Creative Directors: Is Creativity No Longer Welcome in Fashion’s Top Echelons?

We try to understand what it means to be a creative director today and whether the job is still creative or just exhausting.

Power moves in today’s fashion world are swift, unpredictable and sometimes puzzling. Even for those who work in fashion it is difficult sometimes to keep in mind all the appointments and exits at fashion brands. Has Alber Elbaz already been headhunted? Is Phoebe Philo still at Céline? When exactly and why did Stuart Vevers leave Loewe? For how long is Anthony Vaccarello going to stay at Saint Laurent? And who on earth will design Helmut Lang’s next collection?!

MARJAN and MATT BACKSTAGE at HELMUT LANG seen by SHAYNE OLIVER ©HELMUT LANG, 2017

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However maddening the ever-increasing pace of the fashion industry may seem, it has become a reality. “That is the normal life cycle of modern luxury,” shrugged François-Henri Pinault, when asked by Vanessa Friedman about Hedi Slimane’s hasty departure after the short, four-year tenure at Saint Laurent.

Slimane was appointed creative director of Yves Saint Laurent in 2012. During his time at the brand’s helm he restructured it in a truly revolutionary way, from changing the name (the loss of “Yves” became a much-discussed occasion!), to refurbishing the stores, to taking charge of all advertising campaigns. With Slimane at the helm, the brand’s profits were rising annually at a 20-percent rate, and it was he who instigated the rebirth of Saint Laurent as a high-end, but youthful and subversive brand.

The case of Hedi Slimane is, probably, representative of what it means to be a creative director at a big-name fashion brand right now. The role has become akin to that of a curator: the creative director is responsible not only for the clothes but also for the whole image of the brand. That’s why new appointments at big houses are usually followed by large-scale refurbishments. New muses are celebrated, new styles introduced, stores get re-designed and headquarters move. When a designer is appointed a creative director, but no major changes ensue, it’s usually considered a bad sign. When upon Raf Simons’ arrival at Dior the company decided to keep their boutiques’ design, it was perceived as Simons’ lack of authority at the brand.

For a fashion brand to have a consistent, well-curated image in the age of social media is a necessity: image politics can make or break a business. The transformation of Gucci’s Instagram account, ad campaigns, set designs and boutiques as well as its explosive growth post-Alessandro Michele make quite a point. Similarly, Ralph Lauren’s recent losses are explained by the brand’s inability to evolve. Not the products seem to be the problem, but the stagnant image of the label, the old-fashioned website and the unexciting shops.

Obviously, brand reinventions can come with huge costs. The aforementioned Hedi Slimane, for instance, demanded relocating the whole design team to LA, and Raf Simons usually insists on bringing his people with him (Peter Mulier has accompanied Simons through his three last jobs). And yet, changing creative directors has become quite a thing for fashion brands whenever they are trying to boost sales.

What is problematic about this ever more popular strategy is that designers are given too little time and too little freedom at the fashion houses they are expected to revolutionise. The proverbial example here is the 8-month tenure of Justin O’Shea at Brioni. Initially, the star buyer was hired to shake up the image of the venerable suit brand but his moves (tapping Metallica to star in Brioni’s ad being one of the most memorable) turned out to be too radical.

#Brioni advertising campaign featuring @kirkhammett from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees @metallica

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In O’Shea’s defence it can be said that he was not given enough time at Brioni to prove his worth – something quite symptomatic of the fast-paced fashion industry. The crazy tempo of production is a subject that gets more and more attention in the fashion world, especially after Alexander Lee McQueen’s suicide, John Galliano’s infamous breakdown, Raf Simons’ scandalous exit from Dior. But, however much we talk about the dangerously speeding cycle of the fashion industry, the situation is very unlikely to change. For fashion conglomerates sensational appointments generate sensational revenues, whereas for designers there’s always cachet of working at a major brand with a number of significant perks. Fashion industry has turned into a prestige game with scandalously high profits at stake. And while it is quite fascinating to watch, the question persists: is there any creativity to it or just gossip?

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