What Does a Creative Director Actually Do?

Justin O'Shea
The new Creative Director of Brioni, Justin O'Shea | Photo: Courtesy of Soletopia

When Italian menswear couture house Brioni announced that Justin O’Shea would be taking over for Brendan Mullane as its new Creative Director, the rest of the fashion industry paused. O’Shea cuts a striking figure in his media appearances, has a healthy following on social media, and has a reputation for keen insight into consumer behavior. The latter was a tremendous benefit to MyTheresa.com, where he worked as a buyer (with the title of Fashion Director) for many years. However, O’Shea has never designed, which prompts the question: What does a Creative Director actually do?

As the fashion industry confronts the evolving consumer – who is so saturated by images via social media that she demands to have immediate access to collections – it is forced to consider alternative retail options. Major brands like Burberry and Tom Ford are adopting an in-season approach that puts collections straight onto the rack the moment they are shown on the runway, which is referred to as a “consumer-facing model” or a “see now, buy now” marketing tactic. When brands decide to go this route, they are forced to renovate their supply chain so that production occurs simultaneously alongside presentation. This is tricky new territory for brands, who must rely more than ever on buyers and wholesale partners to dictate the direction of what is produced each season.

Burberry’s Christopher Bailey spoke to Business of Fashion about how his brand would navigate this new terrain, saying, “With our own retail stores and online, that’s exactly the way we work anyway: the buyers come in as we’re doing the collection, they look at it and start to form a buy, and we build that together. That won’t change. The big change will be our wholesale partners. There, we will just have to work in a collaborative relationship, saying, ‘Guys, we have to trust you. This stuff will be embargoed for a while, but we want you to come in and see it, feel it, try it on.’ It gives us the opportunity to build things alongside the show collection that are more exclusive for specific stores or to create special packages and say to a wholesale partner, ‘The show is on September 20th. Let’s do a special event for your important customers, so that they come to the show or we livestream it to your store and they can try it on and shop the collection immediately.'” Since the rest of the industry is looking to Burberry to pave the way through uncharted waters, it makes sense that Brioni would select an individual from the retail side to helm the brand. In light of the changes in the industry, O’Shea’s appointment appears to be timely.

Brands must rely more than ever on buyers and wholesale partners to dictate the direction of what is produced each season.

His new responsibilities for Brioni make sense for the brand’s bottom line (logic dictates that, if he is a skilled buyer, he could translate that skill into marketable products for Brioni), but it leaves many confused as to the creative needs of the brand, and how exactly he will fulfill them. O’Shea has no experience as a designer, which is thought to be the most important talent for a Creative Director. However, this may no longer be a job requirement for Creative Directors in the modern day. The title itself is vague – the only clear definition we have for it is someone who oversees the process of product development. Since this definition is broad and open ended, O’Shea’s work for Brioni could easily fall under the umbrella of production oversight. Will he be sketching suits for the brand? Likely not. However, most Creative Directors that helm the world’s biggest luxury brands no longer sketch, stitch, drape, or do any of the hands-on work that goes into product creation. Instead, they act as visionaries who direct teams of people to build collections from start to finish.

The term visionary is of paramount importance for the role of Creative Director. If you think that Karl Lagerfeld, who at 82 years of age oversees the vast empires of Chanel, Fendi, and his own eponymous label, is actually designing in the traditional sense (sketch, foile, stitch, drape, etc.), you would be sorely mistaken. Each brand has a vast network of ateliers that oversee the actual function of production. While it is rumored that Lagerfeld still sketches his designs by hand, the rest of his work takes the form of delegation. He forms a unique vision, and then sets its actualization in motion by assigning tasks to his team. For example, when Chanel hosted its Spring/Summer 2016 show at a reconstructed airplane hangar inside the Grand Palais in Paris and dubbed the whole spectacular event ‘Chanel Airlines’, it took hundreds of people to create the show. Some were tasked with creating bespoke check-in kiosks, others trucked in the Chanel-branded planes, and others constructed Chanel luggage carts. The full range of effort that went into this show demonstrates the importance of the role of Creative Director. Like their film-industry counterparts, fashion’s Creative Directors are tasked with following through with every minute detail in the making of a collection. It is a difficult job, without at doubt, but it does not necessarily take any actual design skill to excel at it.

Creative Directors are tasked with following through with every minute detail in the making of a collection.

Finally, to clarify the point concerning what a Creative Director actually does, we must confess there is no single path. Every brand approaches the role differently. Some Creative Directors are hands on, like Victoria Beckham, who exhaustively oversees every element of her brand while also offering no real-world design skill besides what she has picked up along the way; some are just designers who hand over delegation duties to their capable staff (see the symbiotic relationship between Tom Ford and his business partner Domenico De Sole); and others, like O’Shea, are gifted solely at consumer strategy. High-profile Creative Directors are extremely important to the success of fashion brands, but, when looking at the whole business of creation and production, the true heroes are the brand’s skilled artisans who bring every director’s vision to life.

High-profile Creative Directors are extremely important to the success of fashion brands.

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