It’s hiring season in fashion. Or so it seemed last week with the news on consecutive days of two very different designer appointments, Bertrand Guyon at Schiaparelli and Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne at DKNY.
Just getting started at Schiaparelli has been a near decadelong project for Diego Della Valle, who in 2006 acquired the archives of Elsa Schiaparelli, the early- to mid-20th-century’s great surrealism-inspired designer, her work perhaps the first example of serious fashion-art fusion with a commercial bent. After several years of continued dormancy, Della Valle enlisted a spokes-glamour-person, Farida Khelfa, and opened a couture salon at 21 Place Vendôme, all flamboyance and chic eye trickery as befit the house history. He reportedly weighed hiring John Galliano and then missed what some thought was a self-imposed deadline, to have a designer in place for the opening of the 2012 “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” show at the Met; recruited Christian Lacroix for an engaging if pointless one-off, not-for-sale collection with the markings of a play for press during fall 2013 couture season, and finally hired Marco Zanini, who showed just two couture collections. Zanini’s exit in November was confirmed in a terse statement which took little care to massage the moment, citing a future in which the house would follow “a dynamic where a contemporary spirit meets its founder’s daring personality.”
At DKNY, the appointment of Osborne (who in an April 7 report in WWD denied interest in the job “at this moment”) and Chow — and the corresponding hire of Hector Muelas, formerly creative director of worldwide marketing communications of Apple — confirmed by WWD on April 29, indicate that, after 14 years of ownership, LVMH is now hyper-focused on the Donna Karan International business. Chief executive officer Caroline Brown is proving herself more proactive than her predecessors. Like the statement on Zanini’s dismissal, Brown’s no-nonsense conversation with WWD’s Lisa Lockwood offered an example of the industry’s increasingly clinical approach to designer appointments. Karan will continue as “the creative director of Donna Karan Collection and she’ll definitely support DKNY in an advisory role and will support this new creative team.” Jane Chung, executive vice president of design at DKNY, and there since its 1989 launch, will exit the brand within the month; no word on whether she’ll stay within Donna Karan International.
The appointments differ significantly in the types of designers hired, one an anonymous senior assistant designer, the others, a high-profile team considered among the hottest — and coolest — personalities in current fashion.
Is one approach preferable to the other? More likely, they point to different requirements at two dissimilar levels of fashion. It’s Brown’s mandate to straighten out and grow DKI, of which DKNY accounts for the lion’s share of the business. DKNY was a pioneer to what is now the contemporary space, a collection intended to reflect the speed, energy and kinetic activity of New York City and its street life. It burst into fashion, delightful and buzzy. But often, buzz fades with time and the emergence of competition. Despite many wonderful DKNY collections over the years, recent shows have lacked the buzz factor of the days when, for example, Karan and Chung celebrated Church Ladies and first transported Neoprene from wet suit to party frock.
By hiring the Public School guys — they won the 2014 CFDA Award for men’s wear and are nominated this year in the men’s and Swarovski women’s categories — Brown, either on her own or in concert with Pierre Yves Roussel and even Bernard Arnault, is making a bold play to bring back the buzz. Public School’s fashion is indeed appealing — cool, smart and often interesting. Like most of those collections with which it resides, it’s not particularly directional. Which is fine; most bring-home-the-bacon collections are not. As the number of brands who matter in fashion has grown, the expectation that most will rock the fashion boat has diminished. Often good-looking clothes with a proverbial edge are enough, particularly when sprung from the savvy, approachable talents of highly marketable personalities. Osborne and Chow are case studies of marketable cool.
Time may prove them case studies as well of a new kind of creative hire: designers directed by a marketing agenda. In her conversation with WWD, Brown said, “I can’t think of designers who represent authentic New York in a better way,” and that after an exhaustive search, “where we feel we landed is exactly where we feel we should be.”
Positive but nonspecific in terms of their mandate to steer the creative ship. Brown turned more concrete in reference to Muelas, who, she said, will “examine this brand, and say what is the brand message we want to send, what is the brand focus and who are the very best partners to get us there.”
That answer came in response to a question about whether Trey Laird and Laird & Co., DKI’s longtime ad agency, will continue to have a role. However, assuming Brown meant what she said — that it’s up to the new chief image officer to determine “what is the brand focus” — that is the clearest verbal articulation I’ve heard of a trend we all know is out there: the increasing elevation of marketing over design as the primary fuel of a business.
If Chow and Osborne were hired for a combination of their work and highly marketable, fashion-cognoscente cool factor, Schiaparelli’s Guyon was not. He is a career number-two with a fashion Q rating of zero. Whether Guyon can step from the back room into the limelight remains to be seen; one can summon a litany of strong second-in-command designers who tried and failed. Yet there’s also precedent for success. Two recent appointments to major couture-type situations were internal: Valentino’s Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli and Alexander McQueen’s Sarah Burton (let’s not stagnate in semantics; the McQueen runway has always been lower-case couture). In both cases the designers were not only unknown but self-effacing; they probably never intended nor perhaps even wanted to front a major house. Yet here they are, consistently producing exquisite, powerful work at the forefront of fashion.
Given his résumé — Givenchy, Lacroix and most recently, Valentino — Guyon should be well practiced in the essential quality demands of the couture genre. Assuming so, his primary challenge will be to establish his voice for an existing house, something Burton and his former bosses at Valentino have done so beautifully.
One imagines Guyon’s seven-year stint under Chuiri and Piccioli went a long way in winning him the job; their work is among the most watched and admired in fashion today. Yet the pressure not to reference them will be huge. To that end, he may be at an advantage. Given the aesthetic range of those couturiers he’s worked for, Guyon may be less inclined to pilfer than would someone of more limited experience.
If Guyon already knows his own voice, how will he apply it to his new charge? The name Schiaparelli resonates with vibrant codes and imagery – to those very few who care. As Riccardo Tisci’s mastery at Givenchy indicates, most customers care less about codes than great clothes with a point of view. Besides, while Schiaparelli’s divine surrealist tradition offers rich reference possibilities, how much tony fun can you have with crustaceans when Moschino’s Jeremy Scott isn’t limited by haute chic for his Fish McNugget (Barbie, Looney Tunes, etc. ) schtick?
Let’s hope that in negotiating his way from archive to currency, Guyon doesn’t get trapped in the loaded space between the two.