LOS ANGELES, United States — When news broke that Hedi Slimane had exited Yves Saint Laurent, many wondered about the designer’s next move. Behind the scenes, Slimane’s right hands, as well as the junior and mid-level creatives and business executives he had recruited, were plotting their next moves too.
However, many of these employees were based in Los Angeles, where Slimane lives and works most of the year. And while LA’s cultural currency and fashion market are on the rise, with more than 89,000 people employed by Los Angeles county’s fashion industry in 2014, the city has few available full-time fashion jobs comparable in status to the positions these employees held at Saint Laurent.
Nearly five months after Slimane’s contract with Kering officially ended, many of Slimane’s hires have moved to Europe to begin new jobs. Others are still living in Los Angeles, working as consultants for brands based in New York and Europe, such as former design studio manager Grant Shumate, who is focusing on his fine art and creative direction, according to his LinkedIn profile. A few have found positions at local companies. For instance, Peter Utz, Slimane’s directeur des salons de couture, is now chief branding officer at luxury retailer Maxfield. Some former Saint Laurent employees are still considering their options, working to secure US work permits or pondering full-time positions elsewhere. But while the talent that worked under Slimane is clearly in demand, the fact that they were based in LA highlights a broader dynamic.
Every house wants the designer who can come up with an it-bag, because that’s where the money comes from. That means that the talent is in control.
While Los Angeles has its fair share of homegrown fashion labels — including Rodarte, the Elder Statesman and A.L.C. by Andrea Lieberman — these businesses are small operations with few positions available. “Generally speaking, they are lower in terms of headcount than their counterparts in London or Paris,” says executive recruiter Lewis Alexander. “That second layer that you have with bigger brands is not always there.”
Alexander, whose namesake firm has offices in New York, London, Tokyo and Los Angeles, played a role in bringing talent to Saint Laurent during Slimane’s reign, but also in placing those employees elsewhere earlier this year. (It’s interesting to note that Yves Saint Laurent employees stay at the company for about 3.5 years on average, according to Alexander’s research — about the length of Slimane’s tenure.) The recruiter says that one option for fashion industry creatives who wish to live and work in Los Angeles, but haven’t found the right full-time employment, is to work as a consultant, which ex-employees of Prada and Saint Laurent, among others, currently do.
Increasingly, top-tier brands need to accept this arrangement. “There are not enough high-quality designers — whether that be for ready-to-wear, men’s, women’s, accessories, shoes — to go around,” Alexander says. “Every house wants the designer who can come up with an it-bag or the next hit pair of shoes, because that’s where the money comes from. That means that the talent is in control. The people who are in demand can call the shots,” he continues. “Everybody can choose where they want to live in the world, and a lot of the best of those people want to live here.”
Those who are willing to look beyond high fashion have more options for local employment. There are several apparel companies based in the region, including Forever 21, Vince, Guess and BCBG MaxAzria Group, as well as sports brands such as Oakley and Vans. But it’s not just about the kind of company; money is also part of the equation. While the cost of living is lower in Los Angeles — rent prices, for instance, are 49.24 percent higher in New York, on average — salaries are also lower. The average salary of a fashion designer in Los Angeles is $76,200 versus $79,370 in New York, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to Alexander, top-level creative and c-suite positions based in Los Angeles average 40 percent lower in total compensation compared to similar roles based in New York.
Because Los Angeles is the way it is, a creative can have a sort of mental freedom in the city.
As a result, on the business side, some fashion executives have sought positions outside of the industry, often at technology companies, notably Apple. But as more high-end designers — such as Tom Ford — open studios in Los Angeles and dozens of others choose to live there, larger fashion entities may be compelled to follow suit.
Alexander says he knows of at least three brands looking to open small-scale studios in the city, including one of Italy’s largest luxury companies. While few designers have the sort of control bestowed upon Slimane — who was able to seal off his design team from merchandisers and other business executives, to maintain complete creative freedom — companies are beginning to view Los Angeles as an industry hub serving a unique purpose.
“Because Los Angeles is the way it is, a creative can have a sort of mental freedom in the city,” Alexander says. “They need space. Here, you’re at peace. And that’s when [creatives] do their best work.” As for how many houses will follow Slimane’s lead, Alexander says it won’t be a sudden sea change: “I think that is where the industry is going, but I don’t know how many of the brands [currently] have the awareness to adopt that way of working.”
To be sure, opening a studio on the West Coast — even a small one — is an investment that many budget-conscious brands (big and small) may not be willing to make. But as more of the industry’s talent act on the urge to go west, they may not have a choice.