Faster fashion. That’s not a descriptor for the next H&M or Zara, but for the tempo of musical chairs that’s transforming the European landscape.
This story first appeared in the November 9, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Over the past year, at least a dozen top international brands have seen a change in creative director, suggesting that long tenures have gone the way of tiered prairie skirts and skater shoes.
Observers say it’s a reflection of an accelerated industry and one transformed by the growing power of consumers and a free flow of information. Designers who once ruled from an ivory tower now seem to operate from a temporary hot seat.
“There is a very significant shortening of the time a designer works at a brand,” said Paolo de Cesare, chairman and chief executive officer of Printemps. “For me, this change is very profound.”
According to de Cesare, star designers who lingered at heritage brands — John Galliano, 15 years at Dior; Nicolas Ghesquière, 15 years at Balenciaga; Marc Jacobs, 16 years at Louis Vuitton; Alber Elbaz, 14 years at Lanvin, and Karl Lagerfeld, 34 years and counting at Chanel — were a driving force behind the explosion of the luxury goods sector over the past two decades.
Not anymore, as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, to mention but two top names, each cycled through new designers within a period of four years: Maria Grazia Chiuri succeeding Raf Simons, and Anthony Vaccarello succeeding Hedi Slimane, respectively.
What’s driving all this turmoil?
“I think that a lot has to do with the business model,” de Cesare said, describing an explosion of product categories, retail networks and international markets for today’s top brands. “The role has really changed. The new business model now requires a very different level of skill and talent compared to what it used to be — mastery over social media being one. It requires more agility and more speed, including the fact that you turn around this creative head more frequently.”
“In the Internet and social media age, I guess it’s inevitable that things turn around quicker,” echoed Adrian Joffe, chief executive officer of Dover Street Market and Comme des Garçons International.
He said it’s hard to find a common thread across the flurry of recent changes, musing that it’s “mere coincidence, perhaps, and a bit of panic in the industry. Fashion, as with everything, is constantly changing through the very nature of our world. Sometimes this is quick, sometimes slow.”
Asked if there is any evidence at retail that a change of designer sparks new interest in a brand, and fans business, Joffe replies: “I reckon I can say there is some interest, but when designers change too much, there is also a reduction of interest — but barely noticeable. We are talking such nuances.”
Mathias Ohrel, a headhunter based in Paris, agreed designer switches aren’t always for the right reasons in a sped-up industry, and often led by financial considerations.
“Some brands do not know anymore how to cope with this new pace, and seem lost. They do not know how to communicate with customers, and use these designer changes as communication tools,” he said. “Others have managed to attract talents who add considerable value to their brand and the experience lived by their consumers.”
A wave of younger designers is replacing a previous generation that “had more time to establish a style vocabulary congruent with the brand DNA they were working with,” Ohrel noted.
Some of these have propelled their fame on social media.
“When a designer is uberpopular on Instagram or WeChat, she or he brings mathematically attention to the brand she or he works for,” he said. “But brands are benefiting from the large audience of a designer only if the latter is able to create products and experience.”
“It’s definitely on a case-by-case basis: Sometimes it works out very well, and sometimes, not so much,” agreed Laura Larbalestier, women’s buying director at Browns in London. “I think what it’s mostly about is whether that designer has a real understanding of what the consumer wants from that brand and can understand that and reinterpret it.
“Is the era of the star designer over? I’ve been pondering that myself. I would like to think it’s about having real talent and a real understanding of how to design things that really capture the consumer,” she continued. “Gucci’s Alessandro Michele is probably the most amazing story of that, someone whom the outside world wouldn’t have known. When you work in fashion and every season you spend a lot of time trying to find what the next thing is, there’s something really great about that.”
Sarah Rutson, vice president of global buying at Net-a-porter, agreed that Michele upended assumptions about the need for a designer with a public persona.
“In his very first season, he revolutionized the brand in such an exciting way. It was so emotive to the customer, who is all about being moved by the clothes and the story a brand tells. He is [an] example of an unknown name turning a brand into the hottest in the world, with immediate retail success,” she said. “I think it’s worth stating here that even when there are designer changes at different fashion houses, for the customer, it is always fundamentally about the product.”
Laure Heriard Dubreuil, founder and ceo of Miami-based luxury retailer The Webster, links the sped-up cycling of designers to a sign of the times.
“Our society consumes everything so quickly and is constantly looking for the next new thing,” she said. “We as consumers want to be engaged and connected to brands in a modern way, but how it’s obtained has been an ongoing conversation within the industry. It’s a cycle where designers feel under pressure to have a strong point of view, while remaining commercially viable with the brands, and retailers feel pressure to perform.”
Dubreuil held out hope that long tenures by established, star designers might return: “What I found so great about those designers was the relationship and connection with the client, which was, of course, developed over time.”
That said, interest runs high in some of the latest appointments. “We saw it firsthand with Alessandro Michele at Gucci, and now are seeing it again with Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga. We have many new clients to The Webster, specifically looking for pieces from their respective collections,” she said.
Jason Basmajian, chief creative officer at Cerruti, said a designer’s role continues to shift amid a challenging and fast-moving business environment.
He sums it up as a “reality check, with these brands and houses that require a realistic balance of creativity and business which, for me, is the model of the future. I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve always been in the creative side of it — with one hand in the business side — and I think it’s benefited me for times like this, because I’m as comfortable talking to a design team as I am to a ceo or shareholders.
