Front of House

For years, the world’s top fash­ion houses re­cruited only ‘big name’ cre­ative di­rec­tors. But now it seems the ‘who’ is less im­por­tant than the vi­sion.

Virgin Australia Voyeur - - NEWS - Words GE­ORGINA SAFE

What a chang­ing of the guard at the world’s top fash­ion houses means for busi­ness.

Not so long ago, lux­ury brands’ cre­ative di­rec­tors were revered with a keen fer­vour usu­ally re­served for the lat­est It-bag or must-have shoe. Think Tom Ford at Gucci, Al­ber El­baz at Lan­vin and, more re­cently, Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy.

Gucci an­nounced Ford as cre­ative di­rec­tor in 1994, and from that mo­ment the brand rock­eted into the fash­ion strato­sphere, with Ford a hero of the fash­ion me­dia. He in­creased sales by a re­mark­able 90 per cent the fol­low­ing year, de­liv­ered Gucci a num­ber of the most iconic and con­tro­ver­sial fash­ion mo­ments of the next decade — re­mem­ber those ’70s-style vel­vet pant suits and that G shaved into a model’s crotch? — and was hailed by The New York Times as “the most direc­tional de­signer” on the planet.

Tisci brought a sim­i­lar rock star ap­peal to Givenchy dur­ing his 12 years at the helm, when his ev­ery move was cap­tured by pa­parazzi with the same zeal ap­plied to his celebrity clien­tele, in­clud­ing Kanye West, Madonna, Kim Kar­dashian and Cate Blanchett. The equally pow­er­ful celebrity of El­baz — renowned for his charis­matic per­son­al­ity and soignée, draped de­signs — back­fired on Lan­vin when the com­pany found it­self at the cen­tre of a me­dia storm af­ter un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dump­ing the Is­raeli de­signer fol­low­ing his stel­lar 14-year ten­ure at the French lux­ury house. Tisci parted ways with Givenchy at the start of this year, while Ford left Gucci in 2004.

Th­ese days the trend is for far more low-pro­file in­di­vid­u­als to be ap­pointed to head up fash­ion houses — in fact you’re un­likely to have heard of them at all.

When Roberto Cavalli ap­pointed Paul Sur­ridge as its new cre­ative di­rec­tor in May, even the com­pany’s CEO Gian Gi­a­como Fer­raris ad­mit­ted he was pre­vi­ously un­aware of the de­signer. "I have to say the first time we ex­plored the name of Paul Sur­ridge, it was a sur­prise," Fer­raris told the Busi­ness of Fash­ion.

With a back­ground of work­ing be­hind the scenes for other de­sign­ers, Sur­ridge’s appointment con­tin­ues the re­cent trend of pro­mot­ing un­der-the-radar ta­lent to the top spot, rather than hir­ing celebrity de­sign­ers. In March, Nat­acha Ram­sayLevi was ap­pointed to Chloé af­ter years as the right-hand to Louis Vuit­ton artis­tic di­rec­tor Ni­co­las Gh­esquière, fol­low­ing the appointment of Alessan­dro Michele as cre­ative di­rec­tor at Gucci in 2015.

Michele’s appointment sent shock waves through the global in­dus­try when the de­signer — pre­vi­ously known only to com­pany in­sid­ers — transformed the for­tunes of the Ital­ian house overnight, in the big­gest shake-up since, well, Ford joined Gucci. “Gucci has shown that a high-pro­file cre­ative di­rec­tor isn’t al­ways the best choice,” says Mal­colm Car­frae, founder of global fash­ion con­sult­ing busi­ness Car­frae Con­sult­ing. “Alessan­dro Michele com­pletely over­hauled Gucci in one sea­son, but when he was Num­ber Two there, no one knew who he was.”

Thanks to the ex­am­ple of Michele and a raft of other suc­cess­ful dark horse cre­ative di­rec­tors, Car­frae, who was for­merly global head of com­mu­ni­ca­tions at Ralph Lau­ren and be­fore that ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of Calvin Klein, says: “It’s no longer deemed nec­es­sary to have a su­per­star de­signer at the helm. Brands are choos­ing cre­ative di­rec­tors who are bril­liant with prod­uct, rather than just a starry name.”

Old no­tions of putting some­one at the helm just be­cause they’re fa­mous (it should be noted that this fame is of­ten within the tini­est mi­lieu) have given way to a re­fo­cus on the brand it­self and ap­point­ing a cre­ative di­rec­tor who will re­main true to its DNA.

