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The Big Brand Era

What happens when houses square off against designers?

Stefano Pilati on the YSL runway for the last time (2012).
Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD Collections issue 04/16/2012

Are brands today more powerful than the designers behind them? It’s a complicated question that hung over a turbulent fall collections season headlined by designer comings and goings at Yves Saint Laurent, Jil Sander and Tod’s, among others.

This story first appeared in the April 16, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The brand-versus-designer debate was reignited back in March 2011 with the ouster of John Galliano at Christian Dior over anti-Semitic and racist outbursts — and it festered and fizzled as the search for a successor clicked past the one-year mark.

At press time for this magazine, luxury titan Bernard Arnault announced that Raf Simons, fired from Jil Sander a month earlier and replaced by the founder, would become Dior’s new couturier, suggesting that a distinctive designer with a huge press following is still a valuable asset for a heritage brand.

“Following the legacy of its founder, Raf Simons’ journey with the house of Dior will propel its iconic style into the 21st century,” Dior said in announcing his appointment as artistic director of women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessory collections. For his part, Simons tells WWD, “When I’m married to
a house, I will fully embrace its original intention, its original heritage and meaning.”

A range of observers—from designers and retailers to headhunters — argue that the weight of power has shifted in recent years from designers to brands.

In fact, some went so far as to say that the most powerful asset of brands in today’s digital age is their audience, assembled digitally and allowing them to practically bypass traditional media—and even the fashion trends du jour.

To be sure, the changes that occurred in February were a reminder that hired guns are just that: employees who can be turfed and replaced at will.

Indeed, until Dior’s announcement, two seasoned talents with considerable acclaim — Simons and Stefano Pilati, for eight years the designer at YSL — were out of high-profile jobs, fanning debate on
the place of designers in a world of powerful brand names and onerous business imperatives.

It also underscored that a stop-and-go career seems to be a new fact of life in the industry, with major talents taking sabbaticals between brand-driven assignments. Indeed, Simons’ and Pilati’s successors — Sander at Jil Sander and Hedi Slimane at YSL — each arrive at their respective houses with stints away from fashion’s spotlight.

(Pilati recently hinted at an eventual fashion comeback: “Unless I decide to stay on vacation for the rest of my life, I am pretty sure I have the energy and the knowledge at least to try to do something relevant, something that is part of what people need.”)

“There is no job guarantee for a fashion designer any more than a ceo in today’s fashion world,” observes Agnès Barret, principal of Agent Secret, a Paris-based search firm specializing in creative talent. “Besides media and financial success, a fashion designer must have a strong relationship with the shareholder and the brand.”

According to luxury advisor Concetta Lanciaux, former advisor to LVMH, the linchpin purpose of a designer today is to strengthen the identity of a luxury brand, with perhaps less freedom to experiment than in past decades. This is due partly to emerging markets and their thirst for highly identifiable products from famous houses.

 

“We have seen recently most of the luxury brands respond to this need and seek to strengthen their DNA and their codes,” she explains, lauding Dolce & Gabbana for returning to its Sicilian fashion roots and stripping out any “confusing element,” including its second line, D&G.

Ditto for Ferragamo, Versace and Prada. They have become “more and more iconic,” Lanciaux asserts, adding that the “strong, iconic, recognizable element has earned the brand Michael Kors a market value of $9 billion.”

She reasons that Jil Sander and YSL “have followed precisely this road” in hiring Sander and Slimane respectively, “who both promise to strengthen the identity of the brands” and update them. “These houses perceive that Pilati and Simons, as good as they are, did not reinterpret the brand’s DNA as it is perceived in their consumers’ minds. Of course, time will tell if these houses were right, but this is why they did it.”

Given the ascendance of brands, it would be easy to declare the end of the “star” designer era.
Yet that’s hardly the case, as Kors’ fame — fanned by his television profile — surely underpins his company’s staggering market capitalization. Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a Paris-based
executive search firm and consultancy, notes that Sander and Pilati were each “replaced by an even bigger name.” Still, she argues that the key element today isn’t fame but about “matching talent that is right for a brand, and at a particular time.”

According to Karl Lagerfeld, who designs for Fendi and Chanel in addition to his new masstige range, Karl, and upscale signature line Karl Lagerfeld Paris — the latter two feted during Paris Fashion Week — “the designer should think about the label before he thinks about himself because if that is the problem he shouldn’t accept this kind of job.

“The name of a designer next to the name of the label imposed by the designer for the press etc., is something I am very much against. Chanel is Chanel. Fendi is Fendi,” he continues. “It’s my job to do the image of the companies, and not go on an ego trip.”

Lagerfeld, who early in his career designed for such houses as Jean Patou and Pierre Balmain, notes that, “in the past, you never knew who was behind the brands.” More recently, brand owners considered a known designer an asset “as an element of promotion. That is over in a way, but the labels still need good designers.”

In Lagerfeld’s estimation, “the brand is the guarantee of quality” and “bad decisions” concerning designer choices “normally don’t last long.”

The German-born, Paris-based designer resolutely stands in the if-you-can’t-stand-the-heat camp when it comes to designers who complain about the pressures and workload of today’s global fashion brands.
“In this kind of top job, you are never the victim — you may only have overestimated yourself,” he says. “Stay an independent label and battle if you have such an ego problem. But don’t take other people’s money and then think you are the victim.”

De Saint Pierre allows that a decade or so ago, brands were drawn to famous designers to bring heat to their dusty businesses, whereas the key question they ask themselves today is “whether the person is right for the brand” and the right “voice for the community” brands have assembled in the digital age. “Before, the asset was the product; now, the asset is the community,” she stresses.

