“Even the companies are asking us for the creative directors who are really cool, who go to parties, get loads of attention on Instagram, and are friends with the top ‘It’ girls. They’re not [necessarily] asking for the best designer.”
That wince-inducing comment in WWD earlier this week came from Emma Davidson, owner of the London-based executive recruitment firm Denza. It resonates as particularly pertinent now, as two major creative director positions opened up this week: Givenchy, following the departure of Riccardo Tisci, announced today, and Chloé, from which Clare Waight Keller will exit after her show in March.
According to Davidson, a good portion of her client base, which is likely indicative of the broader industry, values social media clout over design talent, even for the lauded and essential position of creative director. How sad is that?
“If Riccardo [Tisci] goes to Versace, the brand will blow up once he’s there. People are loyal to him — to where he’s been. These designers are like pop stars,” she continued.
A flawed example, perhaps, because Tisci is one of current fashion’s great creators, who first rose to fame on the strength of his designs. That he became a social media star only heightened the intrigue around him and, by extension, his Givenchy. Should he now move to Versace — a scenario first reported by WWD — the resulting frenzy will spring as much from his creative résumé as his social media resonance.
Yet Davidson’s primary point is well taken. Too often these days, the fashion of fashion is given short shrift as brands develop their strategies. The obsession with social media has infiltrated all aspects of the business — including hiring procedures for the most important creative role in a company.
How did we get here? How did it become more important in some fashion outposts to hire a hot designer rather than a great designer? Of course, getting noticed matters. If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one to listen…
Today, having a social media presence is essential to a designer’s job. In this world driven by marketing and packaging and connecting “personally” with your consumer base, creatives have to get involved on the sales side, selling themselves, their lifestyles, travels, inspirations, friendships. Just as actors promote their movies and athletes build endorsement-worthy personas via social media, designers increasingly must promote their merch by promoting themselves.
While the degree and digital delivery of this personal promotion are new, the concept isn’t. The power of the designer persona has always been a part of selling fashion, going way back to Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin and further to Charles Frederick Worth and Paul Poiret. They were all, to some degree, celebrities who marshaled personal allure for the betterment of the business. Then, in the Sixties and Seventies, came the explosion of designers as personalities and with it, an ever-increasing fascination with their lives outside of their studios and apart from their designs. But back then, the work preceded the fame.
Now, some brands are reshaping the hiring landscape, sending the message to potential hires that if you bring the fame, the right connections, the Instagram clout, we’ll hire you the back-up talent. Of course, fashion is about visual communication, about speaking to the cultural moment, and Instagram is a perfect vehicle for doing both. Yet to value success of that communication channel over what should be the primary subject of that communication — the fashion — seems a convoluted approach to designer recruitment. Forget that it’s an affront to those who believe in and pursue fashion as a skill-based career; protecting the feelings of a given employment pool is seldom a business priority. On a high plain, what about commitment to the creativity and craft of fashion? On a practical plain, how’s it all working out so far? Business generally stinks.
The hiring strategies at Chloé and Givenchy are unlikely to be driven primarily by a candidate’s social media profile. Widely expected to take over for Waight Keller, Natacha Ramsay-Levi has been a key member of Nicolas Ghesquière’s design staffs, now at Louis Vuitton, and previously, at Balenciaga, where he developed the adventurous futuristic androgyny that made him star. She is known to be highly invested in the craft of fashion and has a modest 9,076 followers on Instagram.
As for Tisci’s successor, LVMH Moét Hennessy Louis Vuitton has long been a leader in the talent stakes, regularly seeking out innovative designers to head its brands while supporting new talent via the LVMH Prize program.
Yet it’s hard not to give credence to Davidson’s grim assessment. As the fall 2017 women’s shows approach, how many of us anticipate a surfeit of fabulous fashion? How many expect a month’s worth of riveting, witty social media? No knock on the latter — it’s great and necessary. But it’s no substitute for the former. The creation of powerful fashion requires a designer CV strong on more than party-going, “It” girl friendships and, yes, even Instagram reach. Let’s hope that as creative director slots open, brand executives keep that in mind.