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Should Fashion Brands Bet on Star Designers?

There are advantages to hiring a star designer who knows how to feed the voracious publicity machine, argues Alexandra Shulman.
From left: John Galliano, Hedi Slimane, Alber Elbaz, Phoebe Philo and Marc Jacobs | Source: Courtesy
  • Alexandra Shulman

LONDON, United Kingdom — In the new Oscar-nominated "Phantom Thread," Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famous, highly mannered British couturier, whose mixture of dedication to his art and uncompromisingly curated lifestyle is part of his appeal to his wealthy clients. Yes, they arrive at Woodcock's elegant headquarters in London's Mayfair to be fitted for beautiful, bespoke gowns, but also to be in the presence of a designer who brings his own lustre to the experience.

The film is set in the world of 1950s couture but the fairy dust that a so-called “star designer” can bring to a brand is more relevant than ever. As the fashion industry becomes larger and more international, and the audience grows more knowledgeable and demanding, the need to stand out is vital. A person leading the brand who is either highly visible — or has a vigorously articulated point of view — can be an invaluable tool for a global fashion house.

But the star designer can cut both ways. At best they will bring an additional fascination to a house and create an ongoing interest and narrative, not only via the clothes they design, but also through the celebrity status that such designers now have.

Within LVMH, for example, designers such as John Galliano, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière have, in their own time, been allowed to build extravagant courts at Dior and Vuitton, surrounded by a team that acts as a protective ring, thereby preventing unpleasant intrusions of any sort getting in. While business is good, they are omnipotent. But even the brightest sparks can fall out with those who employ them and come crashing down in spectacular fashion.

Brands are vulnerable constructs whose validity is dependent on careful guardianship. A new creative director drafted into a big-name house will inevitably become one of the main markers of identification for that brand’s consumers. If that person manifestly damages the association an audience enjoys with a particular house — whether through personally unacceptable behaviour or creative initiatives that don’t resonate with consumers – it will impact on the brand as much as that individual.

Both Michele and Gvasalia were plucked from relative obscurity, but are enjoying spectacular critical and commercial success.

The issue of whether to hire star designers is highly topical given the many fashion houses, where there is either a post vacant or speculation that there might be a vacancy coming up. Who will succeed Christopher Bailey at Burberry? Does Kim Jones have a position waiting for him? And what about Versace? Will someone take on Riccardo Tisci? Is Alber Elbaz poised for a return?

In fashion's musical chairs there are a number of options aside from replacing one big name with another. Should the owners hire someone who will continue in an identical vein, the way Anthony Vaccarello has done at Saint Laurent? Will it ever work to put in a slightly underpowered but less costly replacement to keep the business ticking over – I give you Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin as an example. Or how do you judge whether it would be wiser to follow the example of Pinault at Kering and bring in a lesser-known revolutionary?

At companies such as Ralph Lauren and Armani, where the founding fathers are still running the show, there is also the inescapable question of succession to address. At Chanel, immortal as he may seem, there must be questions about who will take over from Karl Lagerfeld. And even more contemporary brands will be considering how to future-proof themselves. What, for instance, is Marc Jacobs the brand without Marc Jacobs the man?

So, what’s the answer? Are star designers, who can often command compensation packages worth millions of dollars per year, a sensible investment?

In the early 1990s, when the double act of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole took on Gucci, it was undoubtedly Ford's sleek, sexy, high voltage and all-encompassing vision that drove the brand's success. And it was not only his collections but the man himself — disarmingly flirtatious, immaculately styled, his Texan drawl firing out quote-worthy repartee, as well-versed in the chimera of glamour as any of the celebrities that he dressed — that delivered results.

Online, it is most certainly the life and style of the designer that is more exciting to follow than the clothes themselves.

Such was the acclaim for Ford’s Gucci success story that he and his partner were eventually handed the hallowed keys to Yves Saint Laurent, a label that was struggling beneath the stifling legacy of its adored founder. But it was there that relations between the conglomerate, known today as Kering, and the powerhouse duo imploded. YSL was a very different brand, certainly because of the strong legacy of the founding designer (albeit one that wasn’t translating into sales), but also because it was ill-judged to think that Ford’s very specific aesthetic could be employed at two big international houses.

Burnt by investing so much in such a highly identifiable character as Ford, who had become as famous and sought after as the companies he guided, it appears that Pinault decided to turn down the volume on the star designer and Ford’s successors were relatively low-profile.

Just look at the merits of someone like Anthony Vaccarello who has continued, not disrupted, the highly successful legacy of Hedi Slimane's Saint Laurent. Indeed, Kering, which owns Saint Laurent, has taken an alternate path with Alessandro Michele's Gucci juggernaut and Demna Gvasalia's Balenciaga. Both Michele and Gvasalia were plucked from relative obscurity, but both are enjoying spectacular critical and commercial success.

Over at LVMH, Bernard Arnault still believes in the power of star designers. Witness Slimane's recent appointment at LVMH-owned Céline, where he is likely to inject an entirely new vision, despite the success of Phoebe Philo, demanding a massive financial commitment for initiatives like store refurbishments. It's difficult to imagine Slimane's LA rock scene vibe simply fitting into the minimalist functionality of Philo's Céline, but the brand may be strong enough to survive her loss and will surely benefit from the additional fan-club Slimane brings to the table.

Interest in Slimane as a personality with a winning track record will go a long way in adding PR value to the house as well as leveraging the huge interest in the direction he will take it.  The reality is that most people don’t want to read much about the concept of a new heel or bag shape or the inspiration behind a fragrance. As a journalist, how often has one struggled to explain to a PR that there simply isn’t an interesting story in the journey of a new clutch? How often have they had to beg the designer to give some of themselves up, in return for a six-page print story?

Digital media has only heightened the issue. Online, it is most certainly the life and style of the designer that is more exciting to follow than the clothes themselves. Everything is material: what they eat for breakfast, their exercise regime, their pets, how their homes are decorated, where they holiday, their cultural recommendations.

To have a promotable figurehead who knows how to feed this voracious machine is of enormous value. And ideally to have in place someone who knows how to stay on the right side of the digital vigilantes that are currently so quick to criticise and condemn.

Alexandra Shulman is an author and the former editor of British Vogue.

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