First it was Alexander Wang. Then, Alber Elbaz. And recently, Raf Simons. Is this recent exodus a trend in the making? Wealth-X investigates, as London Fashion Week comes to a close.
Wang, Elbaz, Simons. All of these fashion talents mentioned above have one thing in common; they all suddenly departed a major fashion house within months of each other.
The real reasons as to why they left are still masked by nebulous, heavily scented terms like ‘creative differences’ and ‘different directions.’ As creatives, these ‘star designers’ command their own significant following, and so a clash of egos and ideas is likely. However, this wave of departures has prompted many to question whether the era of placing a ‘star designer’ in creative control of a brand is over.
“ After leaving his successful stint at Dior, Slimane stated he did not want to lose control of his name ”
Star designers are artists and there will always be a place for esteeming great artists. Their names are brands in themselves and their design aesthetic can often be personal and led by their own tastes, not by the house that employs them. However, not every designer gets to express their own artistry.
Most powerful brands have had legendary founders (YSL, Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy, Chanel, Ralph Lauren) and have needed, or will prioritise, talented ‘caretaker’ designers to reinvigorate a brand for the present day, rather than reinvent it entirely; raiding archives, reviving heritage and combining with small touches of their own vision.
Successful recent ‘star’ designers like Hedi Slimane have carved an aesthetic ‘brand’ of their own with their own look. After leaving his successful stint at Dior, Slimane stated he did not want to lose control of his name, and management of his own ‘brand’. And therefore it is personal motivations that can drive a lot of individuals to depart top creative positions, particularly when they are successful. They can clash with a safe, overarching corporate vision, which often falls back on heritage and what the brand ‘was.’
“ The real ‘star designers’ often become too powerful & influential to remain behind a brand with someone else’s name ”
The other question asked of the ‘star designer’ phenomenon is whether their presence adds any lasting value to a brand. In truth, it is arguable that they often swell to greater stardom on the back of successful tenure – particularly when they have been part of a brand’s overhaul.
The real ‘star designers’, with notable exceptions such as Karl Lagerfeld, often become too powerful and influential to remain behind a brand with someone else’s name. Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford are the key examples of this.
At the failing Gucci, Tom Ford focused the Gucci brand on fashion. The key products were changed from classic to fashion conscious. Under his watch, Gucci successfully re-launched leather goods, shoes and its ready-to-wear collection with a sexy and glamorous edge. Gucci’s new customer became modern, youthful and urban.
Designer Tom Ford, who left Gucci to focus on his own brand
Yet, after one of the most successful turnarounds in fashion, Ford left Gucci to focus on his own brand – now one of the most successful.
Similarly, Marc Jacobs was appointed Creative Director of Louis Vuitton in 1997, where he created the company’s first ready-to-wear line. Jacobs was responsible for updating and refreshing the company’s image from that of a venerable luggage maker to that of a fashionable ready-to-wear and accessories brand. He helped introduce seasonal collaborations on handbags with artists like Takashi Murakami and reinvigorated the brand to target younger consumers with trendy and fashion-forward look.
Like Ford, Jacobs eventually left to focus on his own brand.
“ Focusing a brand around a ‘star designer’ creative is risky in the short term ”
It’s difficult to know how much volatility is brought by changes to the creative leadership of a fashion house.
Focusing a brand around a ‘star designer’ creative is risky in the short term as the more successful creatives can end up leaving. This is particularly true of designers with a distinct vision of their own and a reluctance to show obeisance to a brand’s historic references. They also create their own kingdoms more quickly as they already have a following, thus alienating themselves from the brand itself.
The ‘caretaker’ approach, appointing a lesser known name to look after rather than revolutionise, suggests that it’s hard to forecast much damage being done by the loss of a creative; most of the brand’s value is in its heritage and founder’s core aesthetic.
“ Bringing in ‘caretakers’ is cheaper and safer than ‘star designers’. Thus, this could be a trend in the making ”
A case in point – the loss of Galliano, arguably one of the most brilliant stars of the past two decades, did little damage to the Dior brand overall.
What the ‘caretaker’ approach brings is control. Bringing in ‘caretakers’ is cheaper and safer than ‘star designers’. Thus, this could be a trend in the making, given the recent exodus of such ‘stars’ from several high-end labels.
However, stars are often made, not born. With the right alignment, financial and aesthetic success, even a simple caretaker can rise to the heights of stardom…
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