Do Brands Really Need High-Profile Designers Anymore?

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Photo: Courtesy of Francois Goize

Once upon a time – before there were multi-national luxury conglomerates, celebrities, publicists, stylists, and high-profile designers – there was simply the fashion of the day as imagined by a handful of pioneering couturiers. Their businesses were private and their clothes bore no labels; they were sought after by elite members of society to craft whatever silhouette was dictated in court using whatever materials were the most lavish (and available). The original “fashion designers” toiled in obscurity, until a young man by the name of Charles Frederick Worth changed all of that. His domineering personality, style dictums, legendary vanity, and sky-high prices made his name known throughout all of Europe. In essence, he was the progenitor of the “celebrity designer”.

There were others that solidified this genre of designer, like Coco Chanel who was as witty and quotable as Oscar Wilde or the notorious contrarian like Cristobal Balenciaga, who openly hated the media and shielded his collections from their hungry eyes. Yet, what separates the high-profile designer of centuries past from present-day iterations is that these singular individuals launched their own brands, under their own names, in their own houses – and anything they decreed was the law of the maison. By today’s standards, it would be a miracle for any designer to wield the level of power, fame, and control that individuals like Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, or Yves Saint Laurent once enjoyed. There is less at risk when you own your own brand, and can freely decide what direction to take it, which is why Saint Laurent could carve his celebrity status by posing nude in his own perfume ads, or Dior could delay the start of a couture show until his tarot card reader had completed her session.

Today’s high-profile designer is a very different breed. While they enjoy extreme levels of wealth and status, they are also bound to contractual guidelines and restrictive creative boundaries, and experience great amounts of pressure to perform to the repeated quarterly benefit of investors. Because major luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Saint Laurent are now owned by multi-national luxury conglomerates like LVMH and Kering, the rules for the creative directors of these houses are radically different. The majority of designers today do not sketch out collections, drape them, or fit them to models – instead the bulk of the actual labor falls to the brand’s skilled ateliers and design teams. Creative directors today are directors akin to those in the film world, who produce large-scale presentations for Fashion Week, dictate the look and feel of ad campaigns, and enlist celebrity patronage.

Today’s high-profile designer is a very different breed. While they enjoy extreme levels of wealth and status, they are also bound to contractual guidelines and restrictive creative boundaries, and experience great amounts of pressure to perform to the repeated quarterly benefit of investors.

As such, the game of thrones has become very hard to follow these days. After Alexander Wang was fired from Balenciaga, Raf Simons quit Dior, and Alber Elbaz was dismissed from Lanvin, the tectonic plates of the fashion industry shifted to reveal an inner court that was fraught with confusion, betrayal, and upheaval. The modern consumer, who now spends an average of 4.5 hours a day on her phone, was seeking to connect to brands via new, more complex channels, and she demanded more access, and immediate gratification. Most brands had no idea how to react, and instead raced to produce more collections. This built exhaustion and resentment into the lofty duties of the Creative Director, and rapidly, the multi-national luxury conglomerates started chewing up the designers who they had enlisted to create saleable visions for their brands. Perhaps when Simons, Elbaz, and Wang went home after departing their posts at these storied houses, they felt a sense of relief. They no longer had to keep up with strenuous calendars and retail delivery schedules. They no longer had to work long, bleak hours, or had to put someone else’s name on their creative output.

Today, the industry is awash with speculation and rumors regarding designer departures and future appointments. Is Karl Lagerfeld leaving Chanel? Is Sarah Burton leaving Alexander McQueen? Is Maria Grazia Chiuri being considered for Dior? Where will Hedi Slimane go? Maybe, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Maybe the days of high-profile celebrity designers are over.

When LVMH’s Bernard Arnault – the man who corporatized the fashion world – sets his sights on acquiring a new brand, one of his first acts of business is to hire a hip, young designer to revitalize the brand’s image. A great example of his successful handiwork is when he placed the rock star designer Marc Jacobs in charge of Louis Vuitton. He did the same at Givenchy, where he installed John Galliano and then Alexander McQueen. As long as the promising designers fell into lockstep with LVMH’s overarching brand vision, they were able to hold onto their jobs. Jacobs outlasted Galliano and McQueen at his position, but he was also more adaptable to Louis Vuitton’s long-term business strategy, and had a larger team to back him.

When LVMH’s Bernard Arnault – the man who corporatized the fashion world – sets his sights on acquiring a new brand, one of his first acts of business is to hire a hip, young designer to revitalize the brand’s image.

Others, like Giorgio Armani, resisted outside investment, stating, “I can allow myself to go back the office at night, to change whatever I want without having to justify to anyone, and without any anxiety about achieving certain financial results because investors – who understand nothing – decide that today it’s ten of something, then twenty, then thirty. That’s the problem. Sometimes results take a while, and most of the time, the market requires that the results be felt immediately. Psychologically, this isn’t good for our work, because it puts a damper on enthusiasm.”

Once a high-profile designer is secured at the helm of a major luxury brand, they are pushed to increase quarterly profits. One of the ways they are expected to do that is in the creation of a unified brand vision – one that places all product categories under the same aesthetic umbrella. Christopher Bailey at Burberry and Alessandro Michele at Gucci have been particularly successful in assimilating the many branches of their respective brands into a single coherent product line. Bailey has brought Burberry London, Burberry Prorsum, and Burberry Brit under the banner of Burberry, while Michele has announced that all Gucci menswear and womenswear shows will take place together. It is for this reason that a high-profile designer is still necessary to major brands today: without the business and creative acumen to combine the left and right side of their brands, they will suffer financial setbacks. “In the past decade, the role of artistic director has evolved from sketching dresses to creating a brand universe that extends into marketing strategies and the shopping experience,” Reuters reported on Business of Fashion. These brands are searching for proven quantities, individuals who have capably steered other ventures to successful heights. If the brand’s corporate owners happen to find a designer who is as equally good at the business side of things as the creative, like Bailey, then they’d be wise to issue lengthy contracts.

It may sound cynical to continue to harp on the industry’s bottom line and its effect on the future well-being of beloved brands, but at the end of the day fashion is a business, and business will always trump creativity in a capitalist world. Multi-national conglomerates will continue to install high-profile designers to run their brands, and in turn these designers will carry out their contractual duties to improve sales with large-scale presentations, ad campaigns, and celebrity collaborations.

It may sound cynical to continue to harp on the industry’s bottom line and its effect on the future well-being of beloved brands, but at the end of the day fashion is a business, and business will always trump creativity in a capitalist world.

Let’s face it – creative results are simply less important than the person publicly tasked with creating the collections. When Simons left Dior, the brand chose to install an in-house team to replace him while they searched for a high-profile replacement. Over two seasons, the in-house team has produced two collections for Dior – Couture and Fall/Winter 2016 – the latter of which was so instantly, identifiably “Dior” that it left everyone wondering whether or not the brand really needed to replace Simons. However, in the wake of his departure, sales have stagnated, not because of a new creative direction being exploited by the in-house team, but by flagging interest in Europe after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and weaker Asian markets. The real reason Dior is faltering has nothing to do with fashion, and everything to do with business. Perhaps, every brand the world over would do better to hire high-profile business people to helm the ship rather than Creative Directors. At least this move would accurately convey where their priorities really are.

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