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Meet the Unsung Heroes of the World’s Biggest Fashion Houses

Fashion has long perpetuated a single creator myth, but behind every great designer is a team of designers, some of them powerhouses in their own right.
Image by Jan-Nico Meyer for BoF
  • Osman Ahmed

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion's single creator myth is just that: a myth. Behind every great designer is a team of designers, some of them powerhouses in their own right. And whereas once buzzed-about ingénues, fresh from design school, were fashionable choices to helm houses, today the pendulum has swung in the other direction. Indeed, some of the most prominent creative directors of the moment were once behind-the-scenes designers who have emerged from the shadows to take the industry's top creative jobs.

There's Alessandro Michele at Gucci, Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé, Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior — all of whom spent years working behind the scenes before taking their first jobs as creative directors. "Behind-the-scenes designers are at the helm of most brands now," observes headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre.

“Too much in the industry has been put into the name and buzz, and yet, time and time again, product is champion,” adds Marc Beckman, founder and chief executive of DMA United, an advertising and talent representation agency, summing up the shift.

Of course, many behind-the-scenes designers never rise to the label of creative director, but have outsized impact on their respective businesses. This is especially true of “right hands” and top handbag specialists, who can sometimes earn seven-figure salaries, according to Beckman.

“Apparel is going to represent the most lucrative for the second-in-command positions,” he says. “Commercially, accessories are still driving the business so it’s important, but whoever is running the overall image is equally important.”

Here, BoF shines a spotlight on some of the industry’s top behind-the-scenes designers working in the backrooms at the world’s leading fashion houses.

Darren Spaziani (Louis Vuitton)

Responsible for some of the most successful handbags of the last decade, Darren Spaziani is one of the most sought-after accessories designers, currently working as artistic director of leather goods at Louis Vuitton. Based between Paris and New York, he has been described by Delphine Arnault as "one of the most talented designers of his generation." Like many of his contemporaries, Spaziani studied at Central Saint Martins under the late Professor Louise Wilson, graduating in 1999.

One of his first jobs was working for Helmut Lang to create design-driven shoes, bags and accessories, before moving to Louis Vuitton in 2004 as head designer of men's leather goods and accessories, where he worked closely with Marc Jacobs and was responsible for the design, research and development of all men's bags, sunglasses, fine and costume jewellery, ties, scarves, homeware, hats and gloves. He then joined Balenciaga in 2006 as accessories design director, working across men's and women's, reporting to Nicolas Ghesquière, and from 2008 to 2013, Spaziani worked as director of accessories design at Proenza Schouler, as well as consulting for Tory Burch and Diane von Furstenberg.

At Proenza Schouler, Spaziani designed the PS1 satchel, which dominated the "it bag" market for the best part of a decade and contributed to the label's rapid growth (currently, Proenza Schouler's overall sales revenue — which market sources put at close to $90 million for 2016 — is split 50-50 between apparel and accessories.) Today, at Louis Vuitton, Spaziani is one of the most senior designers, working in tandem with Ghesquière once again, and Kim Jones. His portfolio of bags includes the bestselling 'Twist' bag, a small handbag with a twisting 'LV' clasp and thin chain strap, as well as the Jeff Koons collaboration, which saw masterpieces transposed onto Vuitton classics like the 'Speedy' and the 'Keepall.'

Matthieu Blazy (Calvin Klein)

When fashion journalist Suzy Menkes posted a photo of designers Matthieu Blazy and Raf Simons on Instagram in 2014, it outed Blazy as the head designer of Maison Margiela, notorious for its reticence on designers or spokespeople. "The show brought the designer Matthieu Blazy out of the shadows," Menkes wrote. A graduate of La Cambre (class of 2007) in Paris, Blazy got his start as an intern at John Galliano and Balenciaga. He then went to work for Simons in Antwerp, rising the ranks to become senior designer, before going to Margiela as head designer of the 'Artisanal' couture line, and subsequently the ready-to-wear, too.

When John Galliano arrived at the elusive brand, as a very public face of it, Blazy headed to Céline to join Phoebe Philo's design team. Since August last year, he has worked as design director at Calvin Klein alongside Simons and Pieter Mulier, Simons' longstanding collaborator who is now creative director of the New York-based brand (Simons, by comparison, is chief creative officer.) "Mulier [is] responsible for executing Simons' creative and design vision for all men's and women's apparel and accessories lines within the Calvin Klein brand," the company said in a statement.

Fabio Zambernardi (Prada and Miu Miu)

Fabio Zambernardi has been design director for the Miu Miu and Prada brands since November 2002, working closely with Miuccia Prada on the ready-to-wear collections and concept development, as well as overseeing all of the strategic tasks that retain the coherence between image and products within the collection, including the Italian brands' image communication. He started at the company as a collaborator in 1981 and was promoted to shoe design director in 1997, then design fashion coordinator in 1999.

