Derek Lam ups the ante, subtlely

In fashion’s current hellishly competitive, do-or-die, sink-or-swim, dog-eat-dog climate, all designers have to escalate their game several paces to stay ahead, or even just to stay afloat. This week’s style newswire buzzed with tales of several designers’ latest expansionist agendas. While perennial oddball Rei Kawakubo consummated the Commes Des Garcon/Louis Vuitton collaboration with the unveiling of the first handbag and news of a shared retail space, and Karl Lagerfeld wooed his newest pet clients with his Dubai real estate fantasies, Derek Lam quietly announced the partial sale and expansion of his nascent fashion house. A noted emergent force in American womenswear, Lam, too, must already embark upon new branding missions in order to stay relevant.

Derek Lam is the latest upstart American fashion designer to seek major financial backing from an investor in order to cultivate expansionist dreams into reality. He has sold a majority stake of his company to Vienna-based luxury investor group Labelux (the parent company, Joh. A. Benckiser SE, owns Coty Inc. and acquired Bally earlier this year). Lam said: “We wanted to really make this a significant endeavor, and we came to the realization that to do that, you need a significant investment that was beyond what we have been doing for the first five years.” Assuming Lam aspires to mimic the lucrative Marc Jacobs template (and who doesn’t these days?), this will likely lead to the creation of a secondary line, a fragrance, and the flexibility of price points that accompany such expansion. The CEO of Labelux, Berndt Hauptkorn calls it a plan to “move the designer Derek Lam towards the brand Derek Lam.”

The first confirmed milestone for the Derek Lam enterprise will include creating its first freestanding store in New York’s Crosby Street. This store is due to open in 2009.

Lam’s brand-building business strategy reflects a trajectory that many other young NYC designers have explored in recent years. In order to maximize the scope of a burgeoning talent’s retail potential, logic and viability predicates that the designer reach out to new markets while retaining an exclusivity that delights a specific luxury demographic. In short, one most invoke both aspirational and inspirational appeal. Peter Som successfully helms his own line and has recently taken over the role of creative director at Bill Blass, where he apprenticed early in his career. In 2007, he was rumored to be in talks to create a secondary line, sold exclusively through Lord & Taylor. Trendy contemporary designer Alexander Wang recently designed a limited collection for Japanese import budget retailer Uniqlo, an endeavor that yielded fantastically popular results. Couturiers Zac Posen and Proenza Schouler both boosted their mainstream profile by creating imaginative collections for Target while continually broadening the ideals of their own ready-to-wear collections, artistic integrity untainted.

As for Lam, who won the CFDA Perry Ellis Swarovski Award for new talent in 2005, his longterm commercial intentions became apparent when he signed on Tod’s in late 2006 as their new creative director. He continues his tenure there, even as his own label’s demands have skyrocketed. Where will Derek Lam – the man, the designer, the brand – go from here? With ambition, disciplined focus, and now, finally, money on his side, all factors point to the potential for limitless success.

— Colleen Nika