How designers can maintain their individuality by working in major fashion houses

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Recent titles announced the return of beloved British fashion designer Phoebe Philo, this time at the helm of her own label after several years as artistic director of Celine.

After a three-year hiatus, Philo’s return is possible, in part thanks to the strong professional brand she built herself while working for others as the creative director of major Parisian fashion houses.

Phoebe Philo is seen in this 2010 photo.
Wikimedia, CC BY

Over the past two decades, several creative directors like Philo have left their prestigious positions in heritage fashion houses. These comings and goings caught the attention of my colleague at York University Eileen Fischer and I because they are counterintuitive to what we would expect based on previous results in the marketing literature.

Previous research has shown that senior executives working for well-known organizations generally place such importance on their brand affiliation that they are willing to compromise and even accept a lower salary for it. Why, we wondered, a creative director – or any professional for that matter – in a high-level position at one of the world’s most prestigious companies would leave a job that apparently can only add more. the value to its professional brand?

The best jobs in the big fashion houses

We provided answers to our question in a recently published study titled Working It: Manage professional brands in prestigious publications. We used publicly accessible media interviews with 20 contemporary creative directors who have held one or more prestigious positions in the biggest historic haute couture brands – including Balenciaga, Chanel, Dior, Gucci and Saint Laurent Paris – and identified two challenges inherent in occupying these top positions. .

First, as these professionals – and arguably others in similar positions like chief executives or architects – gain wealth and knowledge while taking on these prestigious jobs, the energy and time these jobs require can drain their health. physical and emotional as well as the quality of their relationships with family and friends.

Second, although their individual professional brands gain status by being affiliated with prestigious organizations, their own unique brand identity may become less clearly defined over time and, therefore, less distinct from the organization they work for. .

This is especially problematic in creative fields that require their best employees to possess a distinctive aesthetic or brand. These challenges are important because they can have an impact on job mobility, and even those who are extremely successful face job insecurity and have no guarantee of continued employment.

What can be done?

Our analysis identified four tactics that can help professionals in prestigious positions manage these challenges.

1) Transport teams. This means constantly surrounding yourself with trusted people who can help them operate efficiently and consistently over time and in all organizational contexts. For example, the Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons, who was creative director at Jil Sander, Dior and Calvin Klein, carried his right-hand man Pieter Mulier with him through each of these positions until Mulier becomes Alaia’s new creative director.

Raf Simons adjusts a mannequin's coat.
Raf Simons makes adjustments ahead of his 2017 fashion show during Men’s Fashion Week in New York City.
(AP Photo / Frank Franklin II)

2) Boost sales. Since haute couture is both art and commerce, that means producing a vision that is not only critically acclaimed, but also results in sales. Hedi Slimane, currently Creative Director at Celine, is known for making controversial decisions like make changes to iconic brands, yet his commercial success is such that he has acquired the ability to be bold and unabashed in the way he manages things.

3) Selectively neglect organizational standards. Of course, professional brands will be contractually obligated to operate in a specific way that reflects the expectations of the organizations they work for. But there are some that they can ignore in the interest of protecting their professional brand. For example, Marc Jacobs updated the conservative canvas of Louis Vuitton although he was specifically told it was forbidden. It turned out to be an incredibly successful move for Vuitton and one that also matched Jacob’s irreverent brand personality perfectly.

4) Materialize the professional brand in the wider market. This means using social media posts to express professional brand identity to other fashion players who do not involve the organization that employs the individual. Many creative directors use social media posts for this purpose.

The main takeaways are that people who run their own professional brands in prestigious jobs need to find a balance between benefiting from membership and maintaining their independence.

Additionally, employers who hire designers for prestigious positions in their companies must approach the relationship in a mutually beneficial manner.

Both parties win if employers treat key talent relationships as co-branding alliances aimed at the success of everyone involved.


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