Brand identity. Its crystal-clear definition is supposed to be essential to a vibrant business. Particularly so in fashion, or one would think, given its visual nature. Yet at the major brand level in fashion today, clarity of identity is as past tense as the bustle.
Case in point: Givenchy. The brand and Clare Waight Keller officially parted ways on Friday after a single three-year contract. During her tenure, Waight Keller eschewed the boho prettiness she worked at Chloé that got her the job, embracing instead (with some digressions) a harder, Eighties-inspired look with elements of sharp tailoring and some archival riffs. She followed Riccardo Tisci who, over 12 years, elevated Goth to an unlikely level of high chic.
The Waight Keller departure was a long time in coming; rumors had circulated for some time that a re-up for her wasn’t in store once her contract ended. In a piece in Monday’s WWD, Miles Socha noted some of the names in circulation as her successor: Jil Sander’s Luke and Lucie Meier; 1017 Alyx 9SM founder Matthew Williams; Paco Rabanne’s Julien Dossena; Gucci design director Davide Renne. Socha also cited a provocative phrase from the brand’s announcement, that it would soon reveal a new “creative organization.” Could that indicate that Givenchy might digress from the traditional, single creative director-driven model in favor of something more radical? Time will tell.
Whatever system is installed, there’s an excellent chance that the designer named to oversee it will spend less time at Givenchy than he or she did in fashion school. That’s not a Givenchy thing, or an LVMH thing. It’s a fashion thing; it’s where the industry’s ruling class has gone after a long stretch of relative creative-director employment stability at the heritage houses. To wit, after a period of volatility in which John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien MacDonald all did stints at Givenchy, Tisci had a long, impressive run. Then came Waight Keller, who arrived at a very different hiring moment than Tisci had, one marked by impatience and a clear feeling across the major brands (read: mostly, but not exclusively, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Kering brands) that there’s little virtue in consistency at the creative helm.
Which raises the question of what now constitutes brand identity. Can anyone offer a succinct description of the Givenchy brand identity? Some people still connect the name to Hubert de Givenchy’s gal pal Audrey Hepburn bedecked in a LBD, but that standard of classicism hasn’t defined the house for decades. If its identity can’t be easily defined and articulated, how does a brand develop loyalty among its customer base?
Once upon a time brand identity at least began on an aesthetic level. It started with the house founders and, leapfrogging to the ascent of the major groups and their various acquisitions, carried on with the creative directors hired over the years to refresh, renew, revive. The creative director developed and refined a look, and put it out there for consumer consideration. A woman became a Givenchy client, a Dior client, a Gucci client, a Chanel client because the aesthetic spoke to her visually and emotionally. It drew her into the world of the house and, if they were really meant for each other, it continued to speak to her as she and the designer evolved. Meanwhile, the brand would court the customer in various ways, depending upon how good, faithful and high spending a client she was or had potential to become.
But now the concept of core brand identity based on fashion aesthetic — what the clothes look like — is out the door. That’s because that most basic level of identity comes from the designer. And with every new designer arrival, the process starts anew, especially as these days, consistency of vision is hardly seen as a plus come hiring time.
Some brands have tried to maintain an aesthetic thread while modernizing the look — Wes Gordon at Carolina Herrera; Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia at Oscar de la Renta. But within the major Europeans, it’s been a free-for-all: from Tisci to Waight Keller at Givenchy; Waight Keller to Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé; Phoebe Philo to Hedi Slimane at Celine; Raf Simons to Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior; Slimane to Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent. Other than Slimane to Vaccarello — and the two express their Saint Laurent-ness very differently — which of those successions indicated a modicum of consistency?
