Are two heads better than one? And mixed company even better?
That seems to be the case as coed design duos proliferate across women’s fashion, with Miuccia Prada recently inviting Raf Simons to become her co-creative director; Kim Jones headed to Fendi to work beside Silvia Venturini Fendi, and Joseph and Faith Connexion leveraging the power of two in their recent creative hires.
Those new combos plump up an already impressive number of coed duos. That configuration is reflected in 7 percent of the brands listed on the official fashion calendars for New York, London, Milan and Paris, according to a tabulation by WWD, which examined the February/March schedules while considering current design leadership.
Of the 265 fashion houses listed, 51 percent are led by men, 38 percent by women, with the balance a mix of male duos, female duos and collectives or studios.
Why so much doubling up? Brand leaders, academics and headhunters suggest that the onerous demands on today’s creative directors is perhaps better shouldered by two people, with the dialogue fostering more dynamic and nuanced designs in tune with today’s fashions, less gender-specific than ever, and shifting values and priorities.
“A mix of different points of view is important now more than ever to create a dynamic collection that speaks to a connected global market,” said Tom Scott, an assistant professor of fashion design at FIT in New York. “I don’t feel it’s necessarily different gender identities any more than it’s differing points of view that affect the design outcome of a collection. A mix of nationalities, ethnicities, age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds all contribute to a broader, more modern perspective of design.”
According to Karen Harvey, chief executive officer of the Karen Harvey Consulting Group, “it is really quite lonely and sometimes isolating” for a solo creative director, even if he or she operates within a great team. “Creative director couples seem, in general, to be a bit lighter about the whole thing. I mean that in a really positive way, that their ongoing dialogue seems to be really useful.
“I do see that levity in the ability to have someone to talk to, bounce ideas off of, really connect, debate, but share a vision that is really dynamic,” she added.
Lamenting the historic dearth of female creative directors in fashion, Harvey applauded the advent of more coed duos, which results in “a greater female representation inside brands…. What’s really happening now is the empowerment of women, the absolute requirement for diversity.
“I don’t think it’s like, ‘Let’s bring women in to ground the clothes.’ I think it’s, ‘Let’s bring a woman’s voice into the brand. And not have a male voice tell a woman what she wants to wear right now.’ It’s not about making the collections more wearable,” she said, countering the stereotype that men conjure fantasies in women’s fashions, while women take a more practical route.
According to a 2018 study by the Design Museum in London using U.K. data, only 22 percent of people working in occupations associated with design were women. That represented an increase of only 4 percent since 2004.
Among recent developments, in October Joseph named husband-and-wife team Anna Lundbäck Dyhr and Frederik Dyhr as co-creative directors. The former had joined Joseph in November 2018 after holding senior design roles at Bottega Veneta, Lanvin, Uniqlo and Cos, while the latter was previously creative director for men’s wear at Tommy Hilfiger.
“Together they bring an invaluable combination of creativity and commercial thinking,” Joseph chief executive officer Barbara Campos noted at the time.
In an interview, Campos argued that pressure is mounting on fashion’s creative leaders.
“First of all, everything is very fast-paced, everything is visible, global and instant. So we constantly ask more from them, and faster,” she said. “And maybe for two people, it’s much more manageable. They can just divide and conquer responsibilities amongst them.
“Also, when you have a male and a female working together, you’ll have different perspectives. You have different logics, different sensibilities. And so at the end, what you get is a more rounded 360-degree vision. And I think that diversity is an enormous asset actually,” Campos explained, also flagging that Joseph’s fashion sweet spot is the interplay of masculine and feminine elements.
The executive also wished to support the Dyhrs’ “lifestyle choice.”
“I think that is respectful of wanting to have balance of work life, and a happy family life,” she said. “It is definitely something that I want to encourage and promote within our business because I think we’re going to get the best out of people by doing so.”
Meanwhile, designers working in coed duos say they relish the to-and-fro, which ultimately yields creative designs that are better in tune with women’s lifestyle needs and bodies.
“For us it brings a reality to our work. We are both very creative and love to design without commercial constraints, but when you are discussing ideas and fit, having both perspectives really helps,” said Justin Thornton, who founded London-based Preen with his wife Thea Bregazzi in 1996. “Thea will always bring a positive reality to fit for real women.
