Virgil Abloh

Martin Margiela built a 100-million euro fashion business with few outsiders knowing what he looks like, Rei Kawakubo is such an introvert she skipped the receiving line at the Met Gala in her honor, and Miuccia Prada barely peeks out from backstage at the end of her shows.

But in the age of social media and fashion as entertainment, are designers who shun the spotlight missing out on a world of opportunity? Is it possible anymore to simply let the product speak for itself?

The latest runway season showed the growing split between those who are public-facing (Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Brandon Maxwell) and those who prefer to be behind-the-scenes, like Dries Van Noten, Kawakubo and once spotlight-loving John Galliano. 

“We are in a new age, and designers can’t just rely on the quality of their product, it has to be marketed,” said Robert Burke, president and chief executive officer of consultants Robert Burke Associates. “The being the behind-the-scenes, behind-the-curtain designer is not the way things are moving. The whole feeling of anything manufactured or programmed to the consumer, especially the Millennial consumer, is a turn-off. They want to see something about the designer’s life that’s real,” he said, name-checking Virgil Abloh, Olivier Rousteing and Simon Porte Jacquemus as the new wave of designer digital marketers.

Simon Porte Jacquemus

Simon Porte Jacquemus  Stéphane Feugère/WWD

“For luxury brands, social media is the most immediate and effective way to market direct-to-consumer, especially since so many of them are pulling back from traditional advertising,” said Burke.

That means a successful creative director must be able to craft a multimedia marketing message, he added, pointing to Gucci’s Alessandro Michele as a game-changer in terms of a designer having a direct affect on marketing and social media.

For young designers, finding a platform beyond fashion is key. In America, Brandon Maxwell heading for TV’s “Project Runway” reboot on March 14, and Jason Wu appearing on “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and China’s Masterclass are the newest examples of American designers who are convinced greater exposure through television is a path to faster fame — and presumably business success.

“I’m doing the show to speak to a wider audience,” said Maxwell, who is currently self-financed but looking for investors.

It certainly worked for Kors. “Even if you aren’t telegenic or don’t want to do personal appearances, you have to be able to articulate what your collection is about,” he said. “If I’m going through portfolios and a kid is totally silent, forget it, how are they going to get financing? A little media training, social media training, all of that helps.”

Michael Kors and Bella Hadid

Michael Kors and Bella Hadid  Stephen Lovekin/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Hollywood talent agencies have been part of promoting the new model of American designer as pop culture star. WME-IMG reps both Maxwell and Wu, as well as Rodarte, Christian Siriano, Prabal Gurung, Jeremy Scott and others.

The launch of Instagram in 2010 was the turning point in terms of opportunities and expectations for young designers, said Andrew Serrano, vice president of global fashion at WME-IMG. “All of a sudden, it became about more than just doing a great collection, but how you are styling it and marketing it to a content-driven audience beyond the runway,” he said, noting that his agency looks for designers who are “playing by their own rules, have a distinct vision of where they want to go, who want to become more commercially savvy, work more in media, and have more partnerships with larger entities.”

Today’s fashion system rewards those who have creative vision that translates beyond the runway.

“It used to be someone like Brandon Maxwell didn’t need to be on ‘Project Runway,’ because it wasn’t considered necessary for a designer’s success,” said Julie Gilhart, former fashion director of Barneys New York and now a freelance fashion consultant for brands like Amazon and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. The difference now is that consumers who once discovered new designers at stores or through magazines are finding them in other ways. “With so much social media and outward-facing promotion that’s necessary…If you are a growing brand, you need to have a platform for storytelling and presence, otherwise who is going to see you?”

Brandon Maxwell and Karlie Kloss

Brandon Maxwell and Karlie Kloss  Andrew H. Walker/REX/Shutterstock

A social media presence and following can lure retailers looking for a new discovery, said Alison Loehnis, president of Net-a-porter and Mr Porter, noting that her team found three of its recently launched Vanguard designers through Instagram: Peter Do, Ratio et Motus and Anne Manns. “These brands are proving that social media platforms can be one of the most effective ways of communicating and building an engaged audience, even ahead of officially launching to the public.”

“A designer who is also connected and understands the consumer today is important, and if they have followers, it validates that more,” said Burke.

Exhibit A: Jeremy Scott, who brought a built-in Instagram fan base with him when he was hired to lead Moschino in 2013, and whose runway spectacles, like the “Price is Right”-style game show he staged this season in Milan, engage consumers directly. “I don’t want to say I’m an archetype, but…maybe I am,” he said, noting he has fans who recognize him outside his Milan office, and while he is driving in L.A., who probably have never bought anything from Moschino. “My job is to communicate. Maybe that’s where I am different from other designers. Mine isn’t about ‘this is the hem this season,’ I’m not trying to do that. I’m trying to tell a story and put a smile on your face.”

