Usually, the departure of a major fashion figurehead from one of the world’s top luxury houses causes a seismic ripple throughout the industry. Who can forget the one-two gut punch of Raf Simons leaving Dior and Alber Elbaz being fired from Lanvin, one announced right after the other in fall 2015? The announcement that Clare Waight Keller was leaving Givenchy came in the middle of a pandemic, which made the news lose some of its gossip-y luster, but in our eyes, it is no less tragic to see another one bite the dust.
As the first female Creative Director of Givenchy, Waight Keller stood shoulder to shoulder with other women sweeping through the top positions at fashion’s biggest luxury houses; Maria Grazia Chiuri is installed at Dior, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, and Virginie Viard at Chanel. She was part of a movement that made women designing for women less of an anomaly, and more of a mainstream idea. She resurrected the couture side of the house with loving tributes to the designs and influence of founder, Hubert de Givenchy.
Waight Keller met with him before taking the position and got his blessing. She did her time in the archives and modernized some of de Givenchy’s best ideas to astonishing feathered, sequined, and latex results. She was also, famously, the designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress, and was presented the British Designer of the Year Womenswear award at The Fashion Awards 2018 by the Duchess of Sussex herself.
Under the umbrella of the LVMH luxury group, Givenchy was predicted to rise in sales with the guidance of Waight Keller at the helm. With her first collection arriving in stores in 2018, Givenchy CEO Philippe Fortunato stated, “We know that 2018 will be a very strong year of growth in the company. All the lights are green, let’s put it that way.” But it didn’t turn out that way.
Although LVMH is coy in giving direct sales figures for its brands, instead lumping them all together in the “Fashion Group” category, Givenchy never broke the billion-dollar benchmark that competitors like Dior or Saint Laurent did. This has much to do with ready-to-wear’s lack of cohesion and the brand’s failure to produce a signature “It” bag – although we could argue that the incredible bags produced by Keller for her final Fall/Winter 2020 collection had the markings of “It” bag potential.
This isn’t to suggest that Waight Keller wasn’t given a fair shot at her role. She is departing after a three-year tenure, which is the standard contract length for Creative Directors these days. However, it happens to highlight the fact that, at the end of the day, fashion is a business that values the bottom line over creative mastery. Profits over people; all creative industries now suffer the same mantra.
During a pandemic – one that is predicted to cause a global recession more catastrophic than the 2008 financial crisis – luxury houses are being hit extremely hard. Many of the top brands have zero e-commerce strategy in place and rely solely on in-store purchases, but more than that, people aren’t shopping. Why buy something beautiful when you have nowhere to wear it? When you’re sheltering at home, why buy anything at all?
Her departure in the middle of a pandemic might seem like the two are causally linked, but inside reports suggest that Waight Keller has been looking to make her exit from Givenchy for some months now. Givenchy has yet to announce a replacement. The designer penned her goodbye on Instagram, saying, “As the first woman to be the Artistic Director of this legendary Maison, I feel honored to have been given the opportunity to cherish its legacy and bring it new life. I am now looking forward to embarking on the next episode.”