It wasn’t all that long ago that the debate over fashion supremacy — brand versus designer — made for interesting conversation. But after a year of major designer machinations, it’s very clear that the brands hold the power and, like virtually all other employees, designers serve at the pleasure of their bosses.

Hardly a revelation, in literal terms — the boss is the boss. Yet at the highest reaches of fashion, the storied houses, it long served the bosses’ interests to fuel the aura of the designer as deity. Designers were granted endless creative freedom and, at least publicly, the support to realize their visions and retain stature in the eyes of a fashion-obsessed public.

This story first appeared in the December 16, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Now all bets are off. At a time of challenged luxury and a dense population of compelling, if not always tested, designers, chief executive officers and the group bosses to whom they answer have less patience and more roving eyes than ever before. Meanwhile, fashion is marked as well by endless seasons, global demands including travel, and scant down time for the essential creative recharge. Some designers have thus voiced their desire for — gasp — a life. The result: a revolving designer door suddenly in frequent use.

From house founder Donna Karan to a pair of one-and-done contract guys, Dior’s Raf Simons and Balenciaga’s Alexander Wang, high-profile designers made dramatic exits with unprecedented frequency. Karan’s departure, the suspension of her signature label and her replacement at DKNY by Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow were the culmination of perhaps a long-brewing restlessness by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton after years of owning DKI.

At Dior, Simons’ departure felt surprising despite months of rumors. His arrival had brought to conclusion a one-year search following the John Galliano debacle during which the house hovered in a creative and marketing limbo. Few would have thought that Simons’ tenure would prove but another interim. Galliano imposed upon Dior an image of intense, wondrous romance tinged variously with angst, anger and fantasy — and modernity issues. Simons arrived as the ultimate modernist. Yet while he did some beautiful work, he wasn’t there long enough to fully impose his vision as the look of the house.

For all of the sparkle of the name Balenciaga, its historical resonance is far less than that of Dior, as its business is of a different scale. Add in that, despite some very good collections, the Wang-Balenciaga relationship never quite captured magic, and the designer’s exit felt relatively shock-free.

In both cases, the moves appeared mutual: no hard feelings, thank you for your service. In a statement, Simons acknowledged the relentlessness of responsibilities at a major house. He based his decision, he said, “entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside my work.” For his part, when Wang took his last post-show sprint down the Balenciaga runway, his buoyant demeanor read as feisty metaphor: he couldn’t sprint out of Paris fast enough.

Then there’s Alber formerly-of-Lanvin Elbaz — hard feelings all around. Unlike Simons and Wang, Elbaz was one of fashion’s few remaining long-tenured designer employees at a major house. Without diminishing Jeanne Lanvin’s historical due, as far as the fashion-consuming population is concerned, Elbaz was Lanvin, having elevated the long-dormant label to a position of prominence and influence; Lanvin has virtually no fashion identity apart from the work and image he delivered. Yet that fact didn’t keep him employed. Elbaz, too, expressed lifestyle frustration, going public in a lengthy soliloquy at Fashion Group International’s Night of Stars in October. “Loudness is the new thing. Loudness is the new cool, and not only in fashion,” he said “I prefer whispering.” But it wasn’t just big-picture exhaustion that fueled his exit; internally, discord pulsed. “I wish the house of Lanvin the future it deserves among the best French luxury brands, and hope it finds the business vision it needs to engage in the right way forward,” he said in a statement when he left.

All three brands must now start over in terms of establishing their next-generation, ready-to-wear identity. Of the three, only one has hired. Though unfair to call Wang’s Balenciaga tenure a failed experiment it proved less than hoped for. That didn’t stop ceo Isabelle Guichot from replacing him with another red-hot young buck, Vetements creator Demna Gvasalia, he of the major fascination factor and slim, if intriguing, résumé. Guichot said she was amazed at his ideas, “an approach to the brand that was really new and that was really his own.”

Which begs the question, from the creative standpoint, what will now fuel the brand’s identity? Will Gvasalia in fact make it “his own?” Hopes are high. With few exceptions (the magic that goes on in a storied outpost of the Rue Cambon a glorious, multitiered anomaly), adherence to original house codes is overrated; women want clothes they love. What does matter, what brings customers back, is constancy, the belief that this house speaks to me. What matters as well: marketing. If designers come and go, a brand has no choice but to market around its more mundane aspects. These may very well speak to luxury, tradition and chic, but less so to fashion.

To use his or her own identity with that of a brand, a designer needs time to develop that commingled aesthetic and time for the consumer to accept it as innate to the brand. And with the cloud of short-term replacement ever present, how much of the creative self will a designer surrender?

Yet while employee pressures weigh heavily, so, too, do those of self-employment. Over the past 20 years, the ranks of younger designers with name resonance have swelled. Public fascination with fashion has upped interest in industry careers, young people attracted by the art, the glamour, the creativity, and somewhere in there, the business.

Despite all the industry support, fashion remains an incredibly difficult business to navigate on a small scale. In the past week or so alone, Jonathan Saunders and his business partner Eiesha Bharti Pasricha closed their business; Thakoon Panichgul sold a controlling interesting in his brand to Vivian Chou, and Thomas Tait, an avowed showman, decided to forgo a fashion show for fall in favor of more nuanced one-on-one appointments, which, he said, feels “a little bit like an opportunity that’s not [yet] really taken fully.” While at the time Tait didn’t mention the financial stress of staging a major show, he spoke insightfully to WWD in May. Sometimes, he said, “The media side of things develops and accelerates at a much faster rate than, say, the commercial. So you can very quickly become something that people are aware of, but it’s very much still in the troubleshooting phases.”

For others, the good times roll. While no one has ever accused Balmain of selling up a storm, the collection and its designer, Olivier Rousteing, are social media sensations. His primary shows draw Kardashians, legions of “It” girls and millions of likes; his Balmain H&M extravaganza, shown in New York in October, proved a populist triumph, creating a global retail frenzy. For now, such frenzy is more than enough, critical skewering be damned.

That’s for now. But other young stars will rise, with their own appeal and expectations. They will also continue to expand the eager and talented pool of designers, heightening the competition further, especially when major jobs come up — which now offer maximum exposure but little job security.

It begs the question of whether the model of major brand employment should remain the Holy Grail for aspiring designers. If not, what’s the alternative? Staying independent for the long haul is complicated. But not impossible. Case in point: Tom Ford. After establishing the template for the glamour designer-employee at Gucci, exiting in a spectacular huff and disappearing, he reappeared on his own terms — terms he continues to flaunt. Most recently, he opted out of a spring show, and instead produced a video collection starring Lady Gaga and his favorite models. It served multiple purposes: It took the place of the show Ford didn’t have time to stage while directing his second feature film, and it looked great online. Third, though unlikely an intended purpose: It showed that in this unsettled time for designers, creative thinking can’t be limited to the sketchpad and muslin.

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