Alexander McQueen's Legacy Lives On

FILE --In this May 13, 2010 file photo, British fashion designer Alexander McQueen is interviewed as he arrives for the Los Angeles Alexander McQueen Boutique launch party in Los Angeles. According to British media reports Thursday Feb. 11, 2010, MKcQueen has been found dead after apparently committing suicide at his home in London.(AP Photo/Danny Moloshok, file)
"I'm 40 now," Alexander McQueen said in one of his last known interviews. "When I'm dead, hopefully this house will still be going."

A day after his apparent suicide, the fashion world is confronted by a familiar question: Can his company thrive without his inspiration?

Many brands have succeeded: When Gianni Versace was gunned down in Miami Beach, his sister Donatella took over.

But McQueen's work is considered so unique that some are voicing serious doubts.

"It is a very powerful brand, but it's almost impossible to separate him from it," British fashion editor Jessica Brown said.

Photos: Alexander McQueen's Fashions
Photos: Alexander McQueen

McQueen, who rose to fame in the 1990s, was known for his daring and edgy style and skillful tailoring. He is credited with helping to revive the once-moribund British fashion industry.

"Creating those show-stopping pieces - there isn't anyone who does that. And he has exceptional skills as a cutter, because of his background in tailoring," Brown said.

In the interview published this week in Love magazine, McQueen was also quoted as saying he thought fashion shows were going to evolve "within the next 10 years."

The French retail luxury group PPR, which controls the McQueen brand, declined to speak Friday on what will happen to Alexander McQueen's brand or give any further comment beyond a statement released a day earlier by its CEO, Francois-Henri Pinault, praising McQueen's "genius" and calling him "one of the greatest designers of his generation."

"He generated emotion at the release of each one of his collections," Pinault said. "As a visionary and avant-gardist, his creations were inspired by both tradition and ultra-modernity, making them timeless."
A tough act to follow, leaving the fashion world a number of succession models - some successful, others less so.

Versace's death in 1997 was as unexpected as McQueen's, and came at a time when the company was considering going public. Sister Donatella, already in a creative position designing for the Versus label, moved up as the new head of design. But the company has never gone public and acknowledged it has had to battle to keep up sales as the luxury world has been hit hard during the world's financial meltdown.

In contrast with the Versace succession, Franco Moschino's company went ahead using the sketches the innovative Italian designer left behind after his death following a long illness in 1994.

When Tom Ford moved in to take over design at Gucci, he turned the staid leather company inside out to create a brand new sexy Gucci style that became the hottest made-in-Italy label. When he left the company and turned his talent to his own menswear label and new career as a film director, designer Frida Giannini never turned back and kept up a contemporary look.

Karl Lagerfeld has faithfully kept up Coco Chanel's inspiration since taking over as designer at the French fashion house in 1983. Chanel, famous for the little black dress, died in 1971.

"I think a living memorial is better than some sort of respectful tomb," Lagerfeld said a few years ago. "She is lucky, because nobody has survived as well, thanks to what we are doing. I don't mean just myself, but the people who own the company."

In a world where designers often have as little staying power as coaches of professional sports teams, the conglomerates that have taken over many houses have lots of options on the table to keep the brand going.

McQueen himself designed for Givenchy until he was poached by the Gucci Group to put out his own label. He called Givenchy's past designs "irrelevant," but later he reportedly acknowledged he treated the house badly and it was mostly money to him.

Valentino went through turbulent times after the Italian designer retired. His immediate successor, Alessandra Facchinetti, was bounced the day after she showed her second ready-to-wear collection. The Italian designer, who had come from Gucci, said she only learned of her ouster through a press release.

Luca Solca, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in London, said it was hard to quantify why some brands thrive after their founder's departure while others don't.

"It's a very specific and to some extent almost un-measurable combination of matching the good designer and creative talent with the DNA of the brand. I don't believe brands only live with their founder. At a point you inject a new designer and creative talent, and if you can find a good match with the DNA of the brand ... you can inject new life into it. That is for sure an opportunity."

The big question in today's fashion scene is what happens when the company is still owned and run by the founding designer, with Giorgio Armani a leading example. Armani, who had a recent bout of hepatitis, has said he wants to remain as his own boss as long as he can.

Just as Armani is known for his stand out well-tailored look that may be hard to replicate, the fashion world seems to have settled on the word "unique" for McQueen.

"He had a way of approaching fashion - both as a tailor and as an inventor-that was all his own," Gucci's Giannini said in a statement. "That unique vision led to some incredible runway moments. He was an enormous talent whose creative genius will forever remain in the history of fashion. I think everyone is feeling this terrible loss."