“Sometimes I design pieces that we love the feel of, but practically they don’t work for many body shapes. Thea will take this idea to the next level and make sure we keep the key elements of the design but bring a reality to it,” he explained in an interview. “I see things very much from a visual perspective where Thea will also think about the reality of wearing the designs.”
Beckett Fogg, who cofounded New York fashion brand Area in 2014 with Piotrek Panszczyk, agreed “the act of discussion is what informs and propels the design and business forward.”
“Having a male and female perspective adds a layer of depth to our discussions,” she explained. “Piotrek functions as the creative director, and I try almost everything on. We are always interested conceptually and practically in dualities.”
Academics say they encourage all kinds of collaboration, and noted that coed duos have a unique dynamic.
“If you are a woman designing women’s wear, you have a much clearer understanding of other women’s lived experiences and therefore the ability to use that information to inform your design decisions, likewise with men designing men’s wear,” said Andrew Groves, a professor of fashion design at the University of Westminster in London.
Groves noted that doesn’t necessitate a “dialogue between practicality and fantasy, but it allows for that tension within design to be explored.”
“The best work happens when people are challenged, and they have to justify their opinion. This is incredibly helpful within a design partnership when this critical reflection can occur in a supportive atmosphere. This testing of a design proposition before its emergence into the marketplace and being out in front of buyers, merchandisers and consumers enable for a more pragmatic and ultimately successful outcome,” he continued. “With solo designers, there is a risk of being unaware of their own inherent biases and therefore less likely to see the possibility of other ideas that are outside of their own experience.”
In September, Faith Connexion appointed Alexandre Bertrand and Myriam Bensaid as its first creative leading duo, with ceo Maria Buccellati flagging the complexity of the creative director role and arguing that “relying on an internal team led by one creative director no longer worked for us.”
She described the two 32-year-olds as “best friends” who have worked on-and-off for the brand and bring different talents to the table, with Bensaid having already designed some of Faith’s best-selling men’s collections, and Bertrand more focused on women’s in his career.
That said, “I want this brand to have a genderless kind of feel where you feel free. It’s not about being feminine or masculine, it’s this mixture of liking both kind of styles. Non-gender is the future,” Buccellati added. “I think the future of the brand should be multifaceted, it should not be one way.”
Buccellati, who started her career as a model for Dolce & Gabbana, realized that the idea of fashion “duets” is rooted deeply in her psyche, convinced that it yields more interesting results.
“Most designers are very feminine, or they can be very masculine whereas [Myriam and Alexandre] have that twist, and together, they’re brilliant. And I think it’s a positive thing. Today, we are multifaceted people, we’re multistyle, we love to explore,” she said.
Headhunters allowed that some brands may be reticent to take the path of coed duos.
“It’s a bigger risk, in some ways. It would feel like a double loss if it doesn’t work,” Harvey said.
That said, “I actually think it’s worked out in more cases than it hasn’t,” she added, citing as a great example Luke and Lucie Meier at Jil Sander, who joined the Milan-based brand in 2017 and have received broad acclaim. “I think they’re doing a wonderful job and their personalities are very different, but very complementary.”
Lucie Meier was previously co-designer of Dior with Serge Ruffieux following the exit of Raf Simons, while her husband Luke is the cofounder and designer of men’s label OAMC.
Asked if she could detect the impact of Simons on the spring-summer 2021 Prada collection, Harvey said “you could really see that dialogue, and that’s what I think is inspiring at the moment.”
Groves confessed to being “obsessed” with Prada and Simons working together, and spied more of an artistic clash than a gender-based one.
“Raf has an exceptional understanding of how men’s wear and uniforms have historically used insignia, symbols, and semantics to enforce their hegemonic power,” he explained via e-mail. “While we don’t know precisely how the design process worked, I think it is significant that Prada’s iconic women’s wear ugly prints from 1996 served as a foundation on which additional graphic interventions were imposed. In this respect, it reminds me of the collaborative works between [Andy] Warhol and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat, and the tensions that their working process ultimately exposed.”
In Harvey’s view, the most confident creative directors are open to collaboration, and younger generations are also very open to creative tie-ups, “an important next step in the dialogue of fashion and culture.”
Headhunters noted that it’s against the law for them to recruit based on a preferred gender. But are brands open to the idea of coed duos?
