In love, opposites attract, they say. In the best cases, the result is more than the sum of two parts. When Margaretha and Wolfgang Ley married in 1974, she was a former model with a knack for design, while he was an ambitious businessman looking for new challenges. Together they founded a knitwear production company in Munich. Established in 1976, the Escada label was soon to become the only German luxury brand of global renown. The name comes from an Irish racehorse. The brilliant colours of Spain and the extravagant world of racing were perfect codes for the style associated with the company: showy, luxurious, conspicuous. From the first, Escada saw itself as a “phalanx against posh pallor and exquisite spareness.”
The couple complemented each other splendidly. He dealt with the business side of things, she was responsible for the creative input. Swedish-born Margaretha Ley had worked not only for the Austrian fashion house Fred Adlimueller and Jacques Fath in Paris in the 1960s, but also as a designer for German fashion label Mondi. The couple showed their first joint collection in 1979. The sumptuous knitwear designs, striking inlays and appliqués on pullovers and jackets touched a nerve. In 1980 came the launch of Laurel, the younger, mid-price line, and a year later they set their sights on the US market.
Escada’s self-confident fashion for the distinguished woman suited the zeitgeist of the 1980s, when the anti-consumer attitudes of the post-hippy generation suddenly gave way to a new hedonism. The label enjoyed a spectacular surge. The stock exchange flotation of 1986 was followed by systematic development into a company covering all the requirements of the target group.
This was initially done by acquisitions (e.g. Schneeberger, Kemper, and St John Knits), and finally by the introduction of lines for accessories, cosmetics, scents, jewellery and shoes. Diversification was an imperative of the hour that hit the entire fashion industry like a storm. Alongside German labels such as Hugo Boss, Joop! and Jil Sander, Escada positioned itself as a luxury brand for the “working woman with a certain amount of money,” as Margarethe Ley put it.
Expensive haute couture creations, evening gowns and wedding dresses were the flagship side. The most notable aspect was the dominant aesthetic, translating luxury and status into daring patterns and colours. Loyal customers of the Munich fashion house included Kim Basinger, Brooke Shields, Demi Moore and Jerry Hall. With its own shops (soon to be found in all the major metropolises of the world) and ready-to-wear fashion, Escada reached a wider range of customers.
There was a setback to the success story when Margaretha Ley died of cancer in 1992, aged only fifty-six. The incipient recession also hit the company hard, since it was set for expansion. There followed a period of restructuring and a return to the core brands. Following Wolfgang Ley’s departure from the operative business, in 2006 the new management appointed Damiano Biella creative director. The Italian had previously been with Valentino and Carolina Herrera. Under his management, the brand is getting back into its old stride. His emphasis on feminine elegance, deliberately dispensing with exaggerated flamboyance, is quickly putting the firm back in the limelight, especially in the USA. Among new fans are actress Naomi Watts, who wore a yellow Escada dress for the Oscars, actress Hilary Swank, and new advertising model Christy Turlington. Says Biella: “I saw incredible potential. Margaretha was incredibly inventive in her use of colour and ahead of the curve in using top models and photographers for the catalogues and creating a strong presence in the United States. She really knew her customer. The brand just needed to find that woman again.”
Official website: http://www.escada.com/