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At Creative Helm of a Fashion Brand, Which Configuration Works Best?

From brand-makers to dual-role CEO-cum-creative directors, fashion brands are experimenting with a range of creative configurations.
Illustration: Paul Price for BoF
By
  • Limei Hoang

LONDON, United Kingdom Burberry's recent announcement that Christopher Bailey will hand over the title of chief executive to Céline's Marco Gobbetti, becoming the company's president, alongside his continuing duties as chief creative officer, has sparked fresh discussion over the changing role of a creative director and the ideal way to configure creative leadership at a top luxury brand.

That the move comes so soon after Brioni's first runway show under its unconventional creative director Justin O'Shea — who has no formal training or experience as a designer — and the news that designer Alexander Wang is adding the roles of chief executive and chairman to his official list of duties has only intensified the debate.

A successful brand always has a purpose. So who is defining the purpose of the brand today? Is it the shareholder? Is it the CEO? Is it the creative director?

The role of a creative director — which now typically includes a range of responsibilities that go far beyond designing collections, stretching from public appearances to social media — has evolved from "telling a story" to "making the story," said headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre, who helms one of fashion's leading creative talent agencies and famously placed Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Alber Elbaz at Guy Laroche and Christophe Lemaire at Lacoste. "Brands cannot just create products any more," she added, underscoring importance of having "creative thinkers" at the helm of a company to help lead brands into their next stage of growth.

"Creative thinkers are individuals who state a brand ideology and lead its execution through all content, including any visual content," she continued. "They lead and inspire designers and creative talent. In order to do so, they must be catalysts of the society, able to express a brand philosophy in the context of the times, to make it empathic and connected. If you think about the Jil Sander, Miuccia Prada and Giorgio Armani, they were all creative leaders that were not design-educated, but who all were able to define an ideology, a real social statement and to express it visually."

Having a clear understanding of purpose is also key to a brand’s success. “When a brand has a purpose then everything is clear,” said De Saint Pierre. “A successful brand always has a purpose. So who is defining the purpose of the brand today? Is it the shareholder? Is it the CEO? Is it the creative director?”

Dual-Role Soloists

While the experiment of installing a single leader as both CEO and creative director seems to have failed at Burberry, this hasn’t deterred Alexander Wang from testing the model. Yet this approach can be extremely challenging, as it requires an exceptional individual with “right-brain, left-brain” abilities. Such people are very rare. The best example is probably the late Steve Jobs, who was officially chairman and chief executive of Apple, but played a critical creative role at the company. Christopher Bailey, while certainly talented, came under pressure from investors and analysts, who wondered whether one man could possibly handle his dual role.

"There isn't a creative director that I know who should also be the chief executive of a company," said Karen Harvey, whose executive search and consulting firm helped place Stuart Vevers at Coach and Laurent Potdevin at Lululemon. "Running the business of a public company, it is just challenging to do both. I'm not making a judgment call on him," she added, referring to Bailey. "I really don't believe any creative person should have that job as both are massive undertakings especially in this climate."

But there are exceptions, especially when the founder of company — like Jobs — plays both creative director and chief executive roles. Giorgio Armani, for one, took over the role of chief executive at his namesake label after the death of his partner Sergio Galeotti and has successfully run the business for over 30 years. However, it is important to note that Armani, along with Alexander Wang and Tom Ford, who is both designer and chief executive and president of his label (Domenico de Sole is the company's chairman) have the benefit of having privately held businesses, which don't have to answer to public shareholders and financial analysts.

“Alexander Wang is a private company and he has therefore the right to do what he sees fit with the company and I do believe he will surround himself with people to help him,” Harvey said. “When you have a responsibility to shareholders it’s a different story and the complexity of quarterly reporting and all of the aspects of running a public company, it’s just very different. And considering the size of Burberry versus the size of Alexander Wang today, it’s manageable,” she added.