Within this context, consumers expect products that are “true to brand” rather than “the latest trend” when they go to powerful luxury houses. The latter are “design driven” but forego chasing trends, leaving that to mass-market players, De Saint Pierre explains.

 

Likening brands to books that can endure over centuries, Pierre-Yves Roussel, ceo of the fashion division at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, says designers are charged with writing new and exciting chapters, which means they must reinvent themselves along the way—or risk replacement themselves.

“Everything starts from the vision of the brand, which is really the pillar of everything. It doesn’t start from the casting of a creative director or the hiring of a ceo,” he explains. “There’s a creative vision and a business vision and all of that has to be articulated….As long as the vision of the brand is clear, you stick to it.”

Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based consultant, uses an opera-house analogy to describe how the industry has evolved: Today, fashion designers are no longer divas on stage or soloists, but rather conductors in the pit, orchestrating teams of designers to work respectfully in service of a brand image.

“It’s much more a matter of stimulating, inspiring, asking the best of [their teams] and making them work coherently,” Picart says. “More than ever, the creative director must be implicated in the strategy, the vision of the company.”

When Tom Ford resigned as creative director of Gucci Group in 2003, Picart recalls a sky-is- falling sentiment. Indeed, he was fielding a call on his cell phone from a prominent New York journalist about Gucci’s future prospects as he observed two women in front of the Italian brand’s Rue Royale shop eyeing a bag in the window— and going inside for a closer look, attracted by its design qualities rather than the sexy designer behind it.

“Of course the brand is more important today than any designer, but the brand needs the soul of a designer,” he says.

Several observers characterized many brand/designer partnerships as perfect matches in which designers strengthen and update brand identity through continual renewal. These include Lagerfeld at Chanel, who tirelessly plays with the French house’s iconic tweed jackets, camellias, plays on black-and-white and boyish allure. Other examples include Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga, Tomas Maier at Bottega Veneta and Alber Elbaz at Lanvin.

 

Lanciaux notes that in the past, when brands were of a smaller scale, a designer could “superimpose his vision to the DNA of the brand, and if this was good enough, it worked and even refreshed the brand.” Examples of this would include John Galliano at Givenchy and later Dior, and Ford at Gucci. Ford, now piloting a signature brand, showed a fall-winter women’s collection in London that was reminiscent of the sexed-up tough chic he once plied at Gucci.

Fashion’s revolving door certainly spins freely when designers are way off brand message. Emanuel Ungaro chewed through a range of names — including a disastrous stint involving pasties with tabloid sensation Lindsay Lohan — before finally reducing the company to a licensing operation. Givenchy and Celine also weathered lackluster businesses under a range of designers — from Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald for the former, Roberto Menichetti for the latter — before reinventing the brands with the hot talents of Riccardo Tisci and Phoebe Philo.

Peter Copping, who has nimbly steered Nina Ricci back to Parisian femininity after Olivier Theyskens had taken it to places Goth and futuristic, says loyalty to a brand’s legacy is key.

“I always say I’m not working for myself. I work for Nina Ricci. My personal aesthetic and taste leans very closely towards Nina Ricci, so it automatically makes for a good fit,” he says. “There are brands that have stood for something in the past, and are either still relevant or you have to make it relevant for today.”

Retailers agree that the power in the industry has shifted toward brands — and that consumers are lapping it up. “As luxury brands recognize the power of social media as a tool to connect with their customers, it is becoming apparent how the brand is taking on a bigger-than-ever persona — much bigger then an individual person,” explains Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Toronto-based Holt Renfrew. “Just go on one of the world’s best brand-building Web sites, Burberry, and see how the name Burberry is bigger than the creative director. Christopher Bailey’s name is not even mentioned on its site. Brand building is theater, it’s an experience and it makes the customer want to buy because of its intrinsic value, sometimes more important than the product itself.”

Within the hothouse climate of the international collections, it’s easy to forget that people like Slimane, Sanders and Simons are not household names. It’s a fact reflected in social media. YSL, for example, boasts more than 920,000 “likes” on Facebook versus about 9,000 on Slimane’s official page.

Even young designer brands seem willing to chart their futures without their founding creator. Executives at Simon Spurr, a men’s wear label founded in New York in 2006, recently indicated they plan to continue developing the label following the recent exit of its namesake designer.

Helmut Lang, meanwhile, has found a thriving second life as a hot contemporary brand under Link Theory Holdings, despite the 2005 exit of the Austrian fashion maverick.

“The supremacy of the brand is more important then relying on one person,” stresses Holt Renfrew’s Atkin. “Brand awareness, image, trust and reputation built up over the years are the best guarantee of future earnings and customer loyalty.”

Asked if the buying public in her region cares about who is actually leading the design team at major brands, Sarah Rutson, fashion director at Hong Kong–based Lane Crawford, replied: “No, it’s all about the product and design. The initial interest of a perceived ‘hot new’ or publicly well-known name designer moving to a brand or house might cause initial interest to look at the brand, but if the ‘product’ is not there they will not be blinded by a name.”

 

Rutson agrees that brand DNA — made relevant to the times — is paramount. “Following ‘trends of the season’ is almost a trite way to run a business at a certain level,” she says. According to Lanciaux, “brand heritage and coherence, products expressing the DNA and codes are what the new customers want more than ever.” A designer’s “durability will depend on their capacity to reinterpret the brand — rather than simply interpret it. Not all designers can do this.”

Lagerfeld is perhaps the ultimate master at juggling, joking in a fax: “I work for three different brands with three completely different identities. It never overlaps because I have no ‘personality’….I have three…ha, ha, ha.”