When the Givenchy store opened on Madison Avenue in New York in August 2015, its accouterments included chic black-and-white lacquered finishings, a $29,000 embroidered military jacket and, hung high from the rafters, a giant portrait of Donatella Versace.
That photograph, from Givenchy’s fall ad campaign shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, telegraphed in a highly unusual manner a strong friendship between competitive designers. No matter how varied the aesthetics, in the luxury space, everybody competes. In the case of these two designers, not anymore, as Tisci is now a free agent (assuming an expired or soon-to-expire non-compete) since he left Givenchy after the conclusion of his contract with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Even before he showed his last collection for the house, rumors had started to swirl that the mutual admiration proclaimed so boldly in that ad campaign would expand into a working relationship. In the context of the past year’s global game of musical designers, that Tisci would sign on at Versace was often discussed as a fait accompli. The obvious accompanying assumption: Donatella would relinquish her creative perch to make room.
In the long-running soiree of speculation, Versace’s interest in Tisci was first reported by WWD on Jan. 19. One month later, with the signing supposedly imminent, numerous retailers went on the record expressing glee at the prospect. As recently as a few weeks ago, sources indicated that a floor had been cleared for Tisci at Versace’s Milan headquarters, where a member of his staff was already residence. And then, a sudden reversal. Now Tisci’s much anticipated, long-delayed, the-contract’s-signed, no-it-isn’t move appears to be off for good. At the very least, it has hit a serious snafu.
For designer hires to take time is hardly unusual these days, going back to Dior’s long search for John Galliano’s successor, which culminated in the one-and-done contract tenure of Raf Simons. While those circumstances were unique, prolonged hiring procedures have become acceptable if not exactly standard. Case in point: the protracted wait between the industry-wide assumption that Simons was headed for Calvin Klein and the official, ink-on-paper announcement.
Other brands have handled hirings more rapidly: Anthony Vaccarello to Saint Laurent; Clare Waight Keller to Givenchy; Maria Grazia Chiuri to Dior; even Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia to Oscar de la Renta, though that one involved a now-infamous digression to Carolina Herrera and a lawsuit. In each of those situations, the position was vacant.
Versace and Tisci present a different situation altogether. Why rush? The participants are right to take their time, not only to hammer out the details, but to take a good, long look at the big picture: Is this really what both sides want? Apparently the answer is no.
Clearly, there’s a great deal of mutual respect — at least between Tisci and Donatella. But if gossip is accurate, there have also been moments of overt (read: loud) conflict, the most recent last week, halting the negotiations. Nor are the designers the only players involved. In 2014, the house took on a 20 percent investment by The Blackstone Group, which has supposedly been hot to sign Tisci all along. If that’s true, then Blackstone must also be hot for Donatella to step aside as creative director — which could lead to friction ahead.
Fashion is an industry of passion, but there are degrees. Versace is positioned near the extreme of greatest intensity, its first and second generations highly invested emotionally as well as financially, and its still-brief history steeped in tragedy, the murder of house founder, beloved brother and uncle Gianni Versace.
In that context, a newly arrived designer would step into unprecedented circumstances. There is no vacancy here; a position would have to be created, whether by addition or high-profile exit. Donatella is only the house’s second creative director to date, and both have shared a name with the plaque on the door. Christopher Kane put in a few years at Versus; J.W. Anderson and Anthony Vaccarello did collections for that brand under a “guest designer” construct. That Donatella discontinued that approach suggests she may have been conflicted about relinquishing creative control — and that was Versus.
Surely, in his next situation, Tisci would want and deserve full creative control — of the collections at least. (Whether he would demand Raf Simons-like sign off on all creative elements down to the tissue paper — who knows?) Designers of far lesser reputation and proven brilliance would demand as much; no one can design confidently with a second-guesser at the ready to critique and tweak.
Deep down, Donatella must know that it would be unfair to bring Tisci on and not give him free rein. She understands the creative process, but is she ready to step away? Over the past several seasons she’s designed some of her best work in years. Once she hands over the creative mantle that will likely be it for her career as a designer, and she’ll be looking at the “r” word — retirement. She may feel that she has more to say creatively and just isn’t ready for the role of designer emeritus.
Yet, at the risk of playing amateur shrink, Donatella’s hesitation may run deeper still. Were she to vacate the post and hire Tisci — or anyone else — as creative director, the house of Versace would take a giant leap from its origin and from its founder’s vision, even if the family ownership triad remains in place. Intellectually, Donatella knows that longevity is a primary goal of every business and that means expanding on, and sometimes, digressing from, its founding vision. Emotionally, she may not be ready to go there.
For his part, Tisci may have questioned the degree to which he could advance — or digress from — the Versace aesthetic. Even were Donatella to step aside, he might feel pressure, whether external or within himself, to be more respectful of the house tradition and archives than he was at Givenchy, where he created a powerful identity that had nothing to do Audrey Hepburn and a little black dress.
Then there’s the X factor of a relationship altered immeasurably by the realities of work: You were my equal as a designing colleague and friend. Now you’re my — fill in the blank — boss or employee. In the unlikely the two sides come back together, the situation could take Versace to new heights. Or it could be the ending of a beautiful friendship.