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DKNY designers Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwelle Osborne after DKNY’s Fall 2016 show Photo: Edward James

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How Are the Public School Guys Actually Doing at DKNY?

Don't count Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow out just yet

Last spring, everything appeared to be coming up DKNY. The brand acquired the hottest fashion duo without the last name Gvasalia; Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School. And DKNY’s history, plus Public School’s track record, is intertwined with trends that have fully resurfaced in the here and now: logomania! ‘90s nostalgia! "streetwear-meets-high-fashion!" However, none of that seemed to matter this July when LVMH, the legendary French luxury conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, and Dior (to name just a few), jumped ship and sold the brand off to G-III — before the Public School boys could even get their sea legs.

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At the time of the sale, LVMH chairmen Pierre-Yves Roussel cast aside theories that it had anything to do with Osborne and Chow’s chops. "Our decision had nothing to do with the creative casting," Roussel told Business of Fashion. "I still believe that the brand can be really big." And there’s strong evidence to suggest he wasn’t just spouting niceties.

The first is that G-III brought Roussel an offer that actually made him money. LVMH bought DKNY’s trademark in for $450 million in 2000 and sold it for $650 million. "I think [LVMH] saw this was their one chance to sell Donna Karan NY before no one else would ever want to do that," Mashable’s former fashion reporter David Yi says. "It was opportunistic and they went for it." Reuters also reported in July that DKNY’s sales likely sit in between $450 million to $500 million, so no matter how you look at this, LVMH made money. Why can’t this just be a smart business move by a business and not a damnation of DKNY?

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

DKNY has made at least one party some cash; now it needs to do the same for itself and its new parent company G-III. (DKNY and G-III did not respond to our requests for comment.) We forget, maybe because Public School’s rise through the fashion industry has been so meteoric — the label won the CFDA/Vogue fashion fund award for rising designers in 2013 and then just one year later CFDA’s menswear designer of the year in 2014 — that the Public School guys have only gotten in two seasons at their new home! Two! Yi calls the first one, spring 2016, a "cleansing of the palette" created in the hopes of not scaring off the brand’s loyal customers, who Yi says were accustomed to a mall brand. "It was an opportunity for them to say, ‘Hey, we're now closing that chapter. This is a brand new chapter, we don't want to shock you guys, here's what’s to come,’" Yi says.

Chow and Osborne weren’t off to their normal hot start, but they had been at a severe disadvantage. "They had to not only prove themselves to the fashion crowd that they were bona fide designers, but they had to appeal to this market that they really didn't understand before," he says. "This market of being mass and being a mass retailer. That was the biggest challenge: trying to retain their customers while also elevating at the same time."

DKNY — in branding and in clothing — quickly went from this approachable thing to something more exclusive and high-fashion. The purging of DKNY’s social channels may also have alienated longtime customers — even the iconic DKNY PR Girl Twitter account, run by Aliza Licht, was closed. (Licht declined to comment for this story.) Remaking the brand while retaining past customers is a mission so impossible even Tom Cruise would have been out of his depths.

It didn’t take long for glimmers of hope to shine through, though. The second collection, for fall 2016, was better received by critics, although they weren’t exactly warm. Business of Fashion pointed out that the designers got a little too cute with their take on logos — items were printed with the phrases "[Insert Logo Here]" or "dkny-logo-new.jpg." The designers went as far as to boast to Fashionista about logo mania, saying "DKNY started all that," but then failing to go all in on it. It’s hard to imagine stores keeping crewnecks printed with egregiously sized DKNY logos in stock for long. "Maybe they should do it in the gothic font that is on all the band tees," Yi joked.

Photo: Edward James/Getty Images

Critics admitted that season two had its bright spots. "The collection was a brash one, in some ways, with lots of slashing and raw hems, but it boasted more than a few low-volume looks that ought to catch fire at retail," Vogue’s Maya Singer wrote in her review. And "catching fire at retail," especially in a very mainstream way, is going to be even more integral to DKNY’s success going forward now that it’s with G-III.

"I think they'll have to start thinking more mass market and how to sell," Yi says about DKNY’s new home at G-III, which has licensing agreements with brands like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Vince Camuto. "No longer the artistic vision that they had, but more along the lines of what DKNY used to be and I think that's why G-III purchased them—because they saw the opportunity for DKNY to be that mall brand, be that discount brand at outlets, and be that brand that everyone will buy." Osborne and Chow have their artistic outlet with Public School — which reportedly only does about $4 million in annual sales — but for their tenure at DKNY to be a success they’ll need to find a way to balance their exclusive downtown aesthetic with items that actually make an impact in stores.

The good news is that Public School designers have at least moved the needle for the fashion set. Farfetch’s buying and merchandising director Candice Fragis tells us DKNY’s sales are up year on year. "It is working well for our customer," Fragis says. It’s worth noting again that this is just two seasons in. These changes take time. Take for instance, 2016’s most fawned over label: Gucci. In the beginning of the year, there were reports that while critics kept looking for louder and bigger platforms to praise the New Gucci on, investors were lying in wait for sales to increase. Of course, Gucci’s off-the-charts buzz laps DKNY in any comparison, but the example works as a calming swat to the forehead and reality check.

G-III, a company that is more versed in the American market than LVMH, will increase DKNY’s chances of striking it rich and as Fragis says at the very least no one is just sitting around waiting for peak-DKNY to suddenly reemerge. "All change is good in my opinion and I am sure with a new project and focus for G-III, I would expect there to be good support to identify and leverage growth opportunities," she says.

Donna Karan’s DKNY isn’t coming back, and neither are the customers that once made it huge. "The consumer now is definitely savvier than they were at DKNY's peak," Yi explains. "So these new essentials that a woman needs [are] different from what those were 10 years ago. So, I think it will be a new challenge to see what those essentials are but I do think Dao Yi and Maxwell can figure that out — they're really smart and savvy guys."

Osborne and Chow show only their fourth collection (counting its 2017 resort show) for the brand Monday night and despite the gloom and doom that surrounded LVMH’s sale of the brand, all that will be forgotten with one good show. As Reuter notes in its report, you can’t blame LVMH for being impatient in the current breakneck pace of the fashion cycle, but with the cycle churning so quickly a couple bad seasons can get easily washed away by a single good one.

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