Creative Directions: Movement in the fashion industry

For an office full of Philophiles, much to our relief, creative director Phoebe Philo is firmly ensconced at Céline despite rumours earlier this year – and has completely repositioned the brand, which is well on its way to becoming one of a small number of luxury brands within the LVMH stable with sales exceeding one billion.

But Phoebe, who joined in 2008, is bucking a recent trend. Since mid-2015, a wave of creative directors have stepped down from their posts at some of the world’s top fashion houses – most notably, Raf Simons’ from Dior and Hedi Slimane from Saint Laurent. Replacements have been named at a similar rate – Anthony Vaccarello has moved from Versus Versace to Saint Laurent, Bouchra Jarrar is taking over from Alber Elbaz at Lanvin and Demna Gvasalia has moved into the role at Balenciaga after Alexander Wang announced his departure.  Everyone in the fashion industry is waiting with bated breath to see who gets the jewel in crown role as creative director at Dior. It has been nearly a year that the house has been without a creative leader.

Demna Gvasalia is now creative director for Balenciaga, one of the many designers on the move

Creative directors stepping down from roles have a significant impact on the fashion industry. With several of the moves taking place before Fashion Week – and Dior and Lanvin, two of Paris’ bellwethers, left without designers during the shows – buyers were left unsure of what upcoming collections would look like.

It can be argued that the designer is not unlike the lead singer of a rock band, providing a figurehead that both fronts and reflects the label – there’s no question that Donatella and Karl Lagerfeld are the very personification of Versace and Chanel, respectively. The challenge we are seeing now lies in the shifting requirements of the creative director role. Notwithstanding Christopher Bailey’s dual role at Burberry, the role of the creative director is becoming increasingly more operational. It is understood that creative directors Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino make key business decisions working closely alongside the CEO Stefano Sassi. On paper it makes a good argument – who better than the creative director to impact a consumer’s judgment on a brand?

Often, when a new creative director joins a label, the company will undergo a brand refresh, including redesigning stores in the new designer’s image. When Dior chose not to do so upon the arrival of Raf Simons, some saw it as a restriction on his creative control. On the other hand, when Hedi Slimane moved on from Saint Laurent, the French label made news for wiping its Instagram account completely clean and changing the name back to Yves Saint Laurent.

“Where the goal used to be getting to the top of a huge brand, entrepreneurialism and being in control of your own destiny has such appeal now” – Carla Buzasi, WGSN

The reasons behind a departure can often be as diverse as they are elusive – a creative is just as likely to leave for financial as they are for creative reasons. Another reason often explored is the appeal of entrepreneurialism. According to Carla Buzasi at trend forecaster WGSN: “Where the goal used to be getting to the top of a huge brand, entrepreneurialism and being in control of your own destiny has such appeal now – I think that’s what designers are aspiring to.” Such rationale can be seen in designers creating their own labels: Victoria Beckham, Proenza Schouler, and Erdem Moralioglu – but it often comes with the obvious setback of a smaller cash flow.

But a wider trend in the fashion industry is also at work. With a predicted CAGR of only 3.4% until 2020, many brands have been turning to social media for marketing campaigns, granting consumers images and content on a whim, thus keeping designers on their toes with a constant demand for ‘newness’. Concurrently, the industry’s move into the ‘see now, buy now’ model has impacted the traditional two-show schedule –designers are now required to deliver many more collections from a label’s main line, in addition to any other collections the designer may be responsible for.

Mulberry CEO Thierry Andretta attributes the recent wave of movement to changing pressures in the fashion industry

There is no question that such shifts can stifle the creative process, leaving very little time for designers to allow for the creative process to unfold. Demna Gvasalia, who leads design for Vetements, joined Kering-owned Balenciaga last October following the departure of Alexander Wang. While Vetements, which is known for its anti-fashion approach, continues to be the industry’s new shining light, could being at the mercy of Kering’s double-digit annual growth impact Gvasalia’s other label in the way that it did his predecessor’s? A number of other designers tasked with handling multiple labels have chosen to leave one of them behind to focus on their own label, including Alexander Wang and Raf Simons. Yet one powerhouse in fashion has been bucking this trend: Karl Lagerfeld, who leads the vision and design for Chanel, Fendi and his own label.

“[On the one hand], we still have fashion week to show the upcoming season, but on the other, the digital generation needs to have everything available now” – Thierry Andretta, CEO of Mulberry

As a result of the current changes, we find ourselves in a transitionary era, with the industry being pulled at from both the traditional approach and its more modern influence. That’s what Mulberry CEO Thierry Andretta believes: “Our world is changing. It’s happening everywhere – when the new iPhone 7 comes out, no one wants to wait six months to buy it , they want to get it immediately. The same thing is happening in fashion: we still have fashion week to show the upcoming season, but on the other side, the digital generation needs to have everything available now. Social media creates for designers a constant pressure to explain their lives and express their opinions, and being the face of their brand requires them to have ‘sign off’ of what is published. There is a lot more stress because of the immediacy of the results”.

When an industry goes through a period of change, there is palpable impact on those working within it. With the fashion year morphing into one continuous season, the fashion industry on the whole is going through a fundamental change, and the effect is starting to show across the industry’s most important players. Many designers are feeling overworked and many are under huge pressure by their new responsibilities. Over the next few years, we could see that the employment cycle of fashion has come to match that of the industry itself: more innovative and exciting, but also with much quicker movements.

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