What happens when a brand appoints a new creative director?
At the epicentre of a fashion earthquake
For an industry that thrives on reinventions, one might find it surprising that the fashion system quivers at the appointment of a new creative director. This is with reason, as a new designer triggers shifts not only on the visible levels — namely the creative output, communication and retail concept — but also on the strategy and organisation of the company in a process, that with its perks and pains, offers a brand the opportunity to reposition itself in the eyes of its peers.
Although the change of a creative director is inevitable, the tempo of which the industry has adopted in the last decade is defining a new era. The year 2016 ended with Peter Dundas and Consuelo Castiglioni departing Cavalli and Marni respectively; 2017 opened with Clare Waight Keller leaving Chloé and Riccardo Tisci abandoning the lead of Givenchy after 12 years.
The urge to adapt in a world in evolution while sustaining high returns of profit has lead to the shortening of designers’ contracts to three years from the usual seven in the industry. This way, private equity firms and luxury groups like Kering and LVMH can reshuffle their portfolio of brands to maximise their presence within different groups of clientele.
For instance, Hedi Slimane's move to Yves Saint Laurent in 2012 came with the intention of “bringing back into the brand a sense of modernity, content, that youth spirit to be relevant for today,” explained CEO Francesca Bellettini. The change brought about by the designer has been so impactful that sales in the first quarter of 2016 — at the end of Slimane’s tenure — were more than double of what it was when he first took office, leaving Anthony Vaccarello, his successor who began in April 2016, a solidified brand to guide.
Similarly in 2011, LVMH entrusted Carol Lim and Humberto Leon as co-creative directors at Kenzo. At the top of their to-do list? Establish a youth-oriented house active in accessible luxury. The recent appointment of Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior can be interpreted as a resolve from LVMH to lure a clientele with a penchant for the modern romantic aesthetic that Chiuri has been known for during her 17 years at Valentino with Pierpaolo Piccioli.
Once the position of a fashion house is rooted within the group’s portfolio, a new creative direction presents the opportunity to re-organise the brand’s product catalogue. Joining the house of Céline in 2008, Phoebe Philo began by boosting the leather goods segment with the release of the Luggage bag; it immediately rose to It-bag status, propelling Céline to the kind of cult standing it was a stranger to before. Conversely, Nicolas Ghesquière’s creative control over Louis Vuitton signified its parent company’s will to reposition the house’s high fashion focus, to balance the product mix made up then by 75% leather goods and 5% fashion.
Dreamy, fantastical, eccentric, even “phantasmagoric” in his own words, are adjectives that are now being used to describe the new imagery of Gucci as conceived by Alessandro Michele, creative director of the storied Italian fashion house since 2015. With a first menswear collection put together in five days and a first womenswear show in a month, Michele was urged by CEO Marco Bizzarri to “make a statement”. A statement it was, one that could not be farther from the sensual universe Gucci was previously known for. The risk more than paid off.
Lisa Aiken, fashion retail director at Net-A-Porter.com underlined that it is all about the product “beyond the coverage and the hype." She explained, "For the customer, it is always fundamentally about the product. So even if the interest is there, if the product isn’t, it won’t translate into commercial success.”
Designers design, marketers sell. It was a fundamental paradigm in fashion, until the likes of Jonathan Anderson deemed it antiquated. Before his debut at Loewe in June 2014, he unveiled his first advertising campaign guerrilla style (the 21st century version anyway) — via postings on his personal Instagram account and posters in Parisian kiosks. The change caught fashion cognoscenti by surprise: A new logo and the images of a 1997 editorial shot by Steven Meisel for Vogue Italy with models wearing (very little) Loewe. The speed and the custom of “re-post” in the social media generation that brought the news of the overhaul of a 170-year-old Spanish house was more effective of a marketing tool than any ad or headline in a glossy publication can ever hope to achieve.
Of course, a new creative output is better appreciated in apt premises. Kenzo redesigned its retail spaces with clean lines, marble fixtures and giant surrealist sculptures, plunging clients into a digital universe. In November 2016, Jonathan Anderson inaugurated in Madrid, the biggest of his newly conceived Casa Loewe, which in line with his will to build a cultural brand, saw artworks by Edmund de Waal, Richard Smith, Gloria Garcia Lorca and Sir Howard Hodgkin co-exist with a vibrant flower shop.
The ultimate goal behind shifts in creative direction is not only to sustain interest in existing markets but also to develop new ones. Thanks to Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, Kenzo expanded in the American and Anglo-Saxon region while Yves Saint Laurent, which has been adding about 20 stores per year in its roster since 2011, is aiming to grow in China and Japan. A second Tokyo flagship is already in the works. Roberta Benteler, founder of Avenue32.com (she has an eye for tapping new talents) recently introduced Sonia Rykiel on her online store just as “new creative director Julie de Libran injects a fresh new feeling to the brand while remaining true to the DNA of the maison,” she said.
All these changes eventually cascade into human resource adjustments. “The artistic director, just like any executive, has a certain way he or she likes to work. Generally, they will bring their team from a previous company because the system in which design happens is very much like an orchestra playing. It’s complicated and beautiful and needs to be lead with precision,” said Aliza Licht, executive vice-president of brand marketing and communications for Alice + Olivia and author of Leave Your Mark. In joining Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquière brought with him his long term right hand Natacha Ramsay-Levi, currently rumoured to join Chloé. Design studios adopt new zip codes too: Phoebe Philo has her design studio for Céline in London while Anderson moved the design studio of Loewe from Madrid to Paris.
However cumbersome from an organisational point of view, the change in creative director enables the brand to strengthen its position and deepen its connection with its intended audience. Having said that, the house is perceived as an entity distinct from the persona of the designer as its values may very well be different from those of its designer. At the opening of the London boutique last year, CEO Toledano explained that clients buy "because it's Dior. And that is the result of several designers' work, not one. It's not only Raf, not only John before, not only Monsieur Dior, it is the work of all of them.”
Yes, change cultivates open-mindedness and forward thinking that long-standing fashion houses such as Pucci, Loewe, Kenzo and Balenciaga know better than to ignore. But it's also a decision fueled by the bottom line. CEOs put the futures of the houses in the hands of young innovative designers in hopes of a not-too-distant payday. For some, it’s already here. According to the latest LVMH half-term report of 2016, Kenzo and Loewe are delivering solid growth.
After all, in the quest to remain relevant, experimentation is not optional.
As Alessandro Michele interpreted in his memo shared during the fall/winter 2017 show quoting Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben: "Those who are truly contemporary are those who neither perfectly coincide with their time nor adapt to its demands… Contemporariness, then, is that relationship with time that adheres to it through a disconnection."
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