Long on the fringes of fashion's spotlight, accessories designers are now bagging some of the industry's top jobs and are poised to become major stars in their own right — with paychecks to match.
Frida Giannini, who in 2006 went from being Gucci's handbag designer to its sole creative director, said there's a potent reason: "There is a lot of competition in the accessories sector, which is highly profitable."
A growing number of brands have followed Gucci's path: In July, Mulberry accessories designer Stuart Vevers was named the creative director of Loewe, and in February, shoe designer Brian Atwood took control of all categories at Bally.
Such appointments mark a sea change in the industry, which until recently relied on hot names in fashion to rejuvenate brands of all kinds. For example, Spanish leather goods house Loewe, part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, first engaged New York's Narciso Rodriguez to rev it up, followed by José Enrique Oña Selfa from Paris.
But Pierre-Yves Roussel, chairman and chief executive officer of the LVMH fashion division, said mounting a hot runway show can be tantamount to "putting a fashion patch on a brand." In his estimation, "You have to have some real credibility in the core business of the brand....We are keeping ready-to-wear, but almost as an accessory."
"We do live in an age where accessories have taken center stage, where the 'It' bag or shoe seems to have become more important than the right dress," agreed Atwood, best known for helping Donatella Versace build her accessories line. His first full women's collection for Bally will be unveiled on Tuesday during Milan Fashion Week.
Designers, headhunters and consultants predicted accessories designers would gain an ever-higher profile in the industry, even if their ranks are few.
"The demand for good accessories designers is at an all-time high," said Robert Burke, a New York-based fashion and luxury consultant. "They are more regarded than ever before, definitely."
"I think it is just common sense. When the roots of a brand are in accessories, it makes more sense to have a creative director who is strong in accessories," added Floriane De Saint Pierre, who runs an executive search and consulting firm in Paris. "If the brand comes from accessories, a talented accessories designer brings an immediate creative vision and an immediate know-how."Maxine Martens, founder of the New York-based executive search firm Martens & Heads, said accessories have become so important that consumers are now interested in knowing the designers behind their favorite bags and shoes. Consider how niche brands such as Anya Hindmarch, Lulu Guinness and Devi Kroell have developed a wide following, while the likes of Kate Spade have entered the "mainstream consciousness," she added.
Martens noted a creative director coming from leather goods may not understand fabrics, garment construction, blocks, draping, fitting, patternmaking, production and correcting prototypes — not to mention how to put together a collection plan for several categories. "This person really needs good people around him or her who are specialists," she noted.
Salary levels for creative directors are closely guarded, but it's understood that within most large companies, design director posts for accessories designers are now commensurate with their rtw counterparts, who can earn 400,000 euros, or $560,000 at current exchange, or more a year.
Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based industry consultant, said such salary levels are understandable.
"It's more difficult to design beautiful accessories than beautiful dresses," he said. "What's difficult with accessories is that small pieces must express the global identity of the brand. Within a small space, you must express a lot of ideas: glamour, seductiveness and identity."
And designers must also strive for a commercial success, given the cash-cow status of accessories. "It's easier to spend 500 euros [or $705] for a pair of shoes than 1,600 euros [or $2,255] for a skirt," Picart said. "It's why accessories designers became so important today."
Silvia Venturini Fendi, the longtime accessories designer at Fendi who turned her hand to the Roman house's men's wear in 2001, said it's about time handbag specialists get their due.
"Many designers who had never worked on accessories started dedicating themselves to this sector, often without success. I think it's normal that the opposite can happen," she said. "If one has a very strong creative vision, to become involved in clothing is a natural step. I believe that accessories are always gaining more room in the market and that the spotlight is now on both categories."To be sure, accessories designers are relishing the chance to express themselves on a larger scale.
"When you get to work with ready-to-wear, you get to magnify the prints, textures and details that are not always recognized or appreciated on a smaller canvas," Atwood said. "The challenge, as always, is to create something that is elegant and desirable."
