When the Music Stops
Creative directors and fashion houses are becoming increasingly embroiled in a perilous game of musical chairs. Melissa Twigg investigates why stints at the top are so short-lived and how this is affecting the industry
Creative directors and fashion houses are embroiled in a perilous game of musical chairs. We look at why, and how it’s affecting the industry
Keeping up with the designers at the helm of major fashion houses is like following a Netflix series full of cliffhangers. Who got divorced? Who had an affair? Who’s swapping wives? Miss a few episodes and you’re out of the loop.
That’s because the fashion industry has found something new to coo over: the game of musical chairs. When Raf Simons left Dior in 2015, the industry collectively gasped— and at least one Vogue journalist went on record saying that she felt distinctly unwell. But over the intervening three years we have become numb to the rapid turnover of creative directors, with many who occupy the top jobs swapping roles on an almost monthly basis.
To recap the moves this year alone, Kim Jones left Louis Vuitton, Phoebe Philo exited Céline, David Koma bade farewell to Mugler, Jonathan Saunders departed Diane von Furstenberg and Nicola Formichetti stepped down from Diesel. Long-time chief creative officer Christopher Bailey left Burberry and Tomas Maier said goodbye to Bottega Veneta. Bailey and Maier in particular played such profound roles in shaping the aesthetics of their former brands that their departures should have rocked the industry to the core—but they didn’t. Creative directors, it seems, can be as fleeting as Instagram stories.
It goes without saying that the founders of legacy labels are almost mythical creatures— Coco Chanel reinvented women’s wardrobes and was hailed as fashion’s first feminist; Miuccia Prada transformed the family business after a stint as a college socialist; and Christian Dior’s New Look marked the beginning of the post-war era. Their stories shaped the entire ethos of their brands, but can modern creative directors ever have such a major impact?
In the era of Instagram, creative directors are arguably more visible than ever. Olivier Rousteing, Jonathan Anderson, Anthony Vaccarello and Clare Waight Keller all have major followings on social media that give them a distinctive personality separate from their collections.
Fashion houses no longer appoint a director just to churn out collections, but to be the visible face of the brand. And in certain cases, they can give a facelift to a flagging label, the greatest recent success story in this department being Alessandro Michele. When he replaced Frida Giannini at Gucci in 2015, he became a fashion celebrity overnight and injected a serious dose of cool into the storied but flagging billion-dollar Italian luxury brand. What’s most surprising is that he had been quietly working at the brand since 2002.
“Michele is one of few examples of an unknown name turning a brand into the most desirable in the world,” says London-based fashion commentator Kim Ing. A year after Michele took the helm, Gucci sales had jumped by 13 per cent and the brand was dominating magazine covers, red carpet appearances and editorial coverage. Gucci proved that the game of musical chairs in its most positive incarnation gives brands the chance to update their aesthetic and young designers the opportunity to create their own vision with far greater ease.
But, equally, there are the creative directors who shape a brand so beautifully that they become all but irreplaceable. When Phoebe Philo took over as head designer at Céline in 2007, thousands of women in the fashion industry, known as Philophiles, renounced other shops and devoted themselves with an almost monastic obsession to the French label—and, more specifically, to Philo’s minimalist aesthetic.
When Philo decided to leave last year after a decade at the helm, her fans were bereft. LVMH put out a grieving press release stating that it would not immediately appoint a new creative director, and that the collections would be designed in-house “in keeping with the craftsmanship the house is renowned for.”
Then news broke early this year that Hedi Slimane, the man behind the Kate Mossfavoured rock ’n’ roll look at Saint Laurent, was taking over, and the entire fashion industry is now waiting with bated breath to see whether his collection will be a major departure from