“It was a mu­si­cal chairs of the big names for a long while, and [fash­ion] houses were will­ing to spend lu­di­crous amounts of money and in­dulge de­sign­ers to the nth de­gree,” says Gly­nis Trail­lNash, fash­ion ed­i­tor at The Aus­tralian. “But peo­ple are think­ing in dif­fer­ent ways now: about what is best for the brand rather than the de­signer.”

See Clare Waight Keller’s com­ment to the me­dia af­ter Givenchy an­nounced in March she was the new artis­tic di­rec­tor of the house, re­plac­ing Tisci, who had held the po­si­tion since 2005. Where once a de­signer might have made a bold state­ment about their vi­sion for the brand, Waight Keller — the first fe­male de­signer to head the house — pledged her al­le­giance to its his­tor­i­cal codes. “Hu­bert de Givenchy's con­fi­dent style has al­ways been an in­spi­ra­tion and I am very grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity to be a part of this leg­endary house’s his­tory,” she said.

Maria Grazia Chi­uri had sim­i­lar things to say when she was ap­pointed the first fe­male cre­ative di­rec­tor of Chris­tian Dior in 2016. “I mea­sure the tremen­dous re­spon­si­bil­ity of be­ing the first wo­man in charge of the cre­ation in a house so deeply rooted in the pure ex­pres­sion of fem­i­nin­ity,” she stated. “The end­less wealth of its her­itage con­tin­ues to be a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion for fash­ion.”

But while the pro­file and pur­pose of a cre­ative di­rec­tor may have changed, there is no less pres­sure on them to per­form — in fact there is more. Where once a cre­ative di­rec­tor was re­spon­si­ble for the de­sign di­rec­tion of a brand, the role now ex­tends to con­trol­ling all cre­ative el­e­ments from mar­ket­ing, mer­chan­dis­ing and strat­egy through to so­cial me­dia, events, cam­paigns and strat­egy.

“In this dig­i­tal age there are huge ex­pec­ta­tions for de­sign­ers to be much more than they ever trained for when it comes to dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” says Dan Thaw­ley, ed­i­tor in chief of A Mag­a­zine Cu­rated By. Thaw­ley has worked with cre­ative di­rec­tors of brands, in­clud­ing Ro­darte, Gi­ambat­tista Valli and Alessan­dro Michele, in his role at the mag­a­zine, which in­vites a dif­fer­ent fash­ion de­signer to cu­rate each issue, and says ex­pec­ta­tions on them to do more and to do it faster have in­creased ex­po­nen­tially.

“They must be so­cial me­dia mavens with mil­lions of fol­low­ers, they must dress celebri­ties, turn up at cam­paign shoots, rep­re­sent the brand at din­ners and book sign­ings, and they are con­stantly on the road trav­el­ling,” says Thaw­ley. “I truly won­der when they find the time to de­sign a fash­ion col­lec­tion.”

When they do, there is in­tense pres­sure that it per­forms com­mer­cially. A change at the cre­ative end of a fash­ion house is of­ten nec­es­sary to boost sales, by trans­form­ing stag­nant brands with new col­lec­tions that of­fer a fresh take on their her­itage. Some in­com­ing cre­ative di­rec­tors have suc­cess­fully reignited top fash­ion houses, as Hedi Sli­mane did at Yves Saint Lau­rent. In 2011, the year be­fore Sli­mane took the reins, sales rev­enue for YSL’s par­ent com­pany, Ker­ing, was ¤353 mil­lion ($528 mil­lion). When he left in 2016, it was ¤974 mil­lion ($1.4 bil­lion). Like­wise at Céline; a once dor­mant and dusty brand. Un­der Phoebe Philo’s di­rec­tion it now drives over €750 mil­lion ($1.1 bil­l­lion) in sales for LVMH, ac­cord­ing to Busi­ness of Fash­ion re­ports.

But along with the prom­ise of re­ward, mak­ing changes at the top of ma­jor brands comes with se­ri­ous cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture and sig­nif­i­cant risk, not least that ex­ist­ing cus­tomers will find them­selves alien­ated by a new cre­ative vi­sion.

“Chang­ing a cre­ative di­rec­tor can be con­fus­ing for the con­sumer,” says Traill-Nash. “If you align your­self with a brand be­cause you love the es­tab­lished aes­thetic… if that changes rad­i­cally with a new cre­ative di­rec­tor then that brand will then lose a cus­tomer.”

