Given creative vacancies at megabrand Gucci and Louis Vuitton’s men’s department, another game of high-level musical chairs could ensue in 2023, further shortening the average length of designer tenures at Europe’s heritage houses.
A WWD analysis of designer appointments shows that half the creative directors at roughly 40 houses have been in their positions for five years or less.
One prominent Paris academic suggests that fashion seems to be moving toward a “biennale model,” wherein designers cycle in and out of brands for brief “interventions” rather than in-depth explorations and deep change.
“Compared to other product-based industries like cars or furniture, there’s almost this fashionability of change in fashion,” observed Marco Pecorari, assistant professor and program director of the master of arts in fashion studies at Parsons Paris. “And when you change an artistic director, you change an entire team, most of the time. I think that kind of disposability of people is becoming almost anachronistic.
“It’s as if design ideas are replaceable, or should be replaced in this cyclical way.”
WWD’s list found that Véronique Nichanian, men’s artistic director at Hermès, has logged the longest tenure at 35 years, followed by Ian Griffiths, creative director of Max Mara for the past 18 years.
WWD calculated the length of tenure based on the year designers were announced at their respective houses, not with their first collection, which usually follows several months later. The list excludes designers of their namesake houses such as Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Miuccia Prada or Albert Kriemler of Akris, and is based primarily on ready-to-wear rather than other categories.
If fine jewelry were included, Victoire de Castellane, artistic director of Dior Joaillerie, would come in second place with 25 years of service.
Only seven other designers passed the decade mark: Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson, Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière, Stuart Vevers at Coach, Jeremy Scott at Moschino and Julien Dossena at Paco Rabanne.
Benjamin Simmenauer, a professor at the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris and its director of research, said the main factor affecting the length of designer tenures is profit.
“After a first contract, if the objectives are not met and above all, if there is no significant growth, generally the creative team is replaced,” he said in an interview. “As long as your creative decisions are commercially successful, you are not really questioned in your artistic decisions.”
However, he suggested that big brands value long-term collaborations “even more than before, because they look for consistency and seem to be more and more risk-averse as they strive to reach a larger audience.”
In his view, the key for commercial success “seems to be 90 percent repetition and 10 percent variation” in collections, as clients want to build consistent wardrobes.
“What most people prefer is not radical novelty, but the return of the same products with minor transformations. To achieve that sort of consistency, it is preferable to keep the same artistic director,” he argued, noting that this tends to be the case especially with more “classic” houses.
“Some key players keep the same creative directors for a long time, like Hermès, or the same creative direction like Chanel, where Virginie Viard continues the work of Karl Lagerfeld in a similar spirit,” he noted.
Floriane de Saint Pierre, founder and principal of executive search and consulting firm Floriane de Saint Pierre & Associés in Paris, also highlighted that most of the multibillion-dollar heritage brands in Europe and the U.S. have had the same creative director for seven years or more. These include Hermès, Louis Vuitton women’s, Loewe, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Valentino, Coach and, until last November, Gucci, which parted ways with Alessandro Michele.
(Pierpaolo Piccioli became sole creative director of Valentino in 2016 when Maria Grazia Chiuri, his co-creative director since 2008, left for Dior.)
In de Saint Pierre’s view, the tenure of the creative director is “tightly entwined” with that of the chief executive officer.
“A change of CEO most often implies a shift in the brand strategy, hence a change at the creative helm,” she said. “Other reasons for a change of the creative direction are related to an underperforming brand or the creative director joining another brand, which has not been the case often recently.”
Mary Gallagher, Paris-based associate of boutique recruitment firm FIND Consulting, pointed out that contracts with creative directors “tend to be shorter now — about three years renewable, as opposed to 10.”
In her view, “if a creative director is there less than three years, it sends a signal that the brand made a mistake. But we’ve seen with brands like Dior after John Galliano’s and Raf Simons’ departures when ‘the studio’ took over, that sales were still increasing. Many executives understood that if it’s strong enough, the brand can withstand a change or cycles of creative directors.”
Referring to WWD’s list, Simmenauer pointed out that there were fewer appointments in 2021 than in 2020, for example.
De Saint Pierre argued that “in theory, there is no difference” between the tenure of a creative director or a brand founder.
“In both cases they define brand purpose, expression and activation,” she explained. “Product design is one pivotal step — among many other equally important steps — in a global process of creating purpose and empathy — hence influence.”
According to Pecorari, the dynamics around creative directors changed in the 2000s when Europe’s fashion conglomerates were forming — LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, Prada Group and Gucci Group, now known as Kering — and designers became “more entwined with the economic mechanisms” behind this business configuration. “As soon as the numbers start to stagnate a bit, there is an attempt to change.”
He also highlighted the flurry of changes since 2010, which he said also reflects how fashion has become “really a popularized type of phenomenon, and a cultural phenomenon as well.”
In Pecorari’s view, designer appointments have become part of the “spectacle” of fashion that attracts interest and attention but falls short of an in-depth embrace of a brand’s DNA.
“More and more, we see this sort of quick interpretation, so it becomes more difficult to innovate as well,” he said. “In terms of methodology for designers, if you have five years or if you have 10 years, the way in which you can penetrate the brand heritage is completely different.”
He described a “mania for the new” that infiltrates most aspects of fashion, and now the creative aspect, also. “Everyone is consumed quite quickly.”
Observers cite benefits to a long creative tenure, especially for the development of accessories, perfumes and the like.
“It is well-known that, for a fashion brand to grow significantly, ready-to-wear lines are generally not enough; the main source of revenues is leather goods, accessories and perfumes, and it takes some time to translate the style of a designer into all these product categories,” Simmenauer explained, mentioning how “Jonathan Anderson turned Loewe into a modern luxury house, aligning the aesthetics of all product categories. It cannot be done in a six-month tenure.”
De Saint Pierre noted that most of the megabrands with roots in accessories, such as Hermès and Vuitton, have “always had multiple creative leaders, while brands with a fashion/couture foundation — Chanel, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Valentino, etc. — have one creative leader, with the exception of Dior, creatively led by category since the 1980s.”
There can be a downside to long creative tenure, especially as fashion now runs at the accelerated speed of social media, observers note.
“Fashion is about catching the momentum. After more than 15 years, it’s a serious challenge,” Simmenauer offered.
On the other hand, short tenures can “dismantle the brand’s identity, especially if there is no strong continuity between the creative directors,” according to Simmenauer. “That may be a problem for brands like Givenchy or Kenzo, which seem to have hesitated between a heritage and a streetwear approach for the last decade.”
According to Parsons’ Pecorari, fashion education is shifting from individualism — whose ultimate ambition would be to become the creative director of a couture house — to a focus on “collaborative work.…We are pushing this idea of a diversity in skills.”
In his view, compared to 10 or 15 years ago, “there is much more critical view” on the industry’s revolving door. “Sometimes [students] are not even interested in that sort of traditional system of fashion, and want to experiment in relation to independent design or maybe more artistic approaches,” Pecorari said.
He lauded Prada’s approach to designer change, with Miuccia Prada bringing in Raf Simons in 2020 as her co-creative director, laying the groundwork for him eventually to take over.
“It seems clever and sustainable in the sense of human resources,” he said.
Simmenauer also flagged other new creative configurations, “like rotating creative direction at Jean-Paul Gaultier, or AZ Factory, but it certainly cannot work for every brand.”
Gallagher forecast more guest designer gigs, collaborations and mash-ups — think Gucci x Balenciaga, Balenciaga x Adidas or Fendace, the seasonal swap of Fendi and Versace — “which generate excitements for drops.”