Why you should care
Because her loss uncovers the unseen side of fashion typically lost in all the glamour: It’s a completely unforgiving business, first and foremost.
The fashion world was shocked and saddened by the apparent suicide of designer and stylist L’Wren Scott on Monday in her New York home. But almost as astonishing, at least to those looking from the outside in, was the news that her 7-year-old business was deep in the red, owing millions of dollars.
For fashion insiders, however, this was not altogether surprising.
It’s extremely difficult to create and maintain high-end fashion collections these days. Glamorous brands — like the one Scott cultivated — often mask a shaky business. For every critical and commercial success like Ralph Lauren or Michael Kors, there are countless others who are unable to survive the considerable challenges the fashion industry presents. And this, coupled with fashion’s seasonal treadmill of public accolades and withering rejection, can cause a great deal of private pain.
Scott’s is the third high-profile fashion suicide in six years.
Pain that isn’t new to the fashion world.
Marc Jacobs has been frank about his fight with tobacco addiction and drug use. The very public meltdown of John Galliano cost the once-celebrated designer his perch at Dior and the adulation of the fashion press. And Scott’s is the third high-profile fashion suicide in six years. The first was Isabella “Issie” Blow, a stylist and fashion editor who took her own life in 2007. Three years later, designer Alexander McQueen (following the death of his mother, Joyce) hung himself. Three suicides in six years in one industry is not the kind of statistic that makes waves. But for some of us, it feels tremendous.
What we’re left with is what we remember of Scott.
Over 6 feet tall, with long dark hair, Scott, 49, was a successful former model and gifted stylist who had dressed the likes of Madonna, Ellen Barkin and first lady Michelle Obama even before she met Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. She introduced an eponymous fashion line in 2006, and began to attract attention as much for her womanly silhouettes and expensive fabrics as for her relationship with the rock music legend.
It must’ve been hard to push Scott’s elegant aesthetic beyond this clubby atmosphere.
Scott was her own best muse. She believed in classic clothes that emphasized a woman’s figure, both for herself and for her customer. A black, calf-length sheath with a white inset at the neckline and an elegantly sexy, body-hugging look grazing the knee were typical of her designs. More recently, inspired by the work of artist Gustav Klimt, she created her signature sheath in colorful prints of intense blue, orange and yellow.
Still, Scott’s work was not widely known outside of fashion and Hollywood. The collection was carried by precious few retailers, among them the discerning Kirna Zabete and Barneys.
Yet even as her brand faced obstacles, she possessed the right sensibilities, introducing categories with the potential for big profit margins like handbags, eyeglasses and fragrance. Just last year, she sought to make her name more recognizable and reach a wider audience by collaborating with Banana Republic to create the Banana Republic L’Wren Scott Collection for holiday selling.
It had its strengths and weaknesses, and illustrated the tricky business of expanding a luxury brand. Sequined cardigans fit well into the lives of women who expect Banana Republic to provide them with understated, uncomplicated workwear with a smidgen of trendiness. But fitted sheaths, like the ones Scott favored, are unforgiving and difficult for everyday women to wear.
Scott had long been ready to go mass. Some time ago she had expressed interest in collaborating with eBay to introduce a line for plus-size women.
Still, Scott’s forays into beauty and handbags were another route she took to grow her business, one that undoubtedly ate up wads of money without a commensurate increase in demand. Her shows were an elite affair, with lunch served to a few hand-picked editors and retailers who got to dine with Jagger.
It must’ve been hard to push Scott’s elegant aesthetic much farther beyond this clubby atmosphere. The money required to build a luxury brand has reached absurd heights compared with, say, 50 years ago, when designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein started their companies.
And there’s a certain lightning-in-a-bottle aspect to it. Designers used to hope for a hot item that would catapult them to, if not stardom, then at least to comfortable solvency. Lauren found it in polo shirts; Klein in fragrance and underwear modeled by Marky Mark. For Miuccia Prada, it was a black nylon handbag.
Now, there’s another possibility for success: television. But, again, only a few are lucky. At the same time that the talented Scott was attempting to build her own brand in small, precise steps, Michael Kors was skyrocketing to fame and a level of financial success that now assures the continuation of his luxury business for decades to come after several bumpy years. For the once-bankrupt Kors (who reportedly had debts of $1.4 million at the time) appearing on the Bravo show Project Runway provided the fuel most designer brands need for liftoff and helped attract the deep-pocketed financing necessary for a brand to take flight to sustained growth.
Perhaps it was all too much for the former Louann Bambrough from Utah — who became the glamorous L’Wren Scott — to fit into a world where fantasies are spun from silks and satins, but where an uglier, rougher reality is never far away. She made beautiful, elegant clothes, we must remember. But in the end, the harsh exigencies of the business may have trumped her considerable creativity.