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De La Renta Passing Leaves Legacy to Peter Copping

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  • Bloomberg

NEW YORK, United States — Last year Oscar de la Renta confided that succession was an abiding fear.

“For a long time, I have always worried about what will happen to the brand when I am no longer here,” the fashion designer told Women’s Wear Daily.

Only a week before dying of cancer on Oct. 20, de la Renta, 82, named a creative director to succeed him at the fashion house renowned for dressing First Ladies and Hollywood actresses such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Adams. British designer Peter Copping, who was previously creative director at Nina Ricci, is widely regarded as a good fashion fit for privately held Oscar de la Renta Inc.

But Copping, 48, and Chief Executive Officer Alex Bolen will have to retain the loyalty of longtime customers and attract new ones even as the New York-based company tries to expand its product lines and overseas business. And they’ll have to do it without benefit of advice from the master himself, who was known for an ability to remain relevant amid changing styles and had said he planned to stay involved.

Copping's clothes "are feminine, they're pretty, in that sense it fits in with the Oscar DNA," said Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "But Oscar was such a larger-than-life figure, so beloved to a lot of his clients, that they're very difficult shoes to step into."

Yesterday, the company’s flagship Madison Avenue store was closed. A note on the door said: “Oscar passed away yesterday. Today we grieve. We’ll be back tomorrow.”

Famous Clients

In the course of a career that spanned more than five decades, Dominican-born de la Renta became a fashion icon. In 1965, he left Elizabeth Arden to join Jane Derby as a designer and partner, taking over and renaming the company later that year. In the coming decades, he expanded into fragrances, accessories and homegoods. De la Renta’s roster of such famous clients as Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Penelope Cruz only burnished his business and legend.

Unlike fellow designers, de la Renta resisted offers to sell his company to a luxury conglomerate and subsequently watched some of those marriages struggle, including Donna Karan's tie-up with LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA. He preferred to maintain control and came to rely on family, first his daughter Eliza Bolen, who has run the licensing business for the past 20 years, and then her husband, Alex Bolen, who became CEO in 2004.

New Generation

Under Alex Bolen, who came from Bear Stearns Cos. and initially balked at working with his wife and father-in-law, the company followed Ralph Lauren Corp.'s lead by opening branded stores; there are now 13 in the U.S., Dubai and London. With daughter Eliza urging him on, de la Renta attracted a new generation of young women as customers. While the company doesn't publicize its sales, the New York Times estimated them at about $150 million a year, small by industry standards.

In 2010, de la Renta quietly sold an approximately 20 percent stake to GF Capital Management & Advisors to provide additional financing to launch a beauty business and open more stores. To leverage its brand, the company will need more capital, said Scott Galloway, who teaches marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He said the brand could be valued at as much as $1 billion if it can attract less well- heeled shoppers and said a strategic buyer or private equity firm might bite.

Slowing Growth

Copping takes the design reins at a time when the luxury industry, once growing at a double-digit pace, has slowed. The field is increasingly crowded with such upstarts as Kate Spade & Co. and Michael Kors Holdings Ltd., which are forcing more upscale fashion houses to offer cheaper lines or raise prices to regain cachet.

When Copping was selected, he told Vogue magazine he’d like to establish a bigger business overseas. In a June interview with Billionaire.com, a luxury lifestyle website and magazine based in Singapore, CEO Bolen said opening stores in Asia is “definitely part of our strategic plan.” Ten years ago, the company generated 98 percent of its sales in the U.S., he said. Today a third comes from the rest of the world.

The company has no locations in China, though shoppers can find wedding dresses at one Beijing store. Wealthy Chinese women are willing to spend up for dresses, said Kay Wang, a creative director at fashion label Daydream Nation in Hong Kong.

“In China, fashion is still kind of new,” she said. “China has money, and rich people want to look rich.”

Feminine Clothes

Like de la Renta, Copping learned the business in Paris. The two men share an aesthetic for romantic, feminine clothes. Moreover, Copping has said he harbors no ambitions to create his own brand and is content to design for an established house.

Yet de la Renta is a larger business than Nina Ricci, which has just one standalone store. Copping will find himself under immense pressure to sustain momentum by evolving the look without moving too far from the house style.

Successions are challenging in an industry dominated by larger-than-life personalities, and some of de la Renta's contemporaries are now grappling with what comes next. Giorgio Armani, chairman and sole shareholder of Giorgio Armani SpA, is 80. Ralph Lauren, chairman and largest shareholder of Ralph Lauren, recently celebrated his 75th birthday.

The question is whether Copping has the talent to turn de la Renta the company into a brand distinct from the man whose name is on the door. Chanel pulled it off. So did Prada.

“It probably will be a gradual process as the new person finds his feet and begins to develop a style that is his own but somehow resonates with the DNA of the house,” said Steele, of the Fashion Institute. “The people who bought Oscar de la Renta were not close personal friends of his, so ultimately, people are asking do the clothes work for them.”

By: Lindsey Rupp; Editors: Robin Ajello, Nick Turner and Stephen West.

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