Not so long ago, Devi Kroell was the queen of exotic skins. Celebrities Rihanna and Jessica Simpson carried her python hobo bags, and her stores in places like New York's Madison Avenue and East Hampton were full of fashionable clients seeking her ostrich, crocodile and eel accessories.
Today, Ms. Kroell works with plain leather and woolen yarn. With no stores of her own, she is designer, saleswoman and her own gal Friday. After quitting her own label in a dispute with investors, she is laboring from her living room to start a new brand, Dax Gabler. The goods are made in China, not Italy.
"I've done so much growing up in so little time," she says.
It's the fear of every high-achieving professional: excelling, reaching the pinnacle of your field—and, the next day, having to start over.
In both the fashion industry and the larger economy, reinvention has become a necessary skill. Once-hot designer Patrick Robinson was just fired from his job at mega-brand Gap. Paris haute couturier Christian Lacroix is remaking himself as a furniture designer after his label's high-profile bankruptcy. Hedi Slimane, a star menswear designer who left Christian Dior, is working as a photographer in Los Angeles and Paris.
For many fashion designers, the falls take place publicly, but the reinvention afterward happens, slowly and out of the limelight.
After he was dismissed from Nina Ricci in 2009, Olivier Theyskens disappeared from public view for about two years—even ignoring Paris fashion weeks. He resurfaced with his own line, Theykens' Theory. Hervé Léger lost control of his name and left the company—which continues to sell his popular bandage dress—more than a decade ago. He now designs under the name Hervé L. Leroux (a reference to his red hair), with a boutique in Paris.
Hussein Chalayan, London-based darling of the avant-garde, canceled his runway shows after losing his financial backers and now sells his clothes from a rented Paris showroom. This week, he announced he is changing the brand name to just Chalayan and launching three lines of clothing at various price levels, including one that will sell blouses for as little as $150. (Dresses from his runway collections can cost more than $1,000.)
The second act of an accomplished designer often shows characteristic élan. Mr. Lacroix returned to the limelight with his first line of furniture, which he showed at the Milan furniture fair in April. He also penned a children's book, "Christian Lacroix and the Tale of Sleeping Beauty—A Fashion Fairy Tale Memoir." Though it might seem a leap from ball gowns, the furniture—a collaboration with the Italian company Sicis Srl—is unmistakably Lacroix: intricately colorful with an element of wink-wink humor.
Graeme Black spun in a matter of weeks from dressing the likes of Sarah Brown, wife of the former British prime minister, to taking long walks in London's Battersea Park with his dog, Harris. He had to close shop two years ago after several retailers reneged on paying for his collections, he says.
"There was a huge sense of loss and a huge sense of disappointment that the company I'd worked so hard to create had just sort of fizzled out," says Mr. Black, who had designed Armani Black and Ferragamo ready-to-wear before launching his own brand. "It kind of almost dazed me for a while."
Mr. Black freelanced as a creative consultant with Hugo Boss while searching for a more permanent gig from his London home. He is hoping to land a creative director job at an Italian luxury brand. "You have to just weather the storm," he says.
Many designers say the key to their reinvention came from using skills, interests and contacts from their earlier lives—without stopping for regrets. "Nothing's a bad experience and nothing is a waste of time," says Mr. Black of his previous life, including the loss of his company.
Mr. Lacroix notes that he has been interested in furniture design since childhood. Mr. Slimane, too, said through a spokesman that he has loved photography since he was 11, adding that he was "never committed" to one creative medium.
Ms. Kroell depended on her extensive contact list to start her new company after she quit her label two years ago in a dispute over control with investors. Her previous company, Devi Kroell Inc. (which still exists, unaffiliated with Ms. Kroell), had been launched in 2004's boom economy. It hadn't taken long for her to amass investors, a staff of 52 and Italian manufacturers well-versed in her products.
This time around, though, the economy was in shambles. Her launch budget for Dax Gabler (which uses her grandmother's maiden name) was limited to the cash in her bank account. She had no manufacturers and no staff. "It's just me, myself and I," she said last February while showing her new collection to buyers in a temporarily rented showroom.
Ms. Kroell, who is in her thirties, sought advice from influential people she knew from her previous enterprise. But she often didn't like what they told her. She says Ron Frasch, vice chairman and chief merchandising officer of Saks Fifth Avenue, said that "my previous brand was just too expensive." That meant no more $28,000 crocodile handbags or even $2,000 python totes.
"If I want to keep being creative and keep designing new collections, I have to be able to sell them," she says. "It took me some time to understand, or rather, accept this reality."
Prices for Dax Gabler are significantly lower: Bags are priced from $395 to $995 and shoes from $295 to $795. To get prices down to those levels, she needed to use less expensive materials and to produce in China. Ms. Kroell had never visited China and had no contacts there.
Andrew Rosen, president of Theory, gave her further unwelcome counsel. "She was talking about this company she was going to set up and she was going to hire people," says Mr. Rosen. "I said, 'forget it, you have to do it yourself.' "
He told her she needed to fly to China to convince factories to work with her. "I hated the advice he gave me," Ms. Kroell says. But after locating a possible factory, she got on a plane.
Functioning in China was nothing like it had been in Italy. At several factories, product developers challenged her designs and decisions. "I was baffled," she recalls. "It was quite the redefinition of survival of the fittest."
Back in New York, she struggled with money. "Instead of being able to be boundlessly creative, it was a constant questioning and keeping in mind the budget."
Yet Ms. Kroell expresses satisfaction with her new circumstances. Her first collection will launch in stores and on the Dax Gabler website in July. The best part of starting over, she says, is being able to focus on a fresh vision, freed of disputes that had become "a burden that was drowning me," she says. "I'm at the beginning of my career, with at least another 40 years to go." - WSJ
Written by: Christina Binkley