Luxury labels: is the era of superstar designers coming to an end?
Lucie and Luke Meier at Jil Sander, Paul Surridge at Roberto Cavalli, Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé, Olivier Lapidus at Lanvin, Serge Ruffieux at Carven, Marco Colagrossi at Emanuel Ungaro, Richard René at Guy Laroche: this season, more than any other before, is remarkable for the spate of little-known designers making their public debut in charge of major fashion labels, while British stylist Clare Waight Keller, who is taking her first steps at Givenchy, already made her mark after leading Chloé for six years.
"Undoubtedly, they aren’t media celebrities, but professionally their names are well-known. The majority of them have worked for a long time in the fashion and luxury industry. They're experienced! They were hired after very careful consideration, based on their qualifications. They were chosen for their talent, good taste and personality. It's rather good news, proof that common sense is making a come-back," said an industry professional who wished to remain anonymous.
Like Demna Gvasalia before he created his own label Vetements, virtually all of the new arrivals have risen through the ranks, having worked behind the scenes for years at labels such as Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton or Balenciaga. They matured professionally alongside high-calibre designers like Nicolas Ghesquière or Raf Simons, as style directors or head designers.
Gucci set the ball rolling in January 2015 by handing over the reins to Alessandro Michele. He was relatively unknown at the time, being simply the right-hand man of Frida Giannini, Gucci's celebrity designer who was let go after 12 years with the label. The gamble paid off beyond the rosiest expectations, and Kering did it again last year by placing Balenciaga in the hands of mould-breaking designer Demna Gvasalia.
These about-turns have left a mark on the luxury industry, now keener on profitability than on glamour. A new chapter has begun, one in which the prima-donna designers of old do not seem to have a role any more. Riccardo Tisci, one of the last of the long-established creative directors, who ended his record 12-year tenure at Givenchy last February, is still to land a job with a major label. Hedi Slimane, Stefano Pilati and Alber Elbaz, respectively let go by Saint Laurent and Ermenegildo Zegna in 2016 and by Lanvin in October 2015, are in the same predicament.
"Other brands are following Gucci's lead. This does not mean that they will systematically do without the big names. But nowadays they prefer to focus instead on less popular designers, provided they are compatible with their brand DNA, and allow the labels to deploy consistent strategies, taking into account their corporate requirements above all," said Riccardo Vannetti, in charge of the mentorship programme at Pitti Immagine, through which he is responsible for the professional development of some fifteen fashion designers.
"The market is asking for a new aesthetic. Besides, we are now going through a period of generational turnover," he added, remarking that there is a greater emphasis on team management. "Teamwork is what makes the difference these days," said Vannetti.
"Designers no longer work solo," said the first source. "Fashion labels are looking for people who are capable of being team leaders." Gone are the days of the ivory-tower designers, of privilege and whims! Economics now rule the industry, and outlandish expenditure is no longer justifiable, especially if results are slow to materialise. Gucci and Balenciaga have opened a breach. Seeing how successful they are, other labels have realised they could do without the big stars.
"Fashion labels no longer wish to have celebrity, charismatic creative directors, but designers who are younger, more discreet and who will be at their service. Roles are reversed, it is designers who must cater to fashion labels, and not the other way round," said another source working for a major Parisian label.
"Labels' narratives are no longer focused on their creative directors alone, but on their heritage and expertise. They want to exist through their products and to have a consistent brand image, especially vis-a-vis the retail channel," she said. Added to this, there is the extra pressure coming from the increase in the number of collections. "It has become gruelling. Labels are conscious of this, and are unwilling to hook up for too long with one name only," she noted.
"Nowadays, the risk is that fashion labels will not let new creative directors have enough time to become established. Contractual terms have shortened. They are now talking about one-year contracts! It took Julien Dossena, for example, several seasons to find his rhythm. But now everyone is crazy about his reinterpretation of Paco Rabanne," said the first source.
The current season, and especially those that follow, will tell us if fashion labels were right to bet on the new breed of creative director, rather than relying on celebrity designers with millions of followers.
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