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Making Sense of the YSL Retrobranding

  • BoF Team

PARIS, France — When Hedi Slimane was appointed creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, last March, YSL's parent company, PPR, gave the designer "total creative responsibility for the brand image and all its collections." Only a few months into the job, Slimane has started with a bang, dropping the first name of the company's iconic founder in a significant rebranding — from "Yves Saint Laurent" to "Saint Laurent Paris" — sending shockwaves across the industry only four years after the death of Yves Saint Laurent himself.

But contrary to many reports, the company’s official name will not change. Nor will the move impact the beauty business, which is owned by L’Oréal. Beauty products will continue to use the original name as well as the brand’s iconic ‘Cassandre’ logo. In fact, the rebrand applies only to Slimane’s ready-to-wear line.

What's more, rather than a rejection of the brand's heritage, Yves Saint Laurent has characterised the move as a return to the company's original branding, thereby "restoring the house to its truth, purity and essence — and taking it into a new era" while "respecting the original principles and ideals." Indeed, Yves Saint Laurent, the company, which was founded in haute couture, became the first Parisian fashion house to launch a ready-to-wear collection, in 1966, then called "Saint Laurent Rive Gauche" and Slimane plans to leverage some of the fonts and nomenclature of that era.

Interestingly, the late couturier's partner, Pierre Bergé, who founded the company with Yves Saint Laurent, in 1961, has also been an outspoken supporter of the rebrand. "I'm very happy. Anything that makes the house more Saint Laurent is welcome," he told WWD.

But it’s not the first time that Slimane has caused a stir with a dramatic name change. In 2001, taking the creative helm at what was then “Christian Dior Monsieur,” the designer rebranded the collection “Dior Homme” as part of a bold new strategy that ultimately drove a major resurgence in sales and influenced the direction of menswear for the better part of a decade.

So what to make of the recent move at YSL? Was this a good business decision? A deft act of retro-branding calculated to reenergize the label while also connecting to its past? Or, as some have suggested, an ill-advised act of ego from a designer aiming to make his mark?

It's no secret that YSL needs a reboot. Slimane's predecessor, Stefano Pilati, who took up the position in 2004, may have helped to return the house to profitability, but seemed unable to articulate a consistent, clear vision to carry the brand into the future. And successfully rebooting fashion brands often involves a rebranding. Phoebe Philo did it at Céline, which was founded as a children's shoemaker by Céline Vipiana in 1945 and floundered under a succession of designers after the departure of Michael Kors in 2004, until Ms. Philo initiated a major overhaul in 2009.

What's more, updating a fashion brand by dropping the first name of the founder is not uncommon. Similar rebrands have happened at other iconic houses. Today, the company built by Coco Chanel is simply known as Chanel, while Christian Dior is branded Dior across most of the company's products and properties.

But some still see Slimane’s rebrand as a case of poor judgement.

“With a company that already has such a strong brand in place, the potential risks of such a shift greatly outweigh the benefits,” Sara Rotman, founder of MODCo Creative, an agency specialising in brand development for luxury, apparel and fashion companies, told BoF. “Alienating YSL’s current core customer is a clear risk,” she continued. “I recommend saving changes like this for companies that have fallen into obscurity or disrepair or are wavering in the minds of consumers,” which is clearly not the case at YSL.

According to Rotman, the name change also risks eroding the brand's authentic heritage. "There are very few genuine maisons who can claim the lineage, history and parenthood that YSL can claim — and to literally toss that out is not only blasphemy, but it also completely misunderstands the incredible value that the brand intrinsically holds — a value that goes far beyond any single designer at the helm," said Rotman.

Furthermore, with YSL Beauté set to continue using the original Yves Saint Laurent name and logo, rebranding the ready-to-wear collection risks confusing consumers.

Not everyone agrees, however.

“From a branding perspective, I don’t believe there is a downside to Slimane’s decision,” Mary Ellen Muckerman, head of strategy at Wolff Olins, a global branding consultancy, told BoF. “The new name signals that change is ahead at Yves Saint Laurent and it provides a platform for the brand to communicate their new vision to followers,” she continued.

“It also enables them to reinforce core values at the essence of the brand — citing youth, freedom and modernity from the 1966 Saint Laurent Rive Gauche line as inspiration for the change. Yves Saint Laurent has done well to communicate their rationale for the change and the historical precedent it draws from,” added Muckerman.

Indeed, she sees the decision as a rather shrewd marketing manoeuvre. “When a company makes a bold or highly visible move like this, they are given a unique opportunity to tell their story on a broad stage,” Muckerman explained. “Since the announcement, the legacy of the YSL brand has been at the forefront of media attention. This is an opportunity for them to strengthen their heritage while building anticipation for Slimane’s debut collection for the Spring 2013 season.”

But so far, online reaction has been mixed, and many industry insiders, fashion bloggers and end consumers alike have taken to social media to express their disapproval.

So how should YSL respond?

“The real response will be in their behaviour,” said Muckerman. “The new buyers-only sales strategy, along with Slimane’s decision to move the design studios to Los Angeles and rumoured new concept stores will ultimately communicate their response to the criticism,” she continued. “In the meantime, however, getting Pierre Bergé’s public stamp of approval is a good place to start.”

It’s still far too early to evaluate the overall business impact of Slimane’s new branding, which is expected to be revealed in the coming months. But it’s ultimately the strength of the designer’s creative vision and product offering that will determine the success of the move. “The name change invites followers to pay attention and watch what happens next,” said Muckerman. “It ties considerable significance to his first few collections.”

Indeed, with buyers-only appointments now concluded for what YSL has been calling a “transitional” resort collection, the first major test for Slimane will be this autumn, at Paris Fashion Week, when the designer presents his first major runway collection for the new Saint Laurent Paris.

Stay tuned.

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