PARIS, France — These days, you don’t have to have certified star power to lead a major fashion house. From Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta, who joined the Italian brand from Céline where he was ready-to-wear director under Phoebe Philo, to Bruno Sialelli at Lanvin, who burnished his insider reputation working for Jonathan Anderson at Loewe, executives at top houses are taking more chances on designers who have not yet proven their capability to lead. Schiaparelli’s Daniel Roseberry — a Thom Browne veteran — and Marni’s Francesco Risso — a longtime follower of Miuccia Prada — are other recent examples of labels choosing an unknown quantity over a proven one. Virginie Viard, Karl Lagerfeld’s longtime collaborator and studio director has enabled a continuity at Chanel that has minimised creative upheaval following his death.
Of course, stories of the second-in-commands making good are as old as modern fashion itself, from Yves Saint Laurent emerging from the shadows of Christian Dior to Phoebe Philo replacing her former Creative Director Stella McCartney at Chloé.
But in an increasingly fast-paced world where success must be swift, the gamble is big. A designer like Virgil Abloh or Demna Gvasalia brings a community of followers to the brand they are running: Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga have benefited from the attention of Virgil and Demna fans.
But there are benefits to opting for someone whose reputation has nothing to do with public sentiment. Designers with years of experience toiling away in a studio will likely have strong technical and management skills from working through various roles, and they may come cheaper than a recognised name from another house.
We aren’t in an industry where only five people make the buzz.
“I [don’t want to] find a superstar who is overpriced,” Jean Vigneron, associate partner at the Paris-based recruitment firm Agent Secret told BoF. “I [want to] find a talent and bring him [or] her out of the shadow.”
Creative director profiles now require designers to have strong media and marketing skills, business acumen (and the ability to have a good relationship with a chief executive), as well as a clear design DNA. “We’ve seen more creative directors coming from the accessories category because it represents the lion’s share of the business for some brands,” said Mathias Ohrel, founder of recruitment firm m-O Conseil. Agent Secret’s Founder Agnès Barret recognises accessories designers’ unique abilities to succeed as creative directors due to their technical skills and strong sense of vision; handbag specialists, for example, bring a fresh creative perspective alongside merchandising and business pragmatism.
Ultimately, a strong aesthetic that matches the house codes should override all other factors. For each designer she places, Barret’s aim “is to bring in out-of-the-box talents to prove that [fashion isn’t] inbred,” she said. “We aren’t in an industry where only five people make the buzz.”
Who is poised for a starring role in 2020? BoF spotlights the fashion talents recruiters and executives are watching:
Ilaria Icardi (Victoria Beckham)
Icardi had been touted as a potential replacement for the creative directorship at Céline, where she worked from 2008 to 2013 as design director under Phoebe Philo. Instead Icardi, who began her career with a seven-year stint as senior designer at Yves Saint Laurent, stayed at Victoria Beckham where, as current design director, she has played a crucial role in shaping the label’s pared back aesthetic which continues to gain critical acclaim. Icardi’s tenure at houses that excel in fluid, sharp tailoring, as well as her experience working with ateliers of all sizes, leaves her well-placed to take on a creative director role.
Martina Tiefenthaler (Balenciaga)
Tiefenthaler was taught under German fashion designer Bernard Willhelm at Vienna’s University of the Applied Arts, having initially studied graphic design in Munich. Tiefenthaler began her fashion career as womenswear designer at Maison Martin Margiela, where she worked on the 2012 H&M collection. It was there she met Demna Gvasalia, whom she followed to Louis Vuitton for three years, before joining him at Balenciaga in 2017. As design director for men’s and women’s collections, bags, shoes, accessories and eyewear, she plays a crucial role at the house; the question now is whether she’s ready to step out of Gvasalia’s shadow.
Adrian Appiolaza (Loewe)
Along with Yvan Mispelaere (below), Paris-based Appiolaza was part of the close-knit design team at Chloé both during Philo’s tenure and for a short period following her departure (taking a collective bow after the Autumn/Winter 2006/7 show). After stints at Prada and Louis Vuitton, Appiolaza returned to Chloé as design director under Clare Waight Keller. The heavily tattooed Argentine is currently leading the women’s ready-to-wear team at Loewe as design director. He also owns a sizable archive from the likes of Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe, which he presents on his Instagram account.
Yvan Mispelaere (Valentino)
In 1989, Mispelaere trained with Claude Montana, then head of haute couture at Lanvin. After five years as Montana’s assistant, the French designer moved to Valentino for his first stint at the Italian house. An industry veteran with experience at Prada, Gucci, Chloé and Céline, Mispelaere carries a wealth of knowledge from some of fashion’s biggest brands. The 51-year-old designer now works alongside Pierpaolo Piccioli as Valentino’s Haute Couture design director. He has held a creative director position before, taking the helm at Diane Von Furstenberg from 2010 to 2012, when he departed just 48 hours after his final New York Fashion Week show.
Fabio Zambernardi (Prada and Miu Miu)
Zambernardi is the current design director for the Prada and Miu Miu brands, a position he has held since 2002. Working as a designer on the footwear line since 1997 and fashion coordinator since 1999, Zambernardi has spent much of his career with the Prada Group. Today, he works alongside Miuccia Prada in the development of the collections and is responsible for all aspects connected with strategy, research, product image and the development of each collection.
Michael Rider (Ralph Lauren)
A graduate of Brown University, Rider spent four years as a senior designer at Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquière before joining Céline, where he spent nearly nine years with Phoebe Philo until her departure in 2017. As BoF reported at the time, Rider was appointed senior vice president and creative director of Ralph Lauren’s women’s Polo business in 2018, charged with elevating the mid-priced commercial line. He could be in a good position to take on the creative leadership at an American house, not least because his credentials as one of Philo’s apprentices makes for an attractive prospect right now.
Frances Howie (Stella McCartney)
The New Zealander graduated from the MA course in womenswear at Central Saint Martins in London in 2006 where she studied under one of fashion’s most influential tutors, the late Louise Wilson. Fresh out of university, she worked in Paris as Alber Elbaz's design assistant at Lanvin from 2006 to 2009. Howie, known for her particularly sharp creativity, joined Stella McCartney in 2009 where she is currently design director of women’s collections. Stella McCartney’s ethical fashion brand known for its cool aesthetic caught the attention of LVMH (the world’s largest luxury group took a minority stake last year), so it’s logical that all eyes are on design talents at the socially-conscious, British label.
A graduate of Belgium’s La Cambre fashion school, Blazy was hired by Raf Simons straight after his graduate show in 2007, staying with the designer at his namesake label until 2011, when he moved to Maison Martin Margiela. There, he took on the role as design director of the Artisanal couture collection and later the ready-to-wear runway collection, too. In late 2015, Blazy joined Phoebe Philo at Céline as senior designer, before joining up with Simons again in 2016 at Calvin Klein, where he worked as vice president design in charge of women’s and men’s collections. He left the American brand in January 2019 at the same time as Simons’ departure. It is understood Blazy is now free from a non-compete agreement, which primes him for a step into a creative director role.
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