In the early days of his career, Iowa-born designer Tim Hamilton worked for Polo Ralph Lauren, Gap and J.Crew. In 2006, he helped launch Madewell. But by the time he joined VF Corp as The North Face’s global head of creative in 2017, he was best known for his now-defunct namesake menswear line, which he launched in 2007.
It was a boom time for young American labels, which launched amid increasing cultural interest in high fashion, thanks to popular documentaries like The September Issue and online access to runway collections via Style.com. If the fashion industry had its own version of the American Dream, it went something like this: start your own label in New York, get covered by Vogue and picked up by Barneys New York, land a plumb second gig as creative director of a European fashion house and become the next Marc Jacobs or Michael Kors. As fashion cemented its place in pop culture, America’s designer darlings appeared poised to be stars.
Hamilton’s experience at Madewell, a startup within the larger J.Crew Group, inspired him to launch his own label, too.
“There was a lot of learning to be resourceful,” he said. “It prompted me to do my own thing.” His modernist spin on elegant classics was soon picked up by major retailers including Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman, and in 2009 he won the CFDA/Swarovski Award for Menswear. That same year, despite the Great Recession, he launched womenswear in Paris. But like many of his peers, Hamilton never managed to expand beyond that first burst of growth. In 2015, he put his company on hold indefinitely.
When he joined The North Face, Hamilton used his understanding of corporate culture to manage day-to-day operations and work with executives from every part of the business, and his high-fashion acumen to bring relevance to the brand, then experiencing a bit of a renaissance thanks to the rise of the outdoorsy-wear aesthetic, more recently referred to as “gorpcore.” Rather than simply re-issuing vintage silhouettes or targeting cool-kid stockists, Hamilton launched a series of ambitious team-ups that aimed to surprise in an era when collaborations are a dime a dozen. The North Face’s capsules with Maison Margiela, Brain Dead and Gucci, in particular, drove plenty of earned media attention for the brand.
Was there a bigger thing in the last year than the North Face-Gucci collaboration?
“Was there a bigger thing in the last year than the North Face-Gucci collaboration?” asked Michael Williams, a brand consultant who writes the newsletter A Continuous Lean. “There are things happening at VF and The North Face that are 100 percent in line with what young consumers want.”
Hamilton’s move to the mass market is not an isolated case. In recent years, several designers of lauded-but-sub-scale labels, facing unrelenting financial pressures and mounting competition, have been recruited to re-energise big American brands. Patrik Ervell joined Vince in 2017. Richard Chai joined Club Monaco in 2019. Michael Bastian was recently recruited to reboot Brooks Brothers.
Ready-to-wear designers have long lent their expertise to large brands, whether in one-off collaborations or longer-term creative director positions where they split their time between their own label and a corporate gig. Increasingly, however, designers are sunsetting their own brand ambitions to focus solely on the latter.
Traditionally, the kinds of designers recruited for top positions at mass brands were corporate lifers with little, if any, public profile. Aaron Levine, senior vice president of both menswear and womenswear at Abercrombie & Fitch, is probably the most well-regarded of these working today. While he’s a well-known name in the industry, he is best known for making other brands sing.
So, why the shift? The growing difficulty of scaling a designer label is perhaps the primary reason many of these designers have gone corporate. But the rise of Jenna Lyons at J.Crew, who was positioned as a star with a point of view, helping to transform J.Crew into a global brand, might also have something to do with it — even if her final years at the still-struggling retailer were marked by dwindling sales.
Patrick Robinson, recruited to lead The Gap in 2007, was an early example of a mass brand putting its designer front and centre to decidedly mixed results, but the trend has grown. Like Robinson, who worked at Giorgio Armani and Anne Klein before launching his own label, most of the star designers recently entering the corporate ranks do have some experience. Chai, for instance, worked at Ralph Lauren (which now owns Club Monaco) and Marc Jacobs before launching his own label. Bastian spent time at Bill Blass, worked at Ralph Lauren on the buying side and collaborated for years with Gant.
However, in an era when brands at every price point are desperate to find novel ways to stand out, a blend of entrepreneurial vigour and corporate expertise can be more appealing than ever. A majority of these designers also focus on menswear, which is inherently more product-driven and commercial.
“Their challenge is to come up with unique ways to talk about the brand,” said retail consultant Nelli Kim. “But they also need to know how to play by the rules. You have to mobilise an entire company behind your vision, and it’s not so easy at these big companies to make major changes.”
For many designers, the challenges are outweighed by the benefits.
“I missed having help in general — that was the burden of doing my own thing,” Hamilton said. “I like being a part of a bigger engine, driving the design DNA and innovation. I have access to technology, a fabric library, a product development team.”
“It’s a real pleasure to be focusing on product rather than my specific vision, which was very much about me and what I wanted to do,” said Ervell, who ran his own label for 12 years before relocating to Los Angeles for Vince. There, he’s credited with successfully launching several new categories, including a garment-dyed collection, and expanding the loungewear offering, a significant driver of sales growth. More broadly, he’s played a large part in Vince’s effort to cast itself as something more luxurious than what many mid-priced competitors offer.
When you’re designing for a brand, you’re designing into a scaffolding that already exists, a customer that already exists, years of established customers
“When you’re designing for a brand, you’re designing into a scaffolding that already exists, a customer that already exists, years of established customers,” he added. “That’s a very different project.”
But these designers do not have an easy job. Brooks Brothers, which went bankrupt in 2020, is now owned by a licensing firm with no real experience in brand building or retail, only brand management. Vince, Club Monaco and The North Face all rely, to different degrees, on wholesale, where they are unable to control the brand experience or markdown cadence. Direct retail isn’t easy, either, as competition for consumer attention ratchets up online and off.
“The competition is much more serious now than it was before,” said Williams, the brand advisor. “When J. Crew rose to prominence, was Uniqlo really around?”
Robinson’s time at Gap was a spectacular failure, easily blamed on the company’s draconian approach to merchandising and marketing, which has yet to be revamped over a decade later. Olivier Theyskens’ run at Theory, popular with industry insiders, did not last. Chris Benz, who was called one of American’s “newest darlings” by The New York Times before closing his own line in 2012 and joining J.Crew to design womenswear in 2018, was dismissed two years later and replaced with a corporate veteran, although it’s unclear whether he was simply a bad fit, or the company’s business problems were insurmountable. (Chief executive Jan Singer, who engineered Benz’s exit, was let go just months after his departure.)
And yet, the opportunity to evolve a legacy brand remains appealing, especially to those dragged down by the challenging realities of running a small fashion line. While many American labels of the same generation of Tim Hamilton, Richard Chai and Patrik Ervell are still up and running, none have achieved the sort of success that once felt possible.
By going corporate, Williams said, “You’re well-positioned to do something interesting in a huge organisation.”