Byline: Miles Socha
PARIS — Where will the talent come from? And is the strategy of designer mercenaries — using hot names to heat up houses that have gone cold — still valid?
Those are questions industry players are mulling this week, as the number of vacancies at European fashion houses pile up. In the past week alone, Roberto Menichetti and Nathalie Gervais confirmed their exits from Burberry and Nina Ricci, respectively. And, as reported, Narciso Rodriguez will leave Loewe in October, and Nicolas Ghesquiere is expected to say goodbye to Balenciaga and hello to Gucci Group.
A favorite front-row pastime this week has been to play headhunter. Among the popular propositions being floated are putting Narciso Rodriguez at Burberry, Alber Elbaz at Nina Ricci, Isabel Toledo at Loewe and sending Roberto Menichetti back to Jil Sander. And should Balenciaga open up, why not Hussein Chalayan?
But retailers, to be sure, are concerned about what they are calling the “revolving-door” syndrome.
“The talent pool is thin and, in many cases, you have major responsibilities being thrown at people whose experience and qualifications are low,” said Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive officer of Bergdorf Goodman. “The expectations in our industry are very high. People are always looking for miracles, and they don’t happen that often.”
Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, agreed there is a limited number of top talents and the “big, financially successful companies” are using their means to secure the best ones.
Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta, said he’s concerned about the speed at which the game of musical chairs is being played. He said it’s unsettling for consumers, who need time to grasp the new direction a house typically takes when a new designer steps in.
“Look at how quickly they got rid of Steven Slowik at Bill Blass,” he said. “How unfair is that? Can a designer reinvent a brand in a season? I don’t think so.”
Meanwhile, recruitment specialists in Paris say the revolving-door syndrome is a reflection of an intensely competitive market and a reminder of the need to find new, creative solutions to the slew of openings.
Floriane de Saint Pierre, who runs an executive search firm here, said many strategies remain valid, including hiring marquee names, prominent first assistants or cultivating talent from within. But she said that companies must take risks and evaluate designers not only on their designs and creativity, but their “ability to give a brand an identity.”
Michael Boroian, a headhunter at TMP Worldwide here, said the number of changes is a reflection of the number of mergers and acquisitions in luxury and fashion. But he said that the fame game only works if the essence of a brand is respected. “Being modern with memory is workable, whereas revolutions can be hazardous to a company’s health,” he stressed.
Some observers are starting to question the wisdom of having designers consult for one house while maintaining their own.
Joan Kaner, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Neiman Marcus, said she’s concerned that designers are doing too much when they juggle more than one collection.
“Something has to give, especially with precollections and collections,” she said. “It’s difficult.”
Saint Pierre agreed: “I think it makes sense to have people devote themselves to one brand. There are very few supermen and superwomen out there.”
“There are not a lot of designers who can keep going with many collections,” he observed. “At the moment, Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs are two exceptions.”
Saint Pierre suggested that one new direction in filling vacancies is to look beyond very young designers. A good recent example was Pucci’s choice of Julio Espada, 45, as its new creative director. Designers with experience tend to be more well-rounded, have more “culture” to offer a brand a good perspective on the history of fashion, she said.
Boroian, meanwhile, said he promotes the idea of “lesser-known designers” at established houses. “One has only to remember that for every singular success in the business, the designer had to start somewhere.”