“The pressure on us as creative directors is more intense than ever and there’s less tolerance for long term,” he added.
Basmajian has been through a whirlwind of changes himself, cycling through Gieves & Hawkes, a sister company of Cerruti, since exiting Brioni in 2011 and seeing that Italian house chew through two more creative leaders: designer Brendan Mullane and women’s wear buyer Justin O’Shea.
“We can refer to my experience at a brand [Brioni] where in six years, we really built the business and image, which led to the sale of the company to a major luxury group [Kering],” he said. “I think sometimes brands try to move too quickly. Especially in men’s wear, sometimes it’s as if these brands are having a midlife crisis. You don’t always need to reinvent. I feel sometimes our industry wants to make it trickier than it needs to be, and, for me, the speed of change is not good because it does take time for this stuff to distill down.
“The industry is in turmoil and disarray and no one knows where it’s going — you know, to market immediately and merging men’s and women’s — and we don’t know if this is going to work long term. I do think there’s something to be said about consistency and business continuity,” he added.
In Basmajian’s view, a “successful fashion show today doesn’t make a business, there’s much more than [what] goes into it. When a retailer decides to make a commitment to a brand, it’s often because of the designer who is at the helm. It’s not just what a collection looks like, it should also be all the touch points on the brand — the marketing, the image, the product.”
Fashion educator Linda Loppa, an adviser on strategy and vision at Polimoda in Florence, Italy, said multiple scenarios can trigger a designer shuffle, starting with a management or ownership change. Designers can also be the instigators, as seems to be the case with Marni founder Consuelo Castiglioni bowing out following the 2012 takeover by Renzo Rosso’s OTB group.
Loppa cited this as a recent example where “the founders are not happy with the vision and strategy of the new owner.”
“Some designers feel like a commodity for selling shoes and bags for the brand; this might also be a reason for change,” she continued. “Designers themselves are quiet spoiled and well paid but they feel the pressure to perform faster and faster, more and more.”
In her estimation, brands that lack vision and strategy may opt for a younger designer to save costs, and hopefully spur business.
“But has he or she the capacity to deliver? There is no time to think about the collection: In five weeks the designer has to get familiar with the team and their capacities, win their confidence and to do proper research,” she said. “Some matches are seriously overthought. I feel very confident in Haider Ackermann for Berluti; it seems so evident. The same for Gvasalia [Balenciaga]. He is experienced and knows what he is doing.”
That isn’t always the case, as some brands “are probably more focused on creating hype and need to make fast decisions,” she noted. “I see collections on the runway from people calling themselves designers, having fun putting things on models — not even questioning the shape, the volume, the aesthetics, the value of it. They are applauded by the CFDA, Anna Wintour and hype fashion magazines. I feel we, the professionals, have to question this phenomenon as a reaction to the system of today.”
Loppa also laid heavy responsibility at the feet of brand stewards. “The vision of the designer and the management of the brand have to be united. It’s not as easy as it seems. Designers come and go, but the owners or managers…have the long-term vision and the experience,” she said.
Karl Lagerfeld admittedly shoulders some of the blame for the increased workload designers face today, with Simons, Galliano and Elbaz among those who have been vocal about the pressures.
“Some of this is my fault because I put more collections in the calendar. When I started at Chanel, there were four — now I do eight,” Lagerfeld said in his rapid-fire manner. “This is what big companies require today, and I’m fine with it. I do it with pleasure. I don’t have an ego problem. It helps.”
The designer was at a loss to explain what is fueling the revved-up game of musical chairs, but questioned whether the industry might be buttressed with more stability, which he exemplifies.
“It’s on the border of a little too much. I don’t think it’s a good thing to change all the time,” Lagerfeld said. “It’s become something like a fashion, those changes. I’m very much against it, as my career proves. I’m a world record person. Nobody stays 51 years at one company and 34 at another,” referring to his tenures at Fendi and Chanel, respectively.
“If it’s a marriage made in heaven, why not? Look at me, ha-ha,” he said, citing Phoebe Philo at Céline and Clare Waight Keller at Chloé as other longstanding collaborations that seem to be working well. “And look at Jonathan Anderson. I think he can stay a long time at Loewe.”
Christophe Lemaire, who has designed for Lacoste and Hermès, but is now focused on his signature brand and a project with Uniqlo, said the current disarray reflects the impact of financial groups investing in fashion and saturated media attention.
“There’s this kind of hysterical distortion of what a designer should be,” Lemaire said. “Some designers have been overrated, overpaid, overhyped, while others doing an amazing job have maybe been forgotten in this media circus and the groups’ obsession with naming strong designers at houses. What sense does it make to have John Galliano at the head of Maison Margiela? Whatever his talent is, his vision of woman is just the opposite. Who remembers what Givenchy was about 20 years ago before Riccardo Tisci took over? They use strong names in fashion to make short-term profits. It has become completely confused and absurd and chaotic.
“There’s this new phenomenon that good designers don’t necessarily want to work for the big houses — however big the salary is and prestigious the brand, they’re tired of working on nonsense projects,” Lemaire continued. “There is this general point of view that everyone is a bit tired of how absurd it has all become. At the end of the day, people just want to buy clothes. And more than ever, with everything that is happening on a political, environmental and economic level, the consumer just wants to buy something that is honest.”