Moschino-RTW-Fall-2019

Jeremy Scott  Delphine AchardWWD

Social media engagement has become an important measure of success during fashion week, putting a premium on designer face-time and access to inspiration through online content. “Traditionally, designers tightly controlled what was fed to the public and what was available, and it was more often their choice to pull back,” said Burke. “The brands today that realize there is no controlling the message, and actually join in on the message are ahead of the game.”

During London Fashion Week, Victoria Beckham launched her own YouTube channel, streaming her runway show on the digital platform exclusively, which helped to catapult her to the top spot for brand-owned media among designers who showed, with $4.9 million in Media Impact Value, according to Launchmetrics.

Even traditionally under-the-radar brands are seeing the value of more openness and designer face-time. Milan-based Max Mara, which has for years let the product quietly speak for itself, has in recent seasons been pushing veteran creative director Ian Griffiths into the spotlight, including by posting his fall 2019 inspiration quote on Instagram, and scheduling media previews ahead of the shows. “The stories he tells about his creative process, it adds value to the brand,” said Maria Giulia Maramotti, vice president of U.S. retail and global brand ambassador, explaining that younger consumers are looking for craft and quality, but also the reason behind a teddy coat.

For brands with designers who aren’t comfortable in the spotlight (or who aren’t former Spice Girls), there are other ways to engage Millennial customers — by partnering with influencers as brand surrogates, for example, as Prada did with its Bryanboy Snapchat takeover for the fall 2019 runway show in Milan. “Audiences want to engage with brands, they don’t just want to be spoken to,” said Selby Drummond, head of fashion and beauty for Snapchat. “But if designers are not comfortable being in front of the camera, it’s important to protect that. Whatever way the company or people behind them can help create an ecosystem, they can lean on it.”

David Beckham and Victoria Beckham

David and Victoria Beckham at the Derek Blasberg and Victoria Beckham YouTube party during London Fashion Week.  Courtesy Photo

Looking to the future, “creative leaders need to be omnimedia,” said Floriane de Saint Pierre, founder of her consulting firm.

“Designing in a vacuum inside your own head and bubble is not the way to go at the moment, so one has to ask designers, in addition to being inspired by architecture, how do you think about the consumer because it matters now,” added Karen Harvey, chief executive officer of The Karen Harvey Consulting Group, which specializes in executive search and professional development.

But the conversation should be about more than a designer’s following, she cautions headhunters. “I don’t know how many designers who were born to be social media icons, and consumers also are skeptical about over promotion….Now, the most important thing is authenticity. It’s how the consumer connects authentically with the designer. Talent and product really matter. JW Anderson has a following, but that’s not what’s making the brand exquisite, it’s the product.”

Abloh, with his 3.6 million Instagram followers and hottest-brand-in-the-world Lyst Index status, may well be the holy grail of luxury brand creative directors for the future, “the modern-day multihyphenate,” said Harvey, musing that maybe the next big talent “is a chef at night, a designer in the morning and doing coding in the afternoon.”

The latest brand launch of New Guards Group, which counts Abloh’s Off-White, Heron Preston and Marcelo Burlon in its stable, is South Korean-born techno DJ and music producer Peggy Gou, who launched Kirin during Paris Fashion Week. Abloh had her perform at an Off-White event, and encouraged her to meet with her bosses to discuss her vision. She studied at the London College of Fashion, has experience as a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar Korea, and 580,000 Instagram followers. In addition to being a DJ and friend of Kanye, Abloh also has a master’s degree in architecture and design, Harvey pointed out.

Virgil Abloh and Peggy GouKirin Peggy Gou dinner, Fall Winter 2019, Paris Fashion Week, France - 26 Feb 2019

Virgil Abloh and Peggy Gou  Dominique Maitre/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

“At the basic level there has to be a skill set, because a big social media following does not a designer make,” she said.

In Paris, the passing of Karl Lagerfeld — a communicator nonpareil long before Instagram and Snap — is ushering in Virginie Viard as the new creative director at Chanel. The 20-year right hand to Lagerfeld doesn’t have much of a social media profile (just two Instagram posts and 14K followers), and very little is known about her personal life — so far.

Chanel is an exception to all the rules,” said Gilhart. “The most important thing for that house is to have an excellent designer and preserve tradition. You don’t need someone with 1 million Instagram followers because when they become the designer for Chanel, they will have 1 million Instagram followers.”

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