A largely behind-the-scenes figure, Zambernardi has played a crucial role in Prada’s ascent to the upper echelons of high fashion. Known for his “maximalist, but with simplicity” philosophy, he has also styled for AnOther magazine with photographer Tim Walker and said that his inspiration comes mainly from a preoccupation with “ugliness.” His styling is often unsettling and gives the sense of something being just a bit ‘off’, although Zambernardi always balances this with a sense of art and commerciality — and even banality. Zambernardi is based in Milan and also collaborates on costumes with theatre actor and writer Filippo Timi.

Yuni Ahn (Céline)

Currently design director at Céline, Yuni Ahn is a womenswear designer who has acquired a diverse range of experience since graduating from Central Saint Martins in 2000 and helped to establish the visual identity of the Paris-based brand. Born in South Korea, the designer was scouted by Stella McCartney before she graduated to join McCartney's first-ever team on her namesake label in 2001, where she worked on print and embroidery alongside Philo. Ahn also played a major part in the design and realisation of Stella McCartney boutiques in New York, London and Los Angeles, specialising in mixed media techniques, such as marquetry and silk-screened wallpaper with appliqué.

Later, she consulted Chloé when Philo took the reins from McCartney in 2000, as well as worked on architectural projects. When Philo later joined Céline, Ahn consulted on bags, jewellery and sunglasses, helping the designer to define the Céline woman and establish the codes of the brand. Other clients included Prada, Miu Miu, Paul Smith men's and women's accessories, Theory accessories, Simone Rocha accessories, AllSaints accessories, Isabel Marant ready-to-wear and accessories. Today, she oversees the design of pre-collections and runway ready-to-wear at Céline, reporting directly to Phoebe Philo. as of April 2018, however, Ahn will no longer work at Céline and her next move has not been announced.

Martine Rose (Balenciaga)

Heralded as one of London’s breakout stars, Martine Rose has been quietly working on her menswear label since 2007, and more recently, as a design consultant on Balenciaga’s menswear team. Graduating from Middlesex University in 2002, Martine set up her first label LMNOP the following year with Tamara Rothstein. Folding the business in 2005, she launched her own project — which began as a men’s shirting brand — shortly after, and success came slowly and steadily. She is known for her unconventional approach to presenting collections, showing outside of the schedule in venues around Tottenham, such as her local rock climbing centres and markets.

It is at Balenciaga, however, that she has had the most influence in disseminating her vision of the “everyday man,” from corporate suiting to technical outerwear. “It all happened through photographer Ollie Pearch,” Rose told The Observer in October. “We were working together and he mentioned Demna wanted to meet me. We sent each other mutual appreciation emails and when he got Balenciaga he asked me to Paris. I didn’t even know Balenciaga did menswear. But doing that has been a huge experience. I’m like: ‘Oh, this is how it’s done properly.’” Rose’s stockists for her own label went from 15 to 50 between Spring/Summer 2017 and Autumn/Winter 2017, reaching 80 after her most recent show. Despite placing itself firmly in the menswear category, the label also taps into a growing fanbase of women. This year, she was a finalist for both the LVMH prize and the ANDAM prize.

Aisling Ludden-Burman (Marc Jacobs)

Aisling Ludden-Burman is the womenswear collections designer at Marc Jacobs and is based in Paris, where she has worked with Jacobs on his namesake line, as well as Louis Vuitton, since 2000. Born in Dublin and a graduate of the Royal College of Art's MA Fashion programme, sources say that Ludden-Burman is one of the most influential figures within the Marc Jacobs business, working on the design of ready-to-wear collections as well as advertising, lookbooks and special projects. Other notable figures within the Marc Jacobs business include stylist Katie Grand, who is also editor-in-chief of Love magazine. Venetia Scott, now fashion director at British Vogue, was also previously a key part of the design team, and worked on advertising with photographer Juergen Teller.

Virgine Viard (Chanel)

Chanel's studio director of more than two decades is often referred to as Karl Lagerfeld's "right-hand woman." Indeed, Viard is responsible for interpreting Lagerfeld's vision for every one of the house's eight annual collections (two haute couture and six ready-to-wear), and it is said that she is often last to leave the studio at night. "She is my right hand and my left hand, our relationship is essential, doubled by a very real friendship and affection," declares Karl Lagerfeld about her.

Viard began her career in costume production as an assistant to Dominique Borg, who notably produced costumes for French artist Camille Claudel. In 1987, she joined Chanel, and when Lagerfeld re-joined Chloé as artistic director in 1992, she went there to work for him, eventually returning to Chanel in 1997, first to coordinate haute couture and then ready-to-wear in 2000 as creative studio director. “I feel like I’m working the same way I did twenty years ago,” Viard told Crash, a French magazine, in 2015. “And everything goes along smoothly because, above all, our studio is about teamwork. I don’t feel like I’m a ‘Director.’ Our hierarchy isn’t felt throughout the studio, it’s seamless. Though the teams do count on me, of course. There are never any conflicts.”

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