Fashion Houses Favoring Unknown Designers

The industry continues to shift away from star talents in favor of appointing under-the-radar types.

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PARIS — “Who?”

This story first appeared in the July 7, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s how most people — even insiders — likely responded to the latest batch of designer appointments as the industry continues to shift away from star talents in favor of under-the-radar types.

Olivier Rousteing, Umit Benan, Alistair Carr and the Chinese duo Ling Lui and Dawei Sun were among those who generated headlines recently by being appointed at Balmain, Trussardi, Pringle and Cacharel, respectively. According to market sources, Azzaro is also leaning toward naming a hidden talent to succeed Vanessa Seward at the design helm.

What’s more, Christian Dior, having seen its brand momentum continue despite the ousting of John Galliano last March, is said to be mulling having a lesser-known person take up the couture reins — if it doesn’t poach a household name from a rival house.

Luxury titan Bernard Arnault, whose fashion properties include Dior, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, has been one of the biggest proponents of marquee designers, having nabbed Phoebe Philo in 2008 to energize Celine.

Yet the man who famously brought Marc Jacobs to Vuitton, Alexander McQueen to Givenchy and Michael Kors to Celine has also experimented with other formulas, in 2005 plucking then-unknown Riccardo Tisci to take over Givenchy.

“Today, it’s not the high-octane glamour of the Nineties: We’re no longer in that stage. I think we’re in a more thoughtful period right now,” commented Vanessa Denza, the founder and owner of Denza, a London-based fashion recruitment agency.

“I even think financial people have become more savvy. They realize they don’t need to build teams around big names, but rather they spend time choosing the right people. I know that for so many of the big brands, it’s an extremely long process to decide who will lead.”

Agnès Barret, principal of Paris-based creative search firm Agent Secret, noted that fashion needs to continually renew itself and, “You can’t play musical chairs forever in what is a small world. Luckily, there is a lot of talent on the international scene who can bring new blood…and bring their talent to the service of a brand.”

The recent flameouts of Galliano at Dior and Christophe Decarnin at Balmain also point to the perils of fashion stardom, according to Barret. “Do you have to become famous to succeed, only to fall from a greater height?” she asked. “Artistic directors aren’t gods. They’re human beings and not stars of showbiz.”

Executive search specialists agreed the potential media impact of designer appointments — which can deliver a thunderbolt of attention to a sleepy brand — has diminished in favor of other criteria, led by raw talent and a keen understanding of a brand’s essence.

“Personality is key as well, being a storyteller to his or her team and to the brand audience, to make people feel they want to be part of the community,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a search and consulting business in Paris. “Probably any top-down approach seems very old. We look for creative directors with an inclusive management style, driven and aware of their responsibility for the business.”

De Saint Pierre noted that unknown designers have been hired by many famous brands since the mid-Nineties, when Alber Elbaz was plucked from obscurity at Geoffrey Beene to take over Guy Laroche. Other examples over the past decade include Burberry’s Christopher Bailey, who arrived from Gucci’s studio in 2001, and Frida Giannini, who rose through the ranks at Gucci to assume the sole creative helm in 2006.

In De Saint Pierre’s view, the trend of hiring designers with their own collection has yielded to a clear preference for studio talents who can devote themselves fully to a brand.

“When several of Tom Ford’s team at Gucci — Christopher Bailey, Francisco Costa, Clare Waight Keller, Frida Giannini — all went on to become creative directors in their own right, brands realized you could mine the studios for behind-the-scenes talent,” agreed Mary Gallagher, Paris-based associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads. (Costa heads Calvin Klein Collection’s women’s line and Waight Keller just moved to Chloé from Pringle.) “I imagine management thinks an unknown designer will be easier to handle, more grateful for the opportunity and less likely to make demands — at least initially — than a star designer.”

Gallagher also noted that the “handwriting” of a star designer can sometimes eclipse the heritage aspects companies are now keen to trumpet.

“Brands now feel that their core values and DNA have to transcend the creative director’s personality and cult status,” she explained. “The average consumer’s fascination is more with the brand rather than who’s designing it.”

Retailers concur that the notoriety of the designer behind a brand rarely moves the needle on the selling floor.

“It comes down to the talent of the designer. Their fame shouldn’t precede them,” said Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong-based specialty chain Lane Crawford. “Isn’t the brand name what’s important?”

“Whether the chief designer is well known or not, our clients are buying into the style, philosophy and heritage of a label. As long as the creative direction stays true to that, the customer will remain loyal,” agreed Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director at Harrods in London.

McKee noted that two recent appointments — Rousteing’s at Balmain and Sarah Burton’s at Alexander McQueen — underscored the fact that “increasingly, fashion brands appear to be placing more value on design continuity over the hiring of big names.” For example, Balmain has a strong esthetic, and a loyal following “who continue to look to the brand for status and sex appeal,” she said.

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said “the design sensibility and the design chops to move a house forward” are among his key measuring sticks when a brand names a new creative leader.

“When the clothes are beautiful, that’s what the customer responds to,” he said.

While editors often shove unsolicited hiring suggestions to brand managers or owners, retailers said they are sometimes asked for general input. Echoing the search experts, Downing said the importance of recognition factor when engaging a new designer has waned over the past decade.

“I truly believe that a house like Valentino has proven the success of that idea,” he said, referring to the duo of Pier Paolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, who in 2008 were elevated to creative directors after years as the invisible accessories designers at the Roman house.

To be sure, media heat is no guarantee of success.

Rutson noted that Lee Alexander McQueen was a red-hot name when he was tapped to take over Givenchy in 1996, but the results were lackluster and he left four years later to focus on his signature label with Gucci Group as his partner.

In Rutson’s estimation, the talent must be well matched to the brand and yield products that resonate with customers. “It’s like testing a new cake mixture: sometimes it rises; sometimes it doesn’t,” she said. “Fame is not an important ingredient because we’ve seen it fail just as much as we’ve seen it work.”

Search professionals agreed the role of creative director is evolving in a broader direction, with purview over ad campaigns and events, as well as making personal appearances and doing media on behalf of the brand.

Gallagher predicted “image director” could become an important new job title going forward. Whereas the creative director is devoted to the product, the image director is the “guardian of the brand” and an advocate for management, designers and consumers. This person “distills all the brand’s information, history and core values into a few concise gold nuggets that everyone in the company lives by,” she said.

“You need a person who sets the program, a leader who can offer the creative input, deal with the management, marketing and who has the charisma to meet and greet,” added Denza. “And you have to be careful with stylists, too. It’s terrible when they pull apart the pieces just before the show. Designers need to be strong with them.”



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