No designer wants to merely take on the mantle of a predecessor. But if the creative director changes every three years, the brand is left with no core fashion identity, just an extended series of interim collections, their look often wildly different than those of the previous creative administration. It’s unlikely the customer’s level of emotional involvement will remain constant. Sometimes she’ll find something new to stoke her passions. And sometimes, she’ll feel abandoned, the most notable example, the Philo-to-Slimane exchange at Celine. Whether one appreciates Slimane’s Seventies retro snappiness isn’t the point. With her artful approach to addressing real-woman wardrobe needs, Philo built up one of fashion’s most devoted, passionate customer bases. Accurate or not, many customers felt the brand messaging on the change was clear after her departure and Slimane’s hiring: We’re moving on. You’re dumped.
Increasingly, the kind of passion that once made women long-term loyalists is all but gone. That’s not to say consumer loyalty is dead. But at the major brand level, in crossovers from one designer tenure to the next, it’s likely to turn clinical, even superficial, the kind of loyalty that comes from being bought (we all have our price — show tickets; an invite to a glamorous three-day itinerant experience) rather than from buying into a creative vision. (An extreme example: How many celebrity brand ambassadors disengage when a new designer comes in? Answer: None.)
What fashion brand today has a crystal clear identity independent of its current designer? By that, I mean a concrete, recognizable signature style beyond non-specific descriptives such as “luxury” or “modern” or “timeless?” Top of head, one comes to mind — Chanel. And maybe if Karl Lagerfeld hadn’t been there so long, having his way, cleverly yet faithfully with the founding codes while working his brilliant, fascinating persona and the face and soul of Chanel, that wouldn’t be the case. We’ll never know. Virginie Viard struggled mightily through her last collection, but the results were still clearly Chanel.
Hermès, too, has a distinct identity, but since it introduced ready-to-wear with Martin Margiela in the Nineties, it has always been an extra, and never the primary agent of the house’s high-brow chic. Ditto, Louis Vuitton, where the clothes have never attained equal visibility with the house’s classic accessories.
Conversely, Gucci, fashion’s other accessories-turned-fashion brand, has had two major fashion identities, both designer-driven and 180 degrees different in mood — the impossibly sexy-glam Tom Ford I.D. of the Nineties and the current madcap charm of the Alessandro Michele I.D. Another powerful brand aesthetic: Valentino. Despite the reverence shown to the house founder, its current identity is the creation of Pierpaolo Piccioli.
As for Dior, apart from its designer, the brand has a powerful aura; the name sparkles with chic. Yet that doesn’t translate into a clear fashion identity. The New Look? Yes, Maria Grazia Chiuri references it, but how many clients know or care? What resonates now is that Chiuri has made her Dior a platform for feminist expression. If she were to leave and join the circus tomorrow, would the brass look for a replacement with a similar ethos? The Celine succession from Philo to Slimane suggests not.
In the absence of fashion continuity, what gives a brand its core identity? Executives often note that increasingly, consumers care about corporate values, particularly as expressed in attention to such major cultural issues as sustainability, inclusivity, women’s health. All are surely genuine and laudable. So, too, the remarkable acts of generosity and pro-active manufacturing directives to help fight the coronavirus pandemic. Yet the biggest, most powerful corporate brand and group names can register less personally than a single person. Kering and Francois Henri Pinault embraced the cause of the environment early, boldly and passionately. But the typical Gucci shopper is likely less aware of that interest than the Stella McCartney shopper is of hers. A designer brings a human, personal presence to the cause and the brand.
None of which is to suggest that a brand should re-sign a designer if the relationship has run its course, whether for bottom-line or other reasons. But at some point, the creative director revolving door impacts consumer engagement. It has to. Constant change — especially the exit of a designer whose work appealed on a passionate, gut level — may annoy or even alienate the customer. Or it may shift her shopping approach from emotional to merely transactional.
At the same time, that revolving door may open a small window for independent designers who are so overwhelmingly challenged right now. Even in the best of times, their businesses rely on customer loyalty rooted in emotional connection to the clothes, which are the most basic manifestation of brand identity.
Fashion needs emotion. Not only as we hope to emerge one day from this pandemic nightmare, but always.