DNA. The genetic building block of all life has become fashion's favourite mot du jour. Ask any designer, PR or fashion finance mogul about their label and the phrase 'DNA' is inevitably thrown into the mix as a pithy summary of the authenticity and quality every brand now craves. And it is noticeable that everyone is now talking about 'brands' rather than mere labels or even, God forbid, plain old 'designers'. Designers, after all, are living, breathing organisms - ironically, the real ones with the DNA. The brand, by contrast, should be immortal - the flesh may wither and yield to the ravages of time but the brand must survive.
That was the message writ large after the largest upheavals of recent fashion times: the death of Lee Alexander McQueen, and the dismissal of John Galliano from Dior and his own label. The former's successor, Sarah Burton, has met with success, sealed earlier this month with the Designer Of The Year accolade at the British Fashion Awards (McQueen himself received it no less than four times). Dior, however, has yet to name a dauphin, despite the sixty-fifth anniversary of the epoch-defining New Look hitting in January and speculation that runs from insanity to, frankly, inanity. Could anyone really see the fragile talent (in every sense) of a twenty-something American sportswear designer bearing the brunt of the Dior machine?
But someone must bear the brunt. Time has proved that the (couture) show must go on. How many fashion brands still have their original designers intact? Not many - and certainly not the names we know, love and - indeed - trust. The most famous is Chanel, a slumbering giant after the death of Coco until it was revived by Karl Lagerfeld in 1983. Revived is the perhaps the wrong word - with rap music at his couture shows, black leather and denim variations on those classic Chanel tweeds and clanking chains and camellias dripping everywhere, it was more like Kaiser Karl shoved Chanel's fingers in a socket and shocked madame into the future. That became the formula for brand revival. Some achieved spectacular success: John Galliano's fourteen-year stint at Dior lifted the brand from moribund obscurity to international acclaim, every aspect from catwalk to advertising marrying contemporary innovation with Galliano's romantic affinity for the Dior signatures. Sometimes, however, something got lost in that old-age to right-now translation. Who besides a fashion buff remembers Claude Montana's efforts for Lanvin in the early nineties, or even Christian Lacroix's work for the then-fêted now-forgotten Jean Patou?
These days, brands are once again looking for a new infusion of fresh blood to revitalise moribund names. As with the late nineties, London has yielded fashion gold, with Christopher Kane now heading Versace's Versus line. It's early days yet, but he seems to have established his own DNA for the brand: va-va-voom but simple frocks and high-octane accessories for the young women this line is primarily aimed at.
That's very much in the Versace vein, but you couldn't imagine someone less like the softly-spoken Scotsman Christopher Kane than Gianni Versace - the jet-set, flash-cash designer who launched the idea of the supermodel and stated his inspiration came from watching prostitutes in his impoverished hometown in southern Italy. On the other hand, maybe that cult of personality is freeing. Versus is known far more for the larger-than-life names behind the name (formerly Gianni, latterly the peroxide-tressed Donatella) than for the actual designs themselves. We have the haziest memories of blurry early-nineties fashion shows, acid colour and dodgy eBay relics stamped with the defunct Versus label, but otherwise it's been carte blanche for Kane to raid the archives and put his own twist on the (you guessed it) DNA of Versus. Whether that will end up evolving into a finitely superior being, or just a short-lived mutant strain, is still up for furious debate.
Some would argue that Kane has it easy: what is it like for designers who still have the patrician founder sniffing and sniping about in the background? The late Yves Saint Laurent opened a rival boutique to protest Tom Ford's 'mistreatment' of his label following his retirement, the aristocratic Hubert de Givenchy publicly expressed his disdain when Galliano and McQueen took over the reigns of his couture empire in the nineties, and most recently Emanuel Ungaro said that surrendering his house to other designers was like 'giving up my soul.' Although, when those 'designers' include Lindsay Lohan and her heart-shaped pasties, soul-destroying is something of an understatement.
But for some designer the approval of the founder is the final sweet seal of success: Monsieur Saint Laurent publicly lauded the efforts of the young, unknown Hedi Slimane when he took over the reigns of his menswear, and more recently Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli's efforts for Valentino were given a standing ovation by Signor Garavani himself. His choice of praise? 'It was true to the DNA of the house.' Coming from him, you feel it has true meaning.