Why Designers Are Taking Back Control of Their Brands

On Thursday, the Financial Times reported that Beyoncé cut ties with Topshop CEO Sir Philip Green, buying out his shares of Ivy Park, the clothing line the two co-founded in 2016. The move comes weeks after Green was publicly accused of sexual and racial harassment.


“After discussions of almost a year, Parkwood has acquired 100% of the Ivy Park brand. Topshop-Arcadia will fulfill the existing orders,” a brand statement read. Beyoncé was encouraged by activists, particularly the campaign Equality Now, to end her relationship with the retail tycoon amid the allegations.


It’s the latest in a series of designers reclaiming their power and taking full ownership over their brands: On Monday, Proenza Schouler designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough bought their label back from Castanea Partners, which owned a minority stake, in order to “refocus the company around their original vision.” Back in March, Stella McCartney, who had worked with luxury conglomerate Kering for 17 years, made the decision to buy out the company’s 50% stake in order to safeguard her name and her brand’s core tenets. The buy-back appeared to have been amicable, with McCartney saying in a WWD interview that she would continue to collaborate with the French luxury giant on sustainability initiatives.


It’s an interesting decision to take things back in-house. When a designer is first starting out, the chance to be owned by a corporation like LVMH or Kering sounds, in many ways, like the beacon of success. These companies have more resources, offering a chance to streamline and improve production and manufacturing, a channel into big-name retailers, and more credibility. But with these benefits comes, of course, a loss of control and a singular creative vision, all in the name of dollar signs.


An essay on Fashion United described what happened to California T-shirt label C&C California when it sold 100% of its equity to Liz Claiborne in 2005. “The original T-shirt fabric the founders used for their vintage, buttery soft T-shirts was replaced when new production processes were introduced,” Don-Alvin Adegeest wrote.


Investors, often in it for short-term gains, are interested in maximizing profits before selling their stake, which can lead to a brand spreading itself too thin—introducing a sleepwear line, for instance, when there doesn’t really need to be one.


But buying back control also costs money—lots of it. Without the backing of a luxury group, those easily accessed resources are traded for creative control and, often, belt-tightening. Proenza Schouler, for instance, recently closed its store on the Upper East Side, in addition to shuttering four stores in Asia and a second store in Bangkok.


“We don’t have this huge conglomerate behind us funding expansion, so we just can’t plop down $5 million to open a store in Paris,” Hernandez told BoF in September 2018. “As the company grows and we have the financial capabilities of opening more direct-to-consumer locations, that’s definitely something we want to do, but there are no immediate plans.”


In an interview with Glamour, Fern Mallis, the fashion consultant who created New York Fashion Week, said: “I can’t remember in my career a brand owned by LVMH, Kering, or one of the big luxury houses that was bought back by the designer.” Of McCartney’s decision, she added: “It’s a great opportunity to fully own her name and her business. The timing, in this climate right now, makes a strong statement for women. What she’s doing at this moment in time, when women are stepping up, taking charge, and speaking out; bravo to her.”


But most designers, as some have pointed out, don’t have the option to buy out their operations partner. Deciding to do so—or choosing to not partner with a conglomerate in the first place—makes all the difference between building a global brand or building a small, organic brand without nearly as much visibility and resources. It all depends on what a designer wants to be—and what they’re willing to sacrifice.


“Maybe we’ll never be a billion-dollar brand, but maybe that’s fine,” Hernandez told BoF. “We don’t have to be.”


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