What will Anthony Vaccarello do? It’s been fashion’s new buzz since last week when Saint Laurent and Kering confirmed the appointment that my dogged colleague Miles Socha first reported back in January, that of Vaccarello as creative director at Saint Laurent. He got the nod when the house couldn’t come to terms with Hedi Slimane after a four-year tenure characterized by rampant growth, industry and consumer fascination, old-school runway controversy and ultimately, the triumph of marketing and image creation over real fashion. That’s more observation than dig, and it speaks to one of the many realities of fashion today.
The industry has moved on, somewhat suddenly, from the expectation that a designer-for-hire will stay in place long enough for his or her creative ethos to take over and become one with the brand. Could it happen again? Of course. But after the volatility of the past year, it’s no longer the standard thought process. The result is the definitive triumph of brand over designer in the power stakes — even if the designer exits on his or her own accord, as happened, as far as we know, with Raf Simons at Dior and Slimane at Saint Laurent. Fashion-wise, it means the inevitable watering down of the brand’s fashion image.
I’ve long hated that most corporate and clinical of words, “brand,” as applied to fashion houses. Early on in its insertion in the fashion vernacular it felt incorrect, but today, “brand” has come into proper usage. More than a creator of dreams fed and sometimes realized via retail transaction, a major luxury house is now, first and foremost, a global supplier of product — chic, tony product identifiable enough to transmit a carefully homed image yet generic enough to withstand the short-term comings and goings of the position once considered the most entrenched, valued and essential: that of the top designer.
Slimane arrived at Saint Laurent with a profile — mystery, allure, a fascination factor, call it what you will. It was based both on his creative output — a singular look that rocked fashion as it crossed over from men’s to women’s about 15 years ago — and by his subsequent different-drummer, aesthete’s withdrawal to the emergent art scene in Los Angeles. It always intrigues when someone walks away, seemingly at the top of his game. What Slimane didn’t bring to Saint Laurent was a known profile as a designer of women’s wear.
Vaccarello does not come wrapped in a similar aura. That’s not to say he can’t develop one: 18 months ago, no one beyond the Gucci design studio knew Alessandro Michele existed; go back another 20 years, and the same can be said for Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga. Their work created their auras.
To some degree, all top-spot creative hires are risky. On the surface, Michele’s seemed particularly so: an unknown — uh-oh! Yet that perceived risk sprung more from outsider ignorance than reality. Marco Bizzarri has a great eye for talent and made the most of it when he plucked Michele from the shadows. The actual risk: inserting someone with so artful and specific an aesthetic at the creative helm of Kering’s cash-cow anchor. Saint Laurent’s aesthetic is diametrically opposed to that of the sexy flash of his predecessor, Frida Giannini, not to mention that of Tom Ford, who re-created Gucci as a modern fashion entity and whose aura had lingered. Today, the Kering cornerstone, a mass luxury giant responsible for about half of the group’s luxury revenue, boasts a designer with one of the most lyrical and adventurous aesthetics in all of fashion. That said, in the early going, Michele has applied his artful hand to the basic merchandise deftly, in logo bags overprinted with florals and birds.
But what of the megabrand basics? With Michele’s ascent, Gucci transformed instantly from fashion yawn to fashion juggernaut, the clothes themselves, rather than merely their manner of presentation, gloriously daring – the nerdiness, the decoration, the poetic androgyny. In Gucci stores, the racks don’t house an elaborately embroidered $7,000 pullover or two amidst a sea of watered-down commercial pieces. The racks look like the runway. Which is to say, fashion-packed.
Segway to Saint Laurent: Slimane caught the fashion-world fancy, first on the strength of curiosity — What would he do after his long absence? Post-arrival, he maintained the fascination with audacious shows that cast familiarity — grunge, Eighties street, numerous Saint Laurent-isms that showed his dexterity working with a hallowed vernacular — in the context of L.A. rocker cool. Customers rushed to the stores, merchandise rushed out and revenue skyrocketed. The items that sold so stunningly were less the five-figure babydoll shown to tawdry effect over torn tights than the stuff of everyday — leather jackets, lean pants, pencil skirts, impeccably cut and constructed.
In that sense, Slimane’s Saint Laurent wasn’t on the vanguard of fashion. Rather, it was on the vanguard of fashion conversation. A blurry line, true, and one can argue that what is fashion is not the ability to get people talking, but transferring the talking into buying.
Whatever one’s personal definition of fashion, the reality is that in terms of genuine creation, Vaccarello has a low fashion bar to maintain. In his Saint Laurent tenure, Slimane championed neither an original idea nor an inventive tweak on an appropriated one. Instead, he delivered retro retreads with unapologetic bravado, striking deep nerves in the process along the way. Can Vaccarello best Slimane in the “huh?!” department? Probably not. He doesn’t have to.
His mandate is perhaps more daunting. Last year, Saint Laurent saw comparable growth of 25 percent — remarkable, and impossible to sustain year-over-year as a company grows. Yet Saint Laurent’s newfound position as a major driver of growth and revenue is now rock solid, and not something the house and group will be willing to see falter.
While Vaccarello arrives at Saint Laurent with none of Slimane’s celebrity aura, he brings a more concrete résumé in women’s clothes, that of a proven devotee of mainstream sexy dressing — short, tight, black, leather, lacing, etc., with a distinct his-hers counterpoint. It should translate well to the storied Saint Laurent vernacular, as well as to the house’s current business reality as a red-hot resource for impeccably executed fashion basics. Slimane’s genius was for wrapping those basics in aggressive attitude — his own, his runway models, the brand imagery — that captivated adult customers, and confounded some critics. That’s a very specific talent. Whether Vaccarello can muster enough of a similar cool factor to keep customers obsessed and cash registers ringing remains to be seen. He just may fold in a little more genuine fashion along the way.