Celebrity designers were once integral to pushing brands into the billion-dollar profit bracket, but in the modern era, are they still necessary?
A few short years ago, the fashion industry landscape was unrecognizable from how it looks today. Right now, Raf Simons is firmly installed and doing amazing things at Calvin Klein, while Claire Waight Keller is readying her debut ready-to-wear collection for Givenchy. As for Bouchra Jarrar? Well, it’s hard to say what she’s doing at the moment, given her recent ousting from Lanvin. Meanwhile, Alber Elbaz is similarly untethered, Maria Grazia Chiuri is carving her lane at Dior, and Alessandro Michele has assured his legacy at Gucci with his electrifying collections.
Celebrity designers – while not a new invention – are certainly a novelty of the fashion industry. It’s a foregone conclusion that, out of the list above, you know all of the designers' names, and we’d wager you know a good many more from all corners of the world. However, since fashion’s inception, there have always been strong personalities asserting strong points of view in sartorial form, from the first couturier and celebrity designer Charles Frederick Worth to the present day, when actual celebrities design clothes – think: Kanye West and his Yeezy line.
In fact, when we refer to a collection or a brand, we use the possessive format, as in “Jonathan Anderson’s Loewe”. We take for granted the fact that designers are also placeholders for the real labor and talent of the hundreds of people coming together to conceptualize and create a collection, put it all together, and market it to the masses. On one hand, a designer is a figurehead who is praised for their genius when the collection succeeds and, on the other, a scapegoat when the collection fails.
While they publicly take credit for the work of their ateliers, petite mains, and production teams, they are often responsible for every detail of running the business – from ideating the look and feel of the runway show to making sure every one of the brand’s boutiques worldwide is syncopated when it comes to aesthetics. A designer’s job description includes functions that you wouldn’t even dream of, like selecting the photographer behind an ad campaign, designing retail environments, or even making the playlist for a runway show.
In modern culture, the idea of a designer’s function is completely misunderstood. The average consumer has been led to believe that a single person is responsible for the creations they see before them on the rack, but nothing could be further from the truth. In many cases, designers no longer sketch looks, create patterns, mock them up in muslin, fit them to models, re-cut them when necessary, etc.
What they do, however, is tell their creative teams their ideas, and other people do all of the hands-on work. And truthfully, there are many major fashion companies where the designers do no designing at all, but simply sign off on the work of the creative teams that actually create the collections from start to finish. When you see a designer like Azzedine Alaïa in the studio, physically crafting his looks himself, it is something of a phenomenon.
Then there is the function of collections themselves, which are not the profit-generating goldmines they appear to be, especially given all the fuss that goes into presenting them at Fashion Week. Many design teams create looks for the runway that are never put into production, which is confusing for the consumer who does not know what will eventually be available commercially until it hits the retail shelves. And that factor is determined by buyers.
The real way brands make money is with their more accessible products – namely perfume and accessories. These two categories are the bread and butter of every brand, bringing in the major portion of profit every quarter. Licensing is also a huge part of a brand's economy, but it presents a risk since licensing a name too much can completely diffuse its appeal. That’s exactly what happened at Burberry before Christopher Bailey was brought on. The over-licensed brand was negatively impacted by downmarket apparel bearing its signature checkered tartan, and one of Bailey's best acts as Creative Director was buying back licenses, followed by centralizing design and bringing the legendary British house back to its heritage roots.
Bailey is a great example of what a present-day designer is: a fusion of business acumen and creativity. To make it in the industry, you have to be able to operate with your left and your right brain – or at least have a partner who compensates wherever you lack. One of the most famous examples of an ideal design partnership was Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. The latter handled the business and made tough behind-the-scenes decisions, while the former occupied the spotlight. Without the two working in tandem to establish their legacy, the present-day Saint Laurent brand would never have become Kering’s crowning jewel.
So if other people are actually doing the hands-on design work, while trusted partners take care of the technical side of running a business, what does a celebrity designer actually do? As the Creative Director of a brand, they are tasked not with creating fantasy clothes that every man, woman, and child wants to wear forever, but with turning a quarterly profit in order to benefit shareholders. As the Creative Director, they have to oversee everything and they're also responsible for everything. So, wouldn’t it make more sense to outright install a businessman at the helm of a major fashion house? Why are designers needed at all?
Brands are companies that are often owned by parent corporations like LVMH and Kering. It would seem logical that, as companies attempting to turn a profit, they would just stick a “suit” in the position. However, fashion is also an emotional factor in human lives, acting as non-verbal communication that transmits messages about the wearer and his/her values to the outside world. Therefore, the celebrity designer is important because people understand fashion through the lens of the people who create it.
Translation: They are needed because they represent the brand's vision in an easy-to-digest package. For example, Karl Lagerfeld’s larger-than-life personality contributes heavily to the perception of his collections. People connect to Chanel because of its fierce founder, Gabrielle Chanel, and stay connected to it through Lagerfeld’s incredible vision. Or take Donatella Versace, for instance, who is such an icon in the fashion world that Riccardo Tisci tapped her to star in a campaign for Givenchy – which is ostensibly competition.
While it’s clear that the industry’s shifts have necessitated a change to the job description, designers are still important. However, we would argue that the idea of the celebrity designer will likely fade. The constant upheaval of hirings and firings means people no longer associate certain designers with certain aesthetics. For all intents and purposes, Lagerfeld is Chanel, but he’s part of the old vanguard. With three-year contracts and no real loyalty to any one house (and vice versa), younger designers are no longer seeking out positions that tie them to one idea of fashion forever.
In order to maintain relevancy despite the brand that employs them, today’s designer must embrace the idea of becoming a brand in-and-of themselves. For instance, if Gucci decides to get rid of Michele for some reason, his vision is so thoroughly articulated and unique that he has become a prophet of fashion's future, a self-branded magpie with a crystal ball that predicts what's next. He will survive the radically and rapidly changing tide of fashion, and others like him with clear sartorial visions will flourish as well. The worst thing a designer could do today is to pledge allegiance to a brand forever because, in the world of business, loyalty has disappeared along with job security.