It’s turning out to be fashion magazine week on the Business of Fashion.
A couple of months ago, Dominic Sohn, a newly appointed Fashion Editor at Vogue Korea, contacted me to get some thoughts on the revolving doors for designers at major fashion houses. This was before Lars Nilsson was turfed from Gianfranco Ferre (just days before his first runway show) only to be replaced by Tomasso Aquilano and Roberto Rimondi of 6267 and before Paulo Melim Andersson was sent packing after three seasons at Chloe, making way for Hannah MacGibbon. Dominic’s questions were timely indeed.
Excerpts from the interview have just been published in an article in the May 2008 edition of Vogue Korea, along with the reflections of Sally Singer of American Vogue. It was such an interesting exchange that it’s posted here for BoF readers.
Vogue Korea: Even though there’s a case of Yves Saint Laurent at the helm, following Monsieur Dior in the 50s, the current issue of designers entering and leaving famed houses has never been as apparent as it is now. Why and when do you think this trend of marrying houses and young talents began?
BoF: There have been two trends driving this phenomenon.
First, it’s only in recent years that we’ve really seen a wave of designers at the helm of major fashion businesses move into retirement (YSL, Valentino, Ungaro) or pass away (Versace, Ferre), which is why the trend is so noticeable today. In the past, when designers moved on, they may not have been leaving much behind: the businesses tended to be smaller, more localised and lacked real branding that would enable another designer to design under the name.
But today, when someone like Valentino or Ferre is no longer around to lead the design, they leave behind large global business infrastructure with shareholders, licensees, and customers to please, as well as a real brand (not just a name), that has meaning and aspiration embedded within it.
Second, there has been an influx of interest in fashion as an investment opportunity. Many of these investors (from both within and outside the industry) are trying to revive dormant brands, and one key part of this kind of strategy, other than financial investment, is to re-energise the brand with an appropriate creative talent.
BoF: I believe this is partially due to the Luxury conglomerates, but also the fact that fashion is now a business more than anything else – and the business must go on even after the original designer is no longer there — even if it is not part of a conglomerate. For example, what will happen to Armani (which is not part of a conglomerate) when Mr. Armani is no longer able to design?
BoF: All three of the ones you have mentioned are stellar examples of an excellent match between the designer and the brand. Ghesquiere, Elbaz and Simons are really leading the way of taking each of their brands into the 21st century.
I also love the marriage between Bottega Veneta and Tomas Maier, where Maier has successfully managed to build a multi-category luxury and fashion business from a leather goods base. The only other real benchmarks with this kind of success are Louis Vuitton and Hermes – this bodes very well indeed for Bottega.
Finally, looking to the future, I have very high hopes for Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy. Over the past few seasons he has successfully honed in on a way of taking the incredibly rich history of Givenchy and layering his own creative ideas on top, respecting the codes of the Maison all the while. This is a union that seems to be working well and is about to take off. His last collection in Paris was stunning.
BoF: It is the constellation of brand, designer and CEO that make these unions work. These three ‘stars’ must align perfectly, with strong mutual respect for the other elements. The brand brings a history, an image and an archive that must be respected. The designer must understand this heritage implicitly, while refraining from blindly referencing it — it is their job to take the brand into the future. And finally, the CEO needs to have a laser focus on the business and customer needs, to help ensure that the business is living up to expectations – both those of customers and shareholders.
Vogue Korea: Even though this has been speculated over the web before including on the Business of Fashion, what do you think actually was going on before they’d gone with Esteban Cortazar at Ungaro?
BoF: It’s my understanding that several designers were offered the role, but they either did not feel a good fit with the brand or did not respond well to the existing management.
BoF: I don’t think it’s either the press or headhunters alone that should play this role, though they may have valuable opinions that can be considered as part of a larger discovery process.
Creative issues aside (and these are, of course, crucially important), at the end of the day it comes down to healthy relationships, open communication and mutual trust between the parties that will have to work together on a daily basis. It’s as much a decision about personal fit as it is a decision about creative fit.
I think this personal fit tends to get underemphasised in the decision-making process. And, when the personal fit is not there, the collaborations are bound to fail regardless of how talented the designer is. Just look at recent experience at Ungaro which has lost several designers in recent years due to disagreements with management.
So, while external influences may play a part (fashion critics and headhunters are experts after all), the final call should be made by those who are going to have to live with the decision – that’s the designer and the CEO. They must agree in advance on a strategy to pursue.
In addition, designers could also get much better professional advice when considering these collaborations to ensure their interests are defended and to make sure they ask all the right questions before signing on the dotted line.
BoF: As it’s harder and harder to build fashion businesses from scratch today. If a designer can find a good fit with an existing brand, the structure and financial resources of such a brand can allow them to explore their creative ideas to their full extent, without severe financial constraints. On the other hand, it’s only when a designer is working under an eponymous label that they have the complete freedom to explore their creativity, completely unbound by the constraints of someone else’s brand.
If negotiated properly, these kinds of collaborations can be very lucrative indeed for the designer — they just need to know what their value is and how to prove it.
It’s inevitable that this kind of designer and brand matching will continue into the future….otherwise, who will keep great brands like Chanel, Dior and Yves St Laurent humming in the future when their current designers move on?
Image courtesy of Vogue Korea.