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Designing Dior: Who’s Next?

Let the (guessing) games begin! Oh, wait, they already have.

Let the (guessing) games begin! Oh, wait, they already have.

The season of John Galliano’s tragic fall raises numerous questions about how fashion functions today. One such question will garner a definitive answer at some point in the near future: Who will succeed Galliano as the next creative head of Dior? Bernard Arnault and Sidney Toledano could look to the LVMH stable — those on the corporate payroll include Marc Jacobs, Riccardo Tisci and Phoebe Philo.

Some observers put the smart money on Tisci. Hardworking, no doubt. And he possesses an impressive buzz factor, projecting an image of edgy glam with deep ties to the cool crowd and the art world, which fashion loves. A pure talent, Tisci has already passed the couture test. Yet in his six years at Givenchy, he has indicated a limited range, one sprung from an aesthetic perhaps too dark and brooding for the global behemoth that is Dior. At least until Sunday night’s show, which, with a growling panther motif and newly quirky glamour, suggested a potential for greater range.

Philo seems like a long shot. The question of whether she could do couture at one of the two houses that allegedly retains a real business in the genre looms large. Perhaps even more challenging: Minimalist Dior? Sounds like an oxymoron, at least given the house’s current reality.

On one level, Jacobs would make all the sense in the world: remarkable talent; proven ability to transform a major luxury juggernaut; loves to work a reference; could undoubtedly do couture; never-ending buzz (albeit with a down side). But even were he interested, what, then, becomes of Vuitton? Few fashion designers have proven as gifted at turning out frenzy-causing accessories. Thus, replacing Jacobs at Vuitton might prove more onerous then hiring for Dior.

Outside the LVMH ranks, talk has focused on Alber Elbaz and Haider Ackermann. Elbaz has everything going for him. Experience, buzz, editorial credibility, retail credibility and, season in, season out, drop-dead chic, woman-friendly clothes. Elbaz is an experienced fashion employee, his résumé listing several houses not bearing his name. He has weathered disappointment (getting the axe at YSL after only three seasons) and worn his subsequent success with consummate grace. As for personality, he is highly editorial yet controversy free, his witty bons mots wrapped in self-deprecation and genuinely nice notions about real women. But Elbaz remains under contract to Lanvin. He’s believed to have equity, and is said to be, for the moment, at least, not interested in leaving.

As for Ackermann: gorgeous clothes. Chic, seductive, adult, beautifully crafted. Still an emerging talent, he carries something of the excitement of discovery. His fall collection falls into that happy category of being reality based yet an editorial gem. And there’s the currency factor: Ackermann’s red-hot status was confirmed by the crowd reaction to his collection, the season’s most boisterous so far, including gasps, a partial standing ovation and that most elusive of accolades, shout-outs from the photographers’ pit. Sounds like a plan, or a possible one.

So, too, do the Rodarte girls. LVMH scouts have been spotted at the Rodarte show more than once. Kate and Laura Mulleavy project an engaging, nerdy take on cool. Extremely talented, they have a young-and-hip celebrity following and a fashion controversy of the acceptable sort already under their belts. Most importantly, in its marriage of artistic edge with prettiness, their aesthetic seems suited to Dior. They have at times gone dark and even hard, with a romance that sidesteps arch. And their exquisite runway creations are de facto couture. Whether the Mulleavys could design two separate collections, would want to or would be willing to put their own collection on hold, and whether they feel prepared to take on the enormous corporate pressures attached to the Dior post, who knows? But the Mulleavy sisters for Dior sounds intriguing indeed.

Another name has also been passed once or twice in the gossip lane — Tom Ford. However, it’s unlikely that the world’s most famous/only director-designer, who now waves the banner of fashion intimacy, would consider a sequel to his audacious, groundbreaking Gucci run. But what is gossip for if not to float ideas?

Then there’s my own fashion fantasy. Anyone on the fashion circuit in the mid-Nineties remembers a series of haute-inspired shows by Yohji Yamamoto, including one in which he made specific Dior references. That series remains one of the most remarkable and memorable I’ve seen.

Such musings make for a fun ride-to-the-next-show game. Yet how Dior approaches this very high-profile appointment is about more than the available talent pool. The industry is now very different than it was back in 1996 when Galliano headed for Dior after a one-season term at Givenchy, where he was succeeded by Alexander McQueen. Unless I’m romanticizing the past, back then, gorgeous design was still seen as a path toward developing, and, if lucky, exploding a business (again, if memory serves, business was still the conversational word, yet to be replaced by brand). Today, it sometimes seems that great design is just one of many tools in the global brand-building process.

In 1996, when Gianfranco Ferré was shown the Dior door, it was very clear that his entire creative ethos was going with him. The installment of Galliano at Dior and McQueen at Givenchy signaled LVMH’s desire to make waves. Here were two dazzling talents of the enfant terrible ilk; their purpose was to rattle the status quo. Today’s talented enfants, at least the ones getting the attention, are more likely to be concerned with rattling the chain handles on the bags anchoring their burgeoning accessories businesses. That’s not bad, just different.

And possibly savvier. Eventually, Galliano and McQueen’s rattling charmed less and irritated more, and they were expected to channel their creative outbursts into more commercially friendly material. As my colleague Miles Socha noted in his feature on the designer’s dismissal last week, Dior eventually moved away from Galliano-directed advertising toward tamer, brand-centric campaigns.

The reality is that the Dior fashion house is now a supporting player to the Dior luxury brand, a condition not unique in today’s industry. Thus, whether its newly appointed designer will be allowed to chart a whole new creative path, or whether he, she or they will be given clear, not-to-be-crossed parameters, will ultimately impact the appointment. Dior is, after all, Bernard Arnault’s most emotionally prized jewel.

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On another topic somehow perversely related, where is the outrage over the analogy drawn by Patrick Thomas, chief executive officer of the allegedly refined Hermès, in front of a roomful of journalists, no less? WWD’s Joelle Diderich’s reports that, explaining his distaste for what he considers Arnault’s overt takeover efforts, Thomas said, “If you want to seduce a beautiful woman, you don’t start by raping her from behind.” Just wondering.