In the not too distant past, if you were to have asked the chief executive officer of a luxury fashion brand how long it would take to see the results of a new creative director, he or she would have said a minimum of 18 months. In today’s terms, that’s a luxury because now, more than ever, time equals money.
Raf Simons left Calvin Klein with six months still to serve on his contract, while some banks rated Burberry’s stock as risky, months before chief creative officer Riccardo Tisci’s debut collection even hit store floors. Brioni has changed creative directors twice in two years, with Justin O’Shea departing after six months and his successor, Nina-Maria Nitsche, staying less than one year.
Time is no longer on a new designer’s side. So has this obsession with speed killed the traditionally trained designer?
Delivering for a fashion house takes time, and historically, designers were afforded enough time to settle in and establish their handwriting. When I worked with Missoni in Milan, it was a joy to immerse myself for days in their archives, absorbing the history of the brand. I followed up with visits to the family home on the lakes north of Milan to meet everyone at the head office.
It took time, not only to design and develop collections, but also to accommodate the development and manufacturing cycle, delivery and shipment. It took time to gather the commercial market feedback. It’s why, as a designer, your impact on sales would only be readable by the third season.
In the past it was only once a season that the management team would come together with the design team to talk sales results and analyze feedback. Information was so slow in coming that we’d wait months after the season ended for any sales results and by then, we’d already designed the next collection.
All of that has changed, with technology having transformed the fashion business. Zara can witness the reaction to product and replace, restock and react within a few weeks. Until now, fashion businesses have been working with very little data. Now an agile fashion business is one that has revised its product development and sales cycles. It has integrated technology and data analytics to monitor and react to customers’ needs.
Companies such as the London-based Edited are a data analytics company specializing in fashion. They can scan more than 60 million products, internationally and in different languages, in seconds, and collate this crucial information to help brands and buyers make more educated and faster decisions, based on numbers.
The problem is that customer-facing technology is what is being adopted the fastest, which is forcing the industry is playing catch up with the customer. From brands and customers alike, the expectation and obsession with speed is omnipresent.
Davide Dallomo, founder of Lagente, a talent agency based in Milan, agreed that today there is pressure from the top because brands expect sales to speed ahead in a very short time.
“Take the ‘drop’ concept as an example. Today, even the seasonal way of presenting — and selling — collections has dramatically changed. A creative leader has to be able to drive the whole process and to make decisions that can impact the market,” he said.
When it comes to speedy results and digital momentum, fashion brands with big budgets have seen results. Tommy Hilfiger’s collaboration with model Gigi Hadid has been a winning strategy, as has Coach’s collaboration with musician Selena Gomez.
These brands have aligned themselves with the right ambassadors and influencers, whom they perceive to be in tune with the consumer. They are also hoping that sales will spike following the “hit” of celebrity visibility and momentum. For these brands, it’s worked.
It was only a matter of time, then, before a big fashion house such as LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton would appoint an influencer such as Virgil Abloh in a creative director role. The recent report in WWD about LVMH backing a luxury line by Rihanna reverberated around the industry.
For a classically trained designer and creative director, it left me wondering whether we will see more celebrities, and high-profile people from outside the industry, replacing trained designers.
I caught up with my fellow RCA graduate, the creative director Peter Copping, who has worked alongside Marc Jacobs at LVMH and was the former creative head of Nina Ricci. I asked him whether the key to a fashion brand’s success today was digital traction and influence in a relevant market rather than design.
“Classically trained designers still hold the majority of positions: Riccardo Tisci at Burberry, Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga. There is still that traditional route to those positions. Nonetheless, it’s the high visibility of these [other] players, these celebrities, which makes us think the whole industry has become like that. In reality, it hasn’t,” Copping said.
The fact that these influencer appointments are only the minority, yet are the ones causing so much buzz, is precisely the point.
If brands get these creative partnerships right, then they can inject their product into a market that’s primed to buy. The product doesn’t even have to be great, just good enough to please the relevant audience. And it has to be something the audience believes the influencers would wear themselves. It’s one reason why the world is full of overpriced T-shirts, hoodies and tracksuits where the branding becomes the reason to buy, rather than the cut, drape or design.
So why do customers buy into that idea so quickly? It’s because of the direct and personal connection that I talk about in my book, “The Fashion Switch.” A connection with celebrities triggers a fast sale. It’s unclear if traditionally trained designers provide what’s required today to impact business quickly enough today. Traditionally trained designers need a huge support structure to showcase their vision and persona, and time and significant marketing spend to create that connection.
We creative directors, who have trained all our lives, bring to the party creative vision and finely tuned skills. It takes time to bring a team together and shine at the helm of a luxury fashion business. By contrast, a celebrity brings a digital footprint and immediate market relevance.
Why would brands take the risk of a complete revamp of their brand vision, continue to spend on extravagant fashion shows, and make that kind of investment when someone like Virgil Abloh, with his background in architecture, music and streetwear, already brings so much to the table?
Copping believes that any designer who’s hired today as a creative director has to fulfill not only the design aspect and the element of collections. They also have a strong presence on social media. “Nicolas Ghesquière, before he went to Louis Vuitton, was quite low key on social media but he’s had to embrace it a lot more,” Copping said.
Dallomo added that a creative director needs to lead and bring together a balanced team in terms of skills and personalities. “Nowadays designers have to be more practical and able to interact with many different people,” he added.
There are those who believe there is room for everyone at the fashion brands – social media stars, people from non-fashion backgrounds and men and women who can make something more than a hoodie.
“We will always need skilled designers. Every celebrity at the helm of a brand today has an experienced, skilled designer as their right hand,” even if they don’t make it public, Dallomo said.
Copping would agree.
“Yes, certain aspects and new considerations have suddenly become more important, but I think it doesn’t necessarily completely change how things were. Celebrity designers are here now, and they’re just going to be part of how the industry moves forward. Obviously some of them will do it much more convincingly and better than others,” Copping said.
Tisci, for instance, is taking a balanced approach to his new role, incorporating his signature street touches into his vision for Burberry alongside a new interpretation of tailoring. He’s looking to appeal to a broad range of customers. Telegraphing a clear and unique vision – and pushing brand commerciality and sales — is his strategy. Unfortunately, it’s what Raf Simmons failed to deliver for Calvin Klein: He couldn’t grow the basics business.
My advice to any designer striving to get to the top today is this: Be pragmatic, but stay true to your vision. Then, when you start to get attention, leverage it as fast as possible, as the talents of tomorrow will be judged both on their digital footprint as well as their creative skills.
Joanne Yulan Jong is the founder of the strategic fashion brand consultancy, Yulan Creative and author of “The Fashion Switch: The New Rules of the Fashion Business.”