentation setting and was supported by Julie Gilhart at Barneys from the start. But the low-key nature of the launch presentation did not translate well in the press, who while impressed, largely failed to pick up on the story of the new Vionnet, a point that de Lummen himself acknowledged.

Then when Kokosalaki's business was purchased by Renzo Rosso's Staff International, a friction was created between the time Kokosalaki would be able to spend on Vionnet when balanced against the increasing commitments for her own label, including more collections to design and more investor meetings to attend. According to Mr. de Lummen, "it made no sense to continue our partnership with her when her attentions would clearly be elsewhere. We needed a full-time designer." But this upset the retailers who had bought the collection due to its link with Kokosalaki, who at the time was ascendant on the Paris fashion scene.

Enter Marc Audibet, another former assistant at Prada, who was very highly-respected amongst fashion industry insiders. De Lummen says Audibet's one and only collection for Vionnet was one of technical mastery, "the closest to Vionnet herself" with a sort-of "fluid architecture." But while intellectually and technically brilliant, the limited resources to present the collection and the perceived fissure after Kokosalaki's separation from Vionnet held the brand back.

And to make matters worse, having grown up at Prada, Mr. Audibet was accustomed to a more elaborate set-up than the one offered by the entreprenurial de Lummen. And, Audibet reportedly felt that he deserved a richer financial package. In a sudden twist, Mr Audibet announced his resignation from Vionnet in a statement to the press, attributing his departure to management's "incapacity" to create the "material and financial conditions" necessary to re-launch Vionnet properly. According to de Lummen, this destabilised ongoing discussions with a new set of investors.

Who would want to invest in a label where the perceived star designer had just left?

In the end, de Lummen seems to have realised that this wasn't his story to finish. However, he says, this chapter was a necessary part of the Vionnet revival which will continue to play out in the years to come. Upon the closure of his deal with Marzotto, de Lummen no longer has any financial or operational involvement in Vionnet. In the next 6 months, he expects to announce his next brand revival project, where he will make the best of the "learning experience" from Vionnet.

As for Mr Marzotto, you can be sure we will be hearing from him soon. After master-minding a behind-the-scenes coup to sell Valentino to the Permira Group after a tussle with another private equity powerhouse, the Carlyle Group, Marzotto resigned from Valentino. It seems he has been cooking up this Vionnet deal ever since.

For a man of his stature and success in the industry to relaunch Vionnet in the midst of an economic downturn speaks volumes about the special place this brand holds within the fashion industry. In the minds of designers at least, the brand is virtually untarnished. When asked who they respect the most in fashion history, the name of Madame Vionnet comes up over and over again. Mr. Paglialunga has landed many designers' dream job.

De Lummen wished Marzotto the best of luck, saying he wanted nothing but for the brand to be successful. He also noted that Marzotto's success may prove that his own slow-but-steady strategy for the relaunch of Vionnet, which brought this exquisite brand to lukewarm from completely frozen, was the right decision all along.

Now it's up to Mr. Marzotto to bring it to a full-on boil.

Imran Amed is Editor of The Business of Fashion.

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