Creative Couplings

The most traditional creative configuration is the pairing of a creative director with a chief executive, with both partnering to drive strategic decisions in everything from design to marketing. This proven model has worked for many companies and is perhaps most successfully illustrated in the current partnership between Gucci's creative director Alessandro Michele and chief executive Marco Bizzari, as well as the historical couplings of Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent, and Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti. While these kinds of partners often take strategic decisions together, there is also a clear division of responsibility between the creative and business needs of the organisation. It seems this balance is what Burberry is hoping to restore by appointing Marco Gobbetti as chief executive, freeing Bailey to focus on the creative.

"When, of course, you have the talent who has the ideology of a brand, not just the product, and who has the whole expression of the brand — and this is definitely seen in Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Phoebe Philo at Céline — this works extremely well," said de Saint Pierre.

But finding talented brand idealogues and pairing them perfectly with complementary chief executives isn't easy. In the case of German fashion house Jil Sander, the relationship between the eponymous designer and Patrizio Bertelli (whose Prada Group once owned the company) broke down dramatically, leading to Sander resigning just five months after selling a majority stake in the firm.

Team Players

Usually seen at behemoth luxury brands, companies sometimes employ separate creative directors across different elements of the business. One clear benefit of this is having more designers split the workload. Another is allowing the brand to have distinct voices across business divisions. This approach is apparent at Dior, which has a number of creative directors, each overseeing a specific part of the business, like womenswear, menswear and jewellery collections, where creative output varies but still adheres to the overall codes of the house.

But of course, having separate creative directors for each division make it more challenging to maintain a consistent voice and vision across a brand, resulting in a confusing message for some customers, said Harvey. This configuration can also be frustrating for creatives, who lack control over the overall articulation of the brand. Indeed, Dior's former womenswear creative director Raf Simons is thought to have left the company, in part, due to the limited control offered by his role compared to similar creative roles at competitor luxury house like Gucci and Saint Laurent.

“I think ultimately Dior’s parent company will face what every other brand is facing, which is how do you bring all of this under one brand leader? And in part, it’s also for the sake of talent marketplace that really wants to touch everything. And so, importantly we can’t leave that out of the conversation. It is extremely difficult to bring in a creative director where they don’t have more breadth over multiple categories, divisions and brand communication,” explained Harvey.

Brand-Makers

Perhaps the newest approach is appointing a creative director (or directors) with no formal design training or design experience. In this case, the creative director is less involved in designing collections and more focused on crafting and communicating a strong point-of-view and generating buzz across channels encompassing everything from public appearances to social media.

The appointment of Justin O’Shea to Brioni is a good example of this approach, which has seen the former MyTheresa global fashion director, street style star and social media personality reshape how the brand presents itself. In his first campaign for the Brioni, O’Shea tapped the heavy metal band Metallica to help shake off the Italian fashion house’s more formal reputation.

“There is a very powerful desire on behalf of brands to be relevant with the millennial consumer and that consumer that is so hungry for content, and that relevance that brands are craving is often simplified to us as we need to create buzz,” said Harvey.

“This being the moment that we are in, when a brand brings a person like Justin, who has great experience building MyTheresa, who has the ability to very quickly come into a brand like Brioni in a positive way and create some buzz and excitement and he doesn’t have to learn how to create those triggers, he very much knows that.”

Opening Ceremony founders and Kenzo co-creative directors Carol Lim and Humberto Leon — who have revamped the LVMH-owned label with a mix of vivid jungle prints, a streetwise aesthetic and out-of-the-box visual communications campaigns — also fit into this bucket. But when it comes to product, these kinds of creative directors must always rely on the expertise of others to realise their ideas and to explore new concepts.

“I’m always concerned when a creative director does not have a depth in product design as well, for a brand like Brioni where product is essential to the brand, and is the hallmark of that brand,” said Harvey. “But the positives being he is able to create buzz and excitement around the brand, he certainly knows everything there is to know about creating that buzz. I think it remains to be seen what he does with product.”

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