Can Public School Save DKNY?

It’s a funny business, fashion. While, on the one hand, it’s all about setting trends and fads for the industry to follow, on the business side, the big brands are heading in all sorts of different directions right now.

A few weeks ago it was announced that Marc by Marc Jacobs, the diffusion line designed by Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley, was to cease trading. Shortly after, Public School designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne were revealed as the new creative directors of DKNY – Donna Karan’s younger, more urban-focused offshoot line. Although both brands are owned by LVMH, it seems the parent company has rather different ideas about which diffusion lines work and which ones aren’t worth saving. So it is, with the New York sub-label given the green light, two designers just as obsessed with the beating heart of the Big Apple have been brought in to inject some new life. But does it really work to limit a brand and its inspiration so geographically, like this?

Speaking to The New York Times (of course), chairman and chief executive of LVMH Fashion Group Pierre-Yves Roussel revealed that DKNY is responsible for 80% of the DKI (Donna Karan International) business. First started in 1989 as a younger and more affordable version of the main brand (the typical definition of a diffusion line), DKNY set out to capture the energy and attitude of New York in a way that was aimed squarely at the youth of the day. Since then, however, its domestic allure has waned.

Nowadays only 50% of DKNY sales take place inside the United States, yet that’s perhaps not surprising, given the ongoing international allure of the city. There’s only a few cities in the world – arguably New York, London, Paris and Tokyo – with enough charisma and personality to form the entire basis of a fashion brand, so why shouldn’t they make the most of that? Incidentally, Donna Karan’s main line was initially dubbed Donna Karan New York, so there’s no doubt the designer has always seen New York as her spiritual, creative (not to mention physical) home.

In actual fact, the re-ignition of DKNY right now makes complete sense. The brand’s heyday was in the ’90s, and no one’s looked at it for directional fashion in at least 20 years. Both Karan’s lines became “fashion furniture” of sorts: ticking over at best, slowly decaying at worst. Sure, the numbers were there (likely explaining LVMH’s decision to buy the company in 2001), but as we all know, economic stability does not always equal creative stock. While there were signs of a DKNY resurgence a few years back – when its collaboration with Opening Ceremony managed to tap, fortuitously, into the ’90s resurgence trend – since then it hasn’t managed to build much beyond a “throwback” aesthetic. Now it’s time for the brand to create a new era for itself under the stewardship of two names very much a part of the current, and next, generation.

Just like when Opening Ceremony’s Humberto Leon and Carol Lim were appointed at KENZO, Chow and Osborne’s New York is a new New York – one that’s completely at ease with its diverse makeup and the digital revolution sweeping through all corners of life. In fact, this digital link-up is the final piece of the jigsaw paving the way for DKNY’s brand reinvention. Alongside the Public School boys, DKNY has also appointed Hector Muelas as its Chief Image Officer, creating this entirely new position specifically for him. Muelas, a former creative director of Worldwide Marketing Communications at Apple, moved over to the fashion house having helped launch the Apple Watch – a rare reversal of talent after the tech giant pinched fashion executives Angela Ahrendts from Burberry and Paul Deneve from Saint Laurent. That’s a formidable hire on DKNY’s part, and one that should help them keep up with the digital wave.

While it’s interesting to note that Public School only started producing women’s clothing a few seasons ago, the industry response to their womenswear debut was overwhelmingly positive; Anna Wintour is now a regular, and the brand nicely followed up their CFDA menswear nomination with a women’s one. That’s not bad going for a brand that, while founded in 2007, only really became known when they swooped the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2013. Without doubt, their take on what it means to be a New Yorker in 2015 will be a refreshing one. So far that has meant mostly monochrome, sportswear-inspired clothes – like a cooler version of Theory or Rag & Bone – and while these brands perfectly define the NYC look, Public School has managed to cleverly mix the dressed-up formality of suiting with a loose and relaxed “T-shirt look.” For want of a different phrase, Public School makes “fashion for the streets” – they just so happen to be the streets the designers themselves grew up on.

If the diffusion line as we know it is dead, then long live DKNY. According to LVMH’s Roussel, the brand has its own solo identity anyway (“DKNY is not a byproduct of the main line, but a stand-alone brand”). I, for one, think it needs to be that way. Clearly, this brand has far more potential than the main line, and though Donna Karan is still an “adviser” to DKNY, she no longer has ownership of the brand.

Arguably, it now belongs to the streets of New York…