Why Creative Directors Matter More Than Ever

Following a flurry of high profile announcements, BoF’s editor-in-chief, Imran Amed, muses on the enduring importance of the creative director.

Reed Krakoff, Luella Bartley, Marc Jacobs, Katie Hillier, Jason Wu, Emma Hill | Source: Illustration by BoF

LONDON, United Kingdom — Despite the rise of social media, which has put more and more power in the hands of consumers, a senior executive at a major fashion brand recently said to me that, in this industry, “the creative director is God.”

While I don’t agree with the idea of the all-powerful, all-knowing creative director, issuing pronouncements from an ivory-tower, one thing remains clear: despite the digitalisation, and consequent democratisation, of the fashion industry, having a strong creative director at the helm of a brand is perhaps more important than ever before, made all the more clear by three bits of news in the fashion ether this week.

On Monday, Mulberry confirmed that it was set to part ways with Emma Hill, the brand’s creative director, who along with Stuart Vevers before her, helped to put Mulberry on the fashion map with of-the-moment bags like the Alexa and Del Rey. Following the announcement, shares in Mulberry dropped as much as 9 percent, closing down almost 6 percent by the end of Monday, and have creeped even lower in the last couple of days.

That the publicly-traded company suffered a significant loss in market capitalisation following the surprise announcement suggests that even the equity analysts in the City and on Wall Street recognise that a fashion business without a clear creative point of view is doomed.

Insiders are saying that Hill had differences over creative and operational strategy with Mulberry management, industry-speak for a breakdown in the relationship between the creative and business sides of the brand. It’s a pattern I have seen over and over again, especially when a brand is under financial pressure. Indeed, Mulberry shares have plummeted in recent months as the company issued two profit warnings indicating that it was struggling to maintain its once meteoric growth.

But it is precisely at challenging times like these when clear creative vision matters most and when business people need to support and empower their creatives so the business can make it through the tough times.

Unfortunately, many business managers in fashion — and I have spoken to many of them myself over the past few years — often expect an overnight turnaround. Remember the revolving doors at Ungaro, or Vionnet, or Chloé? Building a strong creative point of view takes time and discipline, and changes don’t manifest themselves overnight.

Hopefully the executives over at Hugo Boss will give Jason Wu, the Taiwanese-American wunderkind, time to make his mark, following this week’s announcement that the designer will take the creative helm at BOSS, the company’s primary women’s ready-to-wear and accessory line. BOSS is the perfect example of a large, global fashion brand that nobody really pays much attention to because it’s had nothing new or interesting to say, particularly in womenswear, which has mostly existed in the shadows of the company’s core menswear tailoring business. With a show planned for New York Fashion Week, next February, and some young creative talent to give it a boost, BOSS now has a fighting chance of getting back on the global fashion radar.

And then, there are powerful brands, with strong track records, that nonetheless need creative renewal. Even with a proven creative talent like Reed Krakoff, who has led the creative re-invention of Coach for 16 years, it appears that it’s time for him to step down and allow someone else to bring new creative energy to the brand, which has also been aiming to expand further into the ready-to-wear business. Perhaps it’s not surprising (if a bit far-fetched) that the name of Marc Jacobs has been suggested for the Coach role. According to industry speculation, which has been swirling since earlier this year, Jacobs may be set to exit Louis Vuitton (supposedly leaving room for Nicolas Ghesquière to make his long-awaited next move) as his contract is up for renewal this year.

In an interesting twist, Jacobs and his business partner Robert Duffy revealed last week that they have, for the first time, publicly named Katie Hillier and Luella Bartley in top creative roles at Jacobs’ lower-priced Marc by Marc Jacobs line, which is widely seen as the most promising vehicle for future growth of Jacobs’ business. WWD went as far to speculate that Duffy and Jacobs may be looking to follow in the footsteps of Michael Kors with the kind of blockbuster IPO that has had financial investors clamouring for more high-growth, globally-recognised fashion businesses.

The vast majority of Marc Jacobs’ operating business is currently owned by LVMH, so such a move would be much more complicated than it may seem. Still, it’s clear that even Jacobs and Duffy recognise that having a figurehead creative director for Marc by Marc was no longer enough.

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5 comments

  1. “The creative director is God.”
    I couldn’t have found a better article to read, print, and paste on the bulletin board in my CEO’s office. ( Simply because I AM the creative director at my fashion house) Thanks BOF.

    Faryal from Lahore, Punjab, Pakistan
  2. Imran, Ones creative source comes from within. When one acknowledges that, call it what you may, success always follow. When greed comes in like a flood, creativity is ushered out in a whirlwind. Therefore, failure is your reward.

    Edith Rookes from Canada
  3. I couldn’t agree more! Most businesses don’t have to patience to build a brand with the creative director. They think finding a new creative director is the answer instead of developing support for their new creative voice.

    Wendy Mullin (Built by Wendy) from New York, NY, United States
  4. Coach is has become such a mid-America brand – it’s hardly luxury at all anymore. I think it would be tragic to see Marc Jacobs step down to that.

    Creative Director is God is true. It’s an increasingly visually driven world. No one wants to read. Because of this we are bombarded with imagery on every channel and only a brand with a cohesive, passionate, meaningful longterm vision will differentiate.

    XO

    LoveTheCool from Jamaica Plain, MA, United States
  5. I am reading these articles for the umptingth time. The problem is the executives and the mangement. Close the door on them, leave the designers with their team to produce the goods(their main mission)have a good creative photograper with his team and watch the profit margin take flight. How does that work? God is in the mix. The photos tell a story of strange bedfellows. These sad folks cannot be creative wiith harassment from management.

    Edith Rookes from Canada