How The Luxury Fashion Industry Became All Business Once family-owned, luxury fashion houses have been gobbled by conglomerates. Industry watchers say designers have suffered from a pressure-cooker environment that focuses intensely on the bottom line.
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How The Luxury Fashion Industry Became All Business

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How The Luxury Fashion Industry Became All Business

How The Luxury Fashion Industry Became All Business

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

From peaches to Paris now, where Fashion Week ended on Wednesday. But before Paris, the fashion flock trotted through New York, London and Milan. The pace of the multibillion-dollar industry has gone from luxurious to laborious. And the old-guard of family-owned brands has mostly been swept up by big conglomerates. From The Seams, an occasional series on fashion as culture, Jacki Lyden reports.

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JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: The runway has become a racetrack.

JULIE GILHART: In the past, there were two distinct seasons. There was a fall and a spring.

LYDEN: Julie Gilhart is a luxury consultant and was the fashion director for Barneys New York for 18 years.

GILHART: Now you have pre-fall, fall, resort holiday, pre-spring and spring.

LYDEN: We, American consumers, inhale fashion - more than $200 billion worth each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It's a global change from the old European way of doing business. Dana Thomas writes about this in her new book "Gods And Kings."

DANA THOMAS: Back in the 1950s, the luxury fashion business was small. It was a niche business for a niche clientele. Louis Vitton only had two stores - in Nice and in Paris.

LYDEN: Thomas chronicles the disruption that happened in this old-world industry beginning in the 1980s.

THOMAS: Yes, there were some big brands - Christian Dior was known as the General Motors of fashion.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fahrenheit, by Christian Dior.

THOMAS: This was a business and a nice business, but they were family-run and they were privately held. And they did not have great ambition to be these corporate, global behemoths.

LYDEN: And yet, they were attractive investments, especially to French real estate developer Bernard Arnault. Here he is talking to the Financial Times.

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BERNARD ARNAULT: So luxury industry is key for Europe. It's one of the rare industries where you can produce products in France...

THOMAS: Bernard Arnault saw that Christian Dior was for sale as part of a big takeover with several other businesses in it. He bought the whole group, shuttered a bunch of the other businesses and focused on Dior and decided to take it global and turn it into a publicly traded company.

LYDEN: That publicly traded company is LVMH, a lifestyle empire now holding more than 50 luxury brands - wine and spirits, fashion and leather goods, you get the idea. Bernard Arnault became known as the wolf in the cashmere coat, and fashion became a new proving ground for ambitious execs.

THOMAS: People from Unilever, people from Whirlpool were brought into the fashion companies and applied all those MBA-learned business techniques to these old family houses.

LYDEN: With all the money and power and glamour of the new fashion industry, it became easy for the CEO to become grandiose.

THOMAS: Staff, including his lieutenants, referred to Bernard Arnault as Dieu or God. And they will say things like, well, that's a great idea, but what would God think?

LYDEN: Those gods anointed the designers as kings in a new corporate game.

THOMAS: The businesses exploded.

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THOMAS: The designers made headlines; that was their mandate. The shows were about drumming up publicity, even more than making clothes that people would buy.

LYDEN: But people did buy - a lot. Mary Davis is the dean of the School of Graduate Studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

MARY DAVIS: The force of LVMH, particularly the economic power that they can bring to the endeavor of a fashion designer, it's a pretty unstoppable force.

LYDEN: But in a high-stakes world, there are high-stakes casualties. In 2011, designer John Galliano was fired from Dior after an anti-semantic rant in a Paris bistro - not his first. A year earlier, designer Alexander McQueen, who had always battled depression, killed himself. Again, Dana Thomas.

THOMAS: You know, McQueen had killed himself, Marc Jacobs had been to rehab twice, Tom Ford, when he was fired from Gucci, said he had suffered from a serious bout of depression. I thought wow, there's something going on here.

LYDEN: She herself has a designer friend who dropped out of the luxury game.

THOMAS: It's just too stressful trying to keep up all these deadlines and meet all these desires. And it just is impossible. And you're running harder and harder on this hamster wheel. And then you're flung off into a pile of dung.

LYDEN: Or you stage a quiet comeback, as John Galliano attempted in Paris this past week. For Alexander McQueen, a retrospective of his work opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London today. And their old boss, Bernard Arnault, last month Forbes named him the 13th richest person in the world. As Dana Thomas writes, kings come and go, but Gods remain. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.

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