Bouchra Jar­rar left Lan­vin just 16 months af­ter she was ap­pointed artis­tic di­rec­tor, against a back­drop of fall­ing rev­enues and lack of in­vest­ment. She re­placed El­baz’s ex­trav­a­gant drap­ing with her sig­na­ture slim tai­lor­ing, but her col­lec­tions met with mixed re­views and failed to ex­cite clients and store buy­ers.

In 2016 Bri­oni an­nounced Justin O’Shea’s de­par­ture af­ter just one show. The appointment of Aus­tralian-born O’Shea was highly un­con­ven­tional: he had no for­mal de­sign train­ing and had pre­vi­ously worked as fash­ion di­rec­tor at lux­ury e-tailer Mytheresa. For his first ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paign for the Ital­ian lux­ury menswear brand, he re­cruited heavy metal band Me­tal­lica to star in the shoot that ref­er­enced Queen’s Bo­hemian Rhap­sody al­bum cover.

“Justin O’Shea at Bri­oni is a clas­sic ex­am­ple of what can go wrong when you ap­point a new cre­ative di­rec­tor,”

says Vir­gin Australia Mel­bourne Fash­ion Fes­ti­val CEO Graeme Lewsey. “Justin was given a job to do and he prob­a­bly quite rightly thought this gave him the right to take big cre­ative risks, but clearly it wasn’t man­aged cor­rectly and it didn’t work out.”

When a new de­signer ar­rives at a house, they don’t come cheap. They of­ten ar­rive with an en­tourage of pro­fes­sion­als, and re­quire new store fit outs — or even new coun­tries — to ac­com­mo­date their vi­sion. When Sli­mane joined YSL in 2012, the brand set up a de­sign stu­dio with a team of 15 for him in Los An­ge­les where he lives, thou­sands of kilo­me­tres from com­pany head­quar­ters in Paris. Old prod­uct lines may even be en­tirely re­moved in favour of the new.

Car­frae has seen the pros and cons of chang­ing cre­ative di­rec­tors in ac­tion. “It can up­set the ap­ple cart, es­pe­cially if the com­pany is do­ing well,” he says. “There’s al­ways risk in­volved, but some­times a change can bring some much-needed buzz and ex­cite­ment to a brand.”

Givenchy is bank­ing on this with Waight Keller’s appointment, which could mark a dra­matic shift for the French brand that em­braced hip-hop and celebrity cul­ture un­der the lead­er­ship of the fiery Ital­ian-born Tisci. Dur­ing his ten­ure, Givenchy also grew sig­nif­i­cantly, with an es­ti­mated turnover of more than €500 mil­lion ($750 mil­lion) in rev­enues, and an earn­ings be­fore in­ter­est and tax (EBIT) mar­gin of 10 to 15 per­cent. In con­trast, Waight Keller is known for her calm and af­fa­ble man­ner, her in­ter­est in the arts and her highly fem­i­nine, yet prac­ti­cal and wear­able de­signs.

“Clare and Riccardo are poles apart so what hap­pens next will be su­per in­ter­est­ing,” says Traill-Nash.

Waight Keller’s appointment fol­lows other re­cent suc­cess sto­ries. Jonathan Saun­ders brought new life and sales to Diane von Fursten­berg, and Raf Si­mons rein­vig­o­rated Calvin Klein with his Bel­gian-born take on Amer­i­cana. Amid in­creas­ingly con­ser­va­tive com­mer­cial cli­mates, the un­tram­melled ex­u­ber­ance of such de­sign­ers’ vi­sions keeps fash­ion fresh and ex­cit­ing — and ul­ti­mately keeps the con­sumers who bankroll th­ese brands coming back for more.

“In to­day’s tur­bu­lent mar­ket, this role is more im­por­tant than ever as brands in trou­ble of­ten cut creativ­ity and re­vert to last sea­son’s top per­form­ers in the hope of con­tin­ued suc­cess rather than driv­ing to­wards what to­mor­row’s con­sumer is go­ing to want,” says Chris Sanderson, co-founder of Lon­don-based trend fore­cast­ers The Fu­ture Lab­o­ra­tory.

“In busi­nesses — where in­creas­ingly the risk averse, profit driven fo­cus of a CEO, fi­nance di­rec­tor or head of sales can have a neg­a­tive in­flu­ence on a brand’s creativ­ity — some­one has to wave the flag for that spe­cial magic fac­tor — an ephemeral mix of in­tu­ition, good fash­ion sense and savoir faire.”

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