The designer, who was appointed creative director at the Parisian knitwear label in 2014, is alleging that the company has refused to honour her contract, which ends in 2020, and that the company announced her departure without her input.
“We haven't succeeded in reaching an agreement,” de Libran told BoF. “They weren't respecting my contract and asked me to go on Monday. I found myself with my boxes in the street: the American way.”
I found myself with my boxes in the street: the American way.
However, a representative for First Heritage Brands, which has owned Sonia Rykel since 2012, told BoF that de Libran resigned. When asked to produce evidence of the resignation letter, the representative said that the company has nothing else to communicate beyond the initial comment.
Lionel Gorel, a business advisor to de Libran, declined to show excerpts of the designer’s contract to BoF, citing reasons of confidentiality. However, Gorel claims that de Libran started at the company in May 2014 with a three-year contract. When the company renewed her contract in 2017, it “declared that it was fully satisfied with the first three years of Julie and she was integrated in the capital, getting 10 percent of the share ownership,” he said. De Libran also joined the board of directors.
He added: "Julie hasn't resigned. We legitimately questioned if they wanted to continue the contract with her until its end in 2020 since they weren't up-to-date with their payments to her. In January this year, we sent a formal notice. When we asked them whether they wanted to continue with Julie's contract, they didn't reply."
A representative for First Heritage Brands said that the dispute had to do with personal expenses, not regular pay, and the disagreement caused De Libran to resign. Gorel reiterated that First Heritage Brands is not up-to-date on payments.
News of de Libran’s departure comes amidst speculation in Paris that the house might once again be up for sale. In 2012, a Hong Kong investment group First Heritage Brands, then-known as Fung Brands, acquired 80 percent of the business from the Rykiel family. (First Heritage Brands is backed by Li and Fung billionaires Victor and William Fung.)
The Fungs bought it outright in early 2017, just a few months after legendary designer Sonia Rykiel, best known internationally for her stripey knits, passed away. First Heritage Brands also owns Paris-based shoemaker Robert Clergerie and luxury leather goods label Delvaux, both of which it acquired in 2011.
A representative for First Heritage Brands denied that Sonia Rykiel is for sale, but did acknowledge that it is looking for a financial partner to “increase its development and its modernisation strategy.”
The restructuring of the company, which began in earnest in 2014 and included a series of layoffs and the closure of its diffusion line in 2016, continued with the arrival of Perry Oosting as chief executive in August 2018. Oosting, who first joined First Heritage Brands in 2017 to lead Robert Clergerie — which he continues to run — was tasked with turning around the Sonia Rykiel business.
It’s complicated to relaunch a house.
"I had no communications director, then no commercial director," de Libran said. "It’s complicated to relaunch a house."
Previous to her stint at Rykiel, de Libran was best known for designing the Louis Vuitton pre-collections during the Marc Jacobs’ era. In 2014, she was recruited to Rykiel by First Heritage Brands chief executive Jean-Marc Loubier, an LVMH veteran.
“When we bought Rykiel, it wasn’t making billions, but it was a company we thought we could develop,” Loubier told BoF in 2014. "We are industrial; we are not just another rich hedge fund interested in opening 500 stores."
At first, de Libran's collections resonated with the press, and her reimagined retail stores, fashioned after a Parisian library, charmed customers.
“My mother was wearing Rykiel in the Seventies. It was my childhood, it was so iconic, Parisian and French,” de Libran said. “I love the house. I have been willing to accompany it despite its challenges because the ateliers are extraordinary.”
In celebration of the brand’s 50th anniversary in 2018, de Libran was asked to create a haute couture collection to showcase the work of the team. De Libran said that the Fung brothers supported her work, despite not being involved on a day-to-day level.
“I became close with Victor’s daughter who loved the collections,” she said. “They came to see me several times. When Sonia Rykiel passed away, they asked me to stay in the house, to continue doing my work. They were very proud and happy. They supported me a lot. At the same time, I don’t think they wanted to get involved in micromanagement.”
The formation of First Heritage Brands is just one example of Chinese groups taking interest in French fashion brands. Chinese conglomerate Fosun International acquired long-ailing French house Lanvin, which has suffered since the ouster of Alber Elbaz back in 2015 after 14 years in the job. The company’s majority shareholder was then Shaw-Lan Wang, the Taiwanese publishing magnate. In 2016, Shandong Ruyi Group acquired French contemporary brands Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot.