LONDON — Where are they now? Observing fashion from the sidelines — or plotting their next move?
After years — sometimes decades — of headlining major fashion houses, unprecedented numbers of design talents are no longer working in the 24/7 glare of the industry.
They’ve quit their jobs — or been sacked. Some are taking extended sabbaticals or focusing on their personal lives. Others have moved on to new industries, or are thinking of fresh approaches in a fast-changing fashion world.
Designers who were once much fawned over and who are now on the sidelines include Riccardo Tisci, Alber Elbaz, Hedi Slimane, Stefano Pilati, Peter Copping, Francisco Costa, Rodolfo Paglialunga, Frida Giannini and Marco Zanini, to name a few. The latest left idle is Bouchra Jarrar, who exited Lanvin after showing just two collections for the house.
The cutthroat nature of the industry means big-name designers are treated like European Premier League football managers: No matter how talented you are, it’s one bad season, and you’re out, said professor Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion.
Industry observers — and those who work with designers — say it’s a sign of these fast-paced, digitally driven times, where the pressure is on to deliver multiple collections and substantial sales growth season after season, to maintain the buzz around a brand — and to keep shareholders happy.
Others believe many of the marquee talents got too big for their boots and the brands that employed them — even in the ego-driven fashion world — demanding outsized salaries, lavish perks and too much creative control. They say it’s no surprise that some big names have been replaced by younger, hipper — and less expensive — talents who don’t necessarily feel the need to control every aspect of a brand’s identity.
Those same people would argue that there’s been a structural change in the design studio, with teams or cooperatives — in the vein of brands like Vetements or Études — trumping the single, superstar designer.
“What we’re seeing is the end of the lone genius, the brooding, dark, mysterious figure in fashion. It’s not just the vision of the genius anymore, but a collective vision,” said Mathias Ohrel, the director of M-O, a Paris-based recruitment agency for creative talent. “A single mind cannot be as effective as a group, and the role of collaboration today is central. There needs to be cross-pollination, joking, playing, interaction — and failure. Command and control is less and less viable today. The creative director of today has to be a symphony conductor.”
Ohrel argues the cult of the single creative director emerged in the Nineties after the perceived excesses of the big European houses, like Pierre Cardin, who had licensed their names to the hilt.
“People became obsessed with coherence, with controlling products and images — the ads, the visual merchandising, the colors,” he noted. But that era is waning: “Look at Nicolas Ghesquière [artistic director of women’s collections at Louis Vuitton]. The brand is bigger than him. At Givenchy, Riccardo Tisci was bigger than the brand,” he said of the designer, who exited in February and has been succeeded by the more low-key Clare Waight-Keller.
London College of Fashion’s Corner agreed there is no room anymore for the lone figure at the top. She said the college, part of University of the Arts London, tries to get design students to “think collaboratively,” and across sectors, such as knitwear and textiles.
“We’re not talking about design by committee,” said Corner, “but about how to find your voice, your personal creative vision through collaboration and sharing.”
Frédéric de Narp, Bally’s chief executive officer, made the decision late last year to have a three-person “creative collective” rather than a single designer at the studio helm. There are now three head designers, one each for accessories, footwear and ready-to-wear.
“This creative, collaborative exercise has been a dream, because what you get is the combination of all their brains and talent,” said de Narp. “The collections are more concise and more confident and the atmosphere in the studio is joyful, fun, passionate — although sometimes they might disagree.”
The executive added the group approach feels right for a brand like Bally, where the focus is on accessories, entry-level luxury prices and brand heritage.
“It’s a lower risk for the investors as well. When you are in someone’s hands, and that someone wants to leave or something happens, what is the risk for investors? At brands like Bally, you are not buying one person. You are buying heritage, credentials, an icon,” he said.
Ferragamo is another brand that believes in creativity via a trio. Last year the company replaced its longtime creative director Massimiliano Giornetti with three people: Fulvio Rigoni for women’s wear; Guillaume Meilland for men’s, and Paul Andrew as footwear design director, a new role.
Eraldo Poletto, Ferragamo’s ceo, said each of the three designers was selected for his ability to interpret the DNA of the brand. He touted each designer’s “unique background” and said Ferragamo was, at its very heart, an international label.
While the idea of a collective may have its appeal, it’s certainly not new — and hasn’t always worked in the past.
After Tom Ford left Gucci in 2004, his creative director role was filled by the design triumvirate of John Ray for men’s wear, Frida Giannini for accessories and Alessandra Facchinetti for women’s wear. It was a failure. Giannini eventually took on the top role while the other designers exited the company.
Times are changing, however, and the team approach can actually help ease the burden on overstretched designers having to cope with an industry that has adopted many of the rhythms of fast-fashion companies, constantly churning out collections with ever-increasing frequency. Not to mention the demands of social media and other image-boosting efforts.
“The idea of nurturing a collection for a season — is any brand able to do that?” asked Mary Gallagher, European associate at recruitment firm Martens & Heads. “It started off with pre-collections and capsules, and now designers are overlapping three or four collections within the space of six months — and that’s just women’s wear, not to mention shoes, accessories and men’s.”
If a brand isn’t growing year-over-year, in some cases in the double digits, it’s not satisfactory, Gallagher said. “The pressure is on to increase sales. They cannot flatline and they definitely can’t go down.”
Designer burnout is a big issue, said Katie Grand, the editor of Love and a stylist who’s long worked with celebrities and brands including Marc Jacobs, Miu Miu and Bottega Veneta.
“There are not very many Alessandro Michele types around who are so resilient that they can get on a plane every other day, and be in China for an exhibition one minute and at a party in L.A. the next. He is the dream,” said Grand of the Gucci creative director.
The brands, meanwhile, are sweating over their spreadsheets. “They’re looking at expenses, and whether the money spent sending a designer across the Atlantic to do a celebrity fitting, where the dress is likely free,” is worth the 20,000 hits on Instagram, Grand said. “They question whether they’re selling enough frocks to sustain all the spending.”
Floriane de Saint-Pierre, the Paris-based consulting and executive search specialist, believes there are other, more philosophical, reasons why some designers have been sitting out these past few seasons.
“As long as a creative leader is able to understand society and create design-driven solutions with perfect execution, he or she has impact. That paradigm has not changed,” she said. “Luxury, in my view, has always been about best-in-class ‘solutions’ for society: Cars, planes, bags, clothing, shoes, services, etc. It’s about great design and impeccable execution.”
De Saint Pierre added that many brands and designers have instead put the focus on “creativity,” losing sight of the best-in-class societal component. “I question whether creative leaders with an understanding of the societal component remain interested in fashion. It may explain why some have decided to walk out of the sector.”
It may also explain why some have decided to look for alternatives to the traditional fashion model. Late last month, Pilati, who spent more than a decade at the helm of brands including Yves Saint Laurent, Ermenegildo Zegna and Agnona, launched a new fashion project on Instagram Stories.
He posted 17 looks, all of them black, and said they could be the seed of “something to come in the near future, something more developed.” He’s dubbed the collection Random Identities, with genderless, seasonless looks inspired by his friends in Berlin, where he relocated after stints at Zegna and Agnona.
Pilati said he wants his designs to support individual choices “beyond the known gender signals” and for people to experience fashion in a more personal way, instead of being distracted by craftsmanship or advertising.
None of the clothes, he said, would be sold or put into production, and the designer said he wanted to study the response he got from Instagram.
Pilati isn’t the only one at work. It is understood that Costa and Elbaz have sought backing for new fashion projects, but have yet to conclude deals. Financial sources said there are others designers seeking investment — although these days, it’s not easy. It’s also expensive, requiring tens of millions of dollars in start-up costs at a time when designer apparel sales are struggling.
One investor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said aspiring designer-entrepreneurs should prepare themselves to relinquish control.
“If you take money from a fund or a company, you will be left with an irrelevant minority stake and you will effectively be an employee.
“They see you as a huge risk, and you have to show some sort of creative difference, output and financial credibility. Investors want returns so they’ll want to do licenses and diffusion lines, and they’ll want proof that this isn’t an exercise in building up your personality cult,” the investor said.
Gallagher added that it’s difficult to transition from being a big-name designer to a business owner. “These designers certainly have made great names for themselves, but nowadays is a great name enough? It’s a rare designer who can present a business plan to investors.”
She said the fashion business has also changed, and the business needs are different. “I know a ceo who is relaunching a luxury brand, and he’s looking for an IT person as his second hire after the designer,” said Gallagher. “Even just a few years ago, he would have started with a commercial person, but that will come after. If you’re launching a brand in 2018, you start with IT because those are the people who are instantly bringing it to market and tapping directly into the shopper. It’s the brave new world of brand-building.”
Sometimes, designers just take years to reemerge after a break — and often take up alternative careers in the meantime.
Take the example of Phoebe Philo, who was largely absent from the fashion scene after she resigned from Chloé in January 2006. Two years later, she made a splashy comeback at Céline, where she continues to work as creative director. Philo had resigned for personal reasons, mainly to spend more time with her family and first child, Maya, amidst growing pressures and responsibilities at Chloé. During the break she had a second child, a son, and did some under-the-radar consulting work for Gap in Europe.
In 2008, WWD reported that Philo had put out feelers to the big fashion players — including Chloé parent Compagnie Financière Richemont — about launching a signature fashion house. Reluctance on the part of potential backers to fund start-ups — and what sources describe as hefty salary and other demands on Philo’s part — meant no deal came to fruition.
Then there’s Slimane who, after his first stint at Yves Saint Laurent, from which he resigned in 2000, signed on with Dior Homme. He exited that brand in 2007 and pursued a photography and art career. He returned to fashion in 2012 at the creative helm of YSL, which he rechristened Saint Laurent, overhauling the label from his home base in Los Angeles.
Since leaving Saint Laurent for a second time in April 2016, rumors have been swirling that Slimane is waiting to join Chanel. In April, however, Chanel quashed that talk, telling WWD the French house had no projects with Slimane, and no plans for a Chanel men’s wear collection.
Slimane has yet to indicate his next move and has resumed his pre-YSL career as a commercial and art photographer. He has also been embroiled in legal proceedings against YSL’s parent Kering over noncompetition obligations and other issues.
Peter Copping, having been pushed out at Oscar de la Renta last year after less than two years at the design helm, is spending time in his Normandy chateau, contributing to Architectural Digest and focusing on interiors.
Tisci, who was close to joining Versace before that deal fell through, continues to collaborate with Nike, while Elbaz has done projects with Converse in Japan and with Frederic Malle on perfume.
Corner said sometimes fashion is just the tip of the iceberg for creative types.
“I often say that a 21st-century fashion education can lead to so many careers — in photography, art, styling, interiors, accessories or bespoke design. Fashion is always about lifestyle. People who understand the body, who have style and taste, can work for tech companies on wearable technology, they can work in the field of sustainability — or in the restaurant business.
“We’re all living longer, and might leave a career — and then come back to it. These designers don’t have anything to prove,” said Corner. “If you’ve been a designer for a great company, who’s not going to want to talk to you?”
Still, there are quite a few out there at the moment waiting for the phone to ring.