Giannini said starting with accessories at Gucci was excellent training for her current role — a statement backed up by the numbers. In the second quarter, Gucci brand revenues gained 9.8 percent before the impact of exchange rates, driven by an 18 percent improvement in rtw and a 21 percent gain in sales of footwear.
"Symbols and icons are so strong here that I learned to transfer them in a new and modern way to the other categories: ready-to-wear, eyewear and perfumes," Giannini explained. "It's true that in the very beginning my responsibility was directly linked to accessories, but I had a constant connection with the people in charge of ready-to-wear."
In fact, although rtw gets the lion's share of industry attention — thanks to the celebrity-fueled media spectacle fashion shows have become — Giannini insisted it's not always the leading influence for a collection.
"Any category can be a source of inspiration for another category, depending on the season and the mood," she said. "There can be a season where the idea for a garment comes from an accessory such as a shoe, or vice versa."
Fendi argued that ideas in clothing transfer more easily to bags than the opposite. To wit: Materials such as fur and denim, applied to Fendi's famous Baguette style, were one of the factors in that bag's success.
"With accessories, you're always striving to create an iconic piece. Often that can come across in clothing," said Vevers. "I pay particular attention to branding, components and linings."
Many observers cite Miuccia Prada as a recent pioneer for successfully parlaying a knack for accessories into a powerful creative force in fashion. Fendi lauded Coco Chanel as a key historical reference, having created an "immortal" style based on a tweed suit and a quilted bag.Scanning the industry, observers noted that designers including Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Phoebe Philo have demonstrated talent with both rtw and accessories. However, numerous brands with major rtw businesses are still underdeveloped in accessories, including the likes of Donna Karan, Roberto Cavalli and Jean Paul Gaultier.
"The American brands are always in search of a good accessories designer, who typically comes out of Europe," Burke said. "Everyone wants to have an accessories designer because American brands are less developed in the accessories business as a whole."
Although accessories designers are now much in demand, their ranks are alarmingly small, observers agreed.
"The talent pool is as small as a handkerchief," joked De Saint Pierre, who said a dearth of design schools specializing in accessories is partly to blame.
"Fashion design is sexier and traditionally higher-profile than accessories," added Martens. "Many fashion schools stress ready-to-wear, and accessories design is more of an elective."
Picart noted many top accessories designers work on a freelance basis, contributing to several major brands simultaneously. "They're very in demand," he stressed.
Consequently, competition for top accessories talent is described as "fierce" by De Saint Pierre, who also notes a proliferation of non-compete clauses and employment contracts with long notice periods.
Observers contended strong talent in accessories usually can be translated to other categories, including rtw.
LVMH's Roussel said accessories other than bags and shoes — key chains, costume jewelry, silk scarves and even home accessories — can become significant businesses for a luxury brand, and ideas for such products spring from an "accessories mind-set." He added that such product categories, when done well, can amount to 20 to 25 percent of a brand's revenues.
And the margins are enviable. According to a study by the Altagamma luxury group released in June, accessories had an earnings before interest and taxes margin of 21 percent, versus 10 percent in apparel.
De Saint Pierre said most accessories designers trained as fashion designers. "I don't see why they can't become a creative director, especially of a brand with roots in accessories," she said. "It is about an accessories designer becoming creative director and managing a team among which there are men's ready-to-wear or women's ready-to-wear designers they choose and manage.""It depends on the individual's creativity and experience," added Martens. "If the person has the potential to be a creative director, it means they're someone with a vision, a clear and original direction with the DNA of the brand and they can create compelling dreams and aspirational products people want to buy into. They must also have the business acumen to ensure the consistence of the image."
There are some pitfalls, designers acknowledge. "The creativity used for accessories isn't easily transferable to clothing," Fendi contended. "On the contrary, it can be strained and often absurd and ridiculous."
Still, she stressed the discipline of accessories design, in which so many ideas and brand symbols must be synthesized, is a plus for rtw. "[Accessories] don't allow flaws or imperfections and this, transferred on clothing, is an advantage," she said. "I conceive clothing items in an obsessive, almost manic way — and this certainly derives from my experience in accessories."
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