“The bigger brands tend to resist it. And the more privately held brands seem more open,” Harvey opined.
Emma Davidson, managing director of London search firm Denza Limited, said she has placed creative duos before — and not without incident.
“In one instance, I was asked by the client to propose men’s wear creative directors. There was a very strong candidate who had always designed with another individual who specialized in women’s wear,” she recounted. “The ceo was a bit of a maverick so was open to any suggestion and the company ended up placing the duo together. I bumped into them at a party later and the women’s wear specialist screamed at me hysterically in front of numerous people because I had not approached them in the first instance for the role.”
In her estimation, a main consideration for clients is the cost — and a duo typically costs more.
“The client will pay more overall, the package will be split over the two candidates and each candidate will ultimately receive less than if an individual had been employed on their own,” she noted.
That said, Davidson stressed that fashion is a collaborative effort, whether or not the creative face of a brand is one person or two.
“Maybe someone gets to do the starting point and have the final say, but the journey between the points is the work of many. I am not sure it matters having one or two people facing the press or taking pole position,” she said, noting that most solo creative directors have an integral number two designer, or a creative muse.
“For example, Kim Jones is an absolutely astounding creative director. But then there is Lucy Beeden, who has been Jones’ right hand from the beginning. Pieter Mulier and Raf Simons is another quick example,” she said, also mentioning Lady Amanda Harlech as a muse to John Galliano and Isabella Blow to Lee Alexander McQueen. “Creative directors don’t come in a plastic bubble on their own — they bring their creative universe.”
“Brands want the best talent as creative director, whether it is one individual, a duo or a collective,” concurred Floriane de Saint Pierre, who operates a namesake search and consulting business in Paris. “We always focus on the talent and its alignment with the brand. A talent can equally be a person, a duo or a collective.”
To wit: De Saint Pierre recently placed Études Studio, a collective, at the head of French outdoors brand Aigle.
“What is probably new today is that duos, trios or collectives are launching fashion brands not under their names, but with a different name, that reflects most of the time a concept, e.g.: Afterhomework, Études Studio, Gmbh or Vetements,” she added.
Groves said he encourages creative partnerships at fashion school.
“The hardest lesson for a student to learn, and some never learn it, is that they are not designing for themselves. That to meet the needs and desires of someone else is central to the role of a designer, and that the quicker they find creative partners, the better their work will be,” he said.
FIT’s Scott said he encourages students to collaborate on in-class projects and between different departments.
“Two former students from my spring 2020 class have formed a partnership since graduation and are developing a line of T-shirts and accessories,” he noted. “Being in the position of making design decisions is always onerous. In the classroom we discuss how as young designers they will have to be adaptive as part of a collaborative design environment, working with others to achieve set design goals.”
Echoing others interviewed, he lauded the early design duo of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren.
“Other than thinking that they made the coolest clothes ever, I think they were successful in sharing the responsibility of design and promoting their subversive and groundbreaking collection,” Scott enthused.
Mike Eckhaus and Zoe Latta met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design, and founded their bicoastal label Eckhaus Latta in 2011. Area’s Fogg and Pansczczyk met at Parsons while pursuing their master’s degrees in Fashion Design and Society and decided to set up a label together.
“Going at it alone didn’t feel as interesting from a design proposition or business model. There is so much more opportunity and potential when ideas and minds come together,” Fogg said. “The initial prospect of starting a brand is so overwhelming, you really need a support system in place from the start.”
In her view, the “saturation of our industry has led and will lead to more consolidation and collaboration. Area has never been about us specifically as individual designers: It has evolved in response to our experiences and our audience. That’s why we chose a name that implied a starting point — a place where people and ideas come together,” Fogg added.
According to Zowie Broach, head of fashion at the Royal College of Art in London, collective approaches are “reflective of our times and feels the right way to commune to design and express our identities with care.”
“Area, Faith Connexion and the younger brands talk about the human connection, and the differences in design, connecting to others, talking about their local choices, being active in a community and not just creating more product for a brand,” she said. “These are new voices entering the fashion industry that begin to reflect the new ways of seeing.”
These emerging designers, she continued, “are all so deeply aware of the climate, race and labor issues of our industry and so building teams that might even include legal knowledge will create new healthy disruptions and new landscapes to explore fashion as design which has care across its response and outcome.”
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