Why Some Brand Reboots Fly And Others Flop

Even for iconic brands, getting back into business isn't always a guarantee

Feb 10, 2016 at 10:02 PM ET

Jane Mayle was once the hottest designer for a certain willowy set of celebrities in the early 2000s. It’s only been a few years since she closed up shop, but now she’s thrilling her fans by making a comeback with a new collection for fall 2016. Mayle’s re-entry is just the latest in a long history of death and rebirth within fashion. But why can some brands slide effortlessly back into the marketplace after half a century of silence while others struggle again and again to find a new audience?

The resurgence of Mayle (and some of her early ’00s contemporaries like Tracy Feith) has gotten a lot of attention, but one of the biggest trends in the last decade is actually the comeback of 1920s fashion houses. Interest in these designers seems to depend on a kind of uncomplicated nostalgia for days past. Take Vionnet, which was first established in 1912 and shuttered by 1939. The long-dormant label was resurrected in 2006 by French businessman Arnaud de Lummen. Several years after restoring it to its former glory he sold it to an Italian entrepreneur, and it’s thriving. He has since moved on to other long-dead houses of that era, which he calls “sleeping beauties.” He has plans to revive Mainbocher, which famously designed Wallis Simpson’s wedding gown, and he recently sold his rights to Paul Poirot—one of the most successful couture labels in Paris during the early part of the 20th century—to a Korean company who plans to relauch the label soon.

While it may seem strange to reach back to companies that ceased to exist decades ago, de Lummen explains, “Brands can go dormant but they do not necessarily lose their values. Some are too old-fashioned, but there are some that are timeless.” Others have also banked on that classic sensibility. Elsa Schiaparelli, one of the hottest designers of her era who created bold eveningwear and had a famous rivalry with Coco Chanel, was forced to close her couture house following World War II, but her archives were purchased by Tod’s CEO Diego della Valle in 2006. Maison Schiaparelli relaunched in 2014 and has thus far met with some acclaim.

Of course not every brand that’s given CPR soars to great heights—even if it recalls a bygone era. Rochas is a prime example. Originally founded in 1925, the fashion house eventually died in the 1950s and the brand went on to become better known for its fragrances. After almost 40 years away from the runway, they again debuted a clothing collection in 1990. Then in 2002, Olivier Theyskens took over as creative director and got plenty of attention, but the fashion line was again shut down four years later. In 2009, the brand was relaunched, and while they have since shuffled creative directors, Rochas continues to churn out collections—celebrating their 90th anniversary last year.

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Fashion brands that emerged during the modern era seem to have a much more difficult time finding their way back to relevance. For example, French designer André Courrèges started his fashion house in 1961 and pioneered space age looks full of miniskirts and go-go boots. His style continues to influence the industry to this day, however his company had floundered and shut down by 1985. It was resurrected in 1991, but it didn’t lead much of anywhere. The brand struggled along until it was relaunched by new owners in 2015.

Perhaps the best example of failing to thrive is Halston. Roy Halston started his first ready-to-wear line in 1969 and quickly became one of the most iconic and successful designers of the 1970s. In 1983, Halston made a licensing deal with JC Penney which ultimately bombed and did seemingly irreparable damage to what had been a highly respected brand. While Halston’s designs have served as inspiration to many current designers, his own company teetered on the brink of extinction. Ownership changed hands multiple times during the 1990s and 2000s, leading to several attempts at a comeback—all of which fizzled. The most recent relaunch was in 2014 and seems to be holding on for the moment.

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Abercrombie & Fitch is a brand that famously charted a different course. The company began as a sporting goods store in 1892 and flourished before eventually closing in 1977. In 1988, it was bought by The Limited and reinvented as a youth fashion company that became the it brand by the early 2000s. But its popularity had tanked by 2014, forcing the company to find a new approach, and their recent relaunch seems to have put them back on course.

While Abercrombie has some history to trade on, there are other more recent brands (remember Juicy Couture?) that are trying to remake their image and find a new audience. But it’s not at all clear whether the fashion world is ready for their comebacks. Perhaps they’d be better served by waiting for the 20-year trend cycle to run its course. That may be helping to fuel the re-rise of Jane Mayle and her cohorts, and who knows what else it may bring back. It may only be a matter of time before some of the now-defunct celebrity hip-hop brands attempt a comeback.

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