By Miles Socha
with contributions from Robert Williams
 on December 26, 2016
The tempo of designer musical chairs has never been faster than it was this year.

Exalting the brand; building an audience and community around it, and nimbly orchestrating digital outreach.

Those are among the key tasks of a creative director today, which helps to explain the sweeping changes at the top of many top fashion houses in 2016, the lion’s share of them in Europe.

“Brands — and therefore [chief executive officers] — are becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of authenticity as a criteria of preference among customers and they also realize the power of style, if and when a given brand manages to create its own,” said Patrick Albaladejo, an affiliate professor of marketing at business school HEC Paris. “The shift in designer profile is precisely that one: from designers who form the style to their own preference to designers who serve the style of the brand.”

“The creative director needs to incarnate the values of the house,” concurred Sophie de Rougemont, who took the reins as ceo of Carven last May. The decision to part ways with its creative directors Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud last October came as the brand tries to “refocus” Carven’s image to that of the “fresh Parisian woman,” whom de Rougemont said the brand had embodied in the past.

Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs a namesake executive search and consulting firm in Paris, said she now sees the role of a “brand leader” in a “more holistic” way.

“I see the need for brand leaders that are obsessed with the synchrony with the times, the impeccability of content and the user experience,” she said. “A brand must have a purpose, and this purpose is expressed through content. Basically, everything is content: Any digital or physical experience of the brand is content, even quality is content, transparency is content.”

To be sure, the tempo of musical chairs has never been faster. Both Dior and Yves Saint Laurent cycled through new designers within a period of four years — Maria Grazia Chiuri succeeding Raf Simons at the former and Anthony Vaccarello taking over from Hedi Slimane at the latter. Both paraded their first collections during Paris Fashion Week last September, with Bouchra Jarrar also making her debut at Lanvin and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who was co-creative director at Valentino with Chiuri, making his first solo flight.

Other brands wracked by designer exits over the past 12 months include Marni, Roberto Cavalli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Brioni, Berluti, Ermenegildo Zegna, Carven, Oscar de la Renta and DKNY. Successors for several have yet to be named.

While the scenarios for the exits varied widely, observers cited a range of contributing factors, headlined by a business model that is adapting to an accelerating industry; the growing power of consumers; the social media revolution, and shifting fortunes in China.

“In my view, it is not the role that has changed, it is the context,” de Saint Pierre said. “With the digitalization of the world, any content that a brand creates is accessed through a screen first. Products with societally connected design, usage and impeccable execution is a given, but that’s just one piece of physical and digital content creation.”

Is that why many of the new recruits are in their 30s?

“They are in tune with the times. They are catalyst of a generation that questions the repeat mode, status and ownership, who has integrity and is fearless,” de Saint Pierre said. “They build and nurture their community or audience with creative statements across disciplines….And now they own the power of their visibility.”

Albaladejo agrees the skill-set for a creative director has not changed, but the orientation and personality has.

“The brand dominates and the designer is serving it,” he said. “These designers are fond of archives…not to replicate old products, but to seek inspiration to create a contemporary interpretation of the style.”

In his estimation, this was what was missing at Saint Laurent under Slimane, who used the “rebellious value that was one of the cliché values associated with Yves Saint Laurent to create products that had very little, if anything, in common with YSL style.

“New designers are less showmen and women and more clothes experts focusing on the fundamentals,” he added. “The qualities that are most required are the talent, like always, and the modesty, which has been in short supply until recently.”

While Albaladejo insisted economic factors are not driving the accelerated game of musical chairs, other observers argued they must be considered.

Armando Branchini, vice chairman of Fondazione Altagamma, noted that the luxury goods industry has benefited from three principal waves of consumption: first the Japanese, then the Americans and then the Chinese.

“And it was mainly the demand going spontaneously toward the brand, much more than the brand’s ability to create a demand,” he said.

Negligible in 2000 at under two billion euros, personal luxury goods consumption in China exploded to about 80 billion euros by 2015. But now the wave is ebbing, with Chinese consumption forecast to grow at a compound annual rate of 2 or 3 percent.

Now, “the name of the game is different. Every brand and company has to be in a position to appeal to customers that grow more slowly in numbers and are more and more discerning,” Branchini said. “Every brand and company has to reshape its own value proposition in order to attract and possibly retain customers.”

Marco Pozzi, senior adviser at ContactLab, agreed that a low-growth climate is a key factor.

“Companies say, ‘We’re not growing anymore,’ and they’re not able to face the real problems, so they change the designer,” he said. “If you take companies that are doing better, they did not change the designer.” He mentioned Fendi, where Karl Lagerfeld has been designing furs and ready-to-wear for 51 years, Dolce & Gabbana, where the founders remain at the helm, and Valentino, where Piccioli offers continuity.

“Long-lasting designers should be good for companies with a strong heritage. I don’t think it makes sense to change too much,” Pozzi said.

“The big brands are all a bit lost. So what artistic director to choose has become the question of the moment,” said Léa Peckre, head of the fashion program at art and design school HEAD-Genève. “They are struggling to find the good balance between what’s going in this moment and what luxury has traditionally represented.”

Peckre also blamed the acceleration of the creative cycle.

“With four collections a year, even more for big groups, you don’t have time for anything in the ateliers. The constant for designers is that everything is going too fast,” she said. “Even the big houses have trouble keeping up — and this is part of why they end up changing the designer every four or five seasons.”

On the other hand, fast-moving social media has given a platform for upstarts to quickly find an audience and leapfrog over bigger competitors.

“Young brands like Eckhaus Latta and Vetements were able to get so much attention so quickly. And we saw that they had something that spoke to people, that was a bit closer to reality,” she said. “Big groups struggled to keep up with all this new information, they started to feel a bit like has-beens.”

Observers agreed that the skill-set for ceo’s is changing in tandem.

“Today you need a good manager and a good designer,” Pozzi said. “The ceo now needs to keep an eye on many different product lines in many countries. You need someone who can go deep into the China strategy; deep into the [South] Korea strategy.”

While fashion ceo’s often came out of retail, wholesale or even finance, product development skills are coming to the fore.

“It’s about time that brand owners realize that product is everything in this business,” Albaladejo said.

Brand communications are also vital, across various platforms, according to Pozzi. “You need someone who can now drive the digital agenda.”