What is behind the turnover of creative directors of luxury brands?
You don’t need to own a closet full of Bottega Veneta to have felt the impact of Daniel Lee’s tenure as the brand’s creative director for the past three years. Those lug-soled boots and cushioned clutches stealing shelves at Zara and Net-a-Porter? You can thank Lee’s bestselling accessories in part for their ubiquity. This vivid, alien green seen everywhere, from the Great Wall of China to Hailey Bieber’s outfit at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards? There’s a reason the shade was named “Bottega Green.”
In November 2021, however, BV’s parent company Kering announced that Lee would be leaving the brand, to be replaced by its second-in-command Matthieu Blazy. The news took the fashion world by surprise given the designer’s critical and commercial success, but Lee’s short tenure was not unique. In recent years, luxury houses have passed through creative directors at an increasingly rapid pace: in 2020, Matthew M. Williams made his debut at Givenchy and Gabriela Hearst took over as head of Chloé, replacing the predecessors who each lasted less than four years in their roles. Lanvin, meanwhile, is on his third creative director since his split from the late Alber Elbaz in 2015.
While the reasons for these regime shifts vary, many experts believe the trend of frequent turnovers is linked to the increasing speed of the fashion cycle and the changing demands of the role of creative director.
“You have this customer [who] is so hungry for newness,” making it harder than ever “for a designer’s creative vision to stay relevant over time,” Mario Ortelli, managing partner at luxury consultancy Ortelli & Co, tells TZR . “These days, a creative director is an artist, a marketer, a communicator and an architect.”
Many of the lauded talents of this decade – Virgil Abloh, Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia (now officially Demna, unnamed, in his professional life) – are as much known for their digital prowess, collaborative spirit and vast repertoires of cultural references. about their technical skills. Finding the right person to take the reins of a century-old home is more art than science, says Thomai Serdari, professor of marketing and branding at New York University and author of the forthcoming book. Rethinking luxury fashion: the role of cultural intelligence in creative strategy.
“It’s not like when you need an engineer and you find someone who’s a perfect fit because the numbers match,” she explains. ” This is another thing. It is magic. When creative vision, brand heritage, and market forces come together to create that ineffable spark, customers are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a handbag (or $30 on a lipstick) to be part of [it]. “That’s why we’re so drawn to this industry,” Serdari continues, “…we crave the excitement these people give us and the escape of beautifully crafted, imaginative products.”
If enough fans buy into a brand’s new direction, it can translate to skyrocketing sales growth. Joining Saint Laurent in 2012, former creative director Hedi Slimane helped propel the Kering-owned company into a billion-dollar brand, doubling its revenue in less than four years. With those numbers in mind, it’s perhaps no surprise that the conglomerate was willing to shell out more than $12 million a year after-tax on Slimane’s salary — or that rival LVMH hired him. for first place at Céline (with the triple title of “artistic, creative and image director”) as he aims to make this brand a juggernaut of 2 to 3 billion euros per year.
“Having a new creative director on board can go a long way in renewing interest in a brand, especially if they have a viral moment or product on their show,” says Heather Gramston, head of womenswear at the London-based luxury retailer Browns, pointing to Demna’s streetwear-influenced designs for Balenciaga and Hearst’s emphasis on sustainability at Chloé. (In October, Chloé became the first luxury fashion house to achieve B Corp certification, “hopefully with more to follow,” Gramston says.)
On the other hand, an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude can backfire if it confuses or alienates customers. Lanvin wrestled with this issue in its effort to recapture the relevance of Elbaz’s fun, feminine designs a decade ago.
Additionally, there is the question of whether a typical three-year contract gives designers enough time to realize their potential within a brand. Records like Slimane’s set the bar high, but it’s hard not to mourn what might have been if, say, Raf Simons had stayed at Dior beyond 2015 rather than decamping for Calvin Klein. (In this case, the decision was up to the designer, though at Calvin Klein it was the brand owners who severed ties after just two years due to “disappointing” sales.)
While it is possible to instantly measure interest in a brand’s new direction on social media, it usually takes several seasons to measure its commercial impact. Riccardo Tisci was appointed creative director of Burberry in March 2018, but a year later his designs still accounted for only 10-15% of what was sold in stores. Even now, the upheaval of the pandemic has made it difficult to assess whether Tisci-fied Burberry is finding its audience, albeit with a new CEO, pressure to amplify the brand’s leather goods business and sell more high-end pieces range via Burberry-owned chains will be more important than ever.
The average customer may not keep up with every changing of the guard at a luxury brand, but they are much more knowledgeable about the industry today than perhaps they were in the past. “With social media, you can find out so much about fashion and what’s happening day-to-day,” says Sherri McMullen, founder and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based boutique McMullen. “So customers are definitely in tune with the changes. Especially if they love fashion and appreciate it, they are curious to know the person behind it.”
“From a buying perspective, it can be refreshing to see a new creative director interpret house codes and anticipate how they plan to move the conversation forward and attract a new client,” adds Gramston.
Lee’s designs for Bottega Veneta worked as well as they did because they drew inspiration from the house’s heritage, including his signature intrecciato braided leather — while addressing a younger and more diverse clientele. Within a few seasons, he reinvigorated the brand’s ready-to-wear business, courted fans like Rihanna and Missy Elliott, and ditched Milan Fashion Week for shows at Berlin’s famed Berghain nightclub and the historic Michigan Theater in Detroit. Even in such a traditional home, the young joy of living seemed natural, perhaps because for Lee it was: At 32, he was Kering’s youngest creative director when he took the job.
Now, months after his departure, his plays still have plenty of sales momentum, Gramston says, suggesting that Blazy’s task as his successor will be less of a total reset and more of fanning the flames.
At Givenchy, Williams has already moved away from the red carpet glamor of her predecessor Clare Waight Keller for a sharper, more industrial sensibility. Although the vision echoes its own brand, 1017 ALYX 9SM, it also pays homage to Givenchy’s rich archives – not only the mid-century designs of Hubert de Givenchy, but also the brief tenures of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen. in the 90s, as well as Tisci’s twelve years at home.
If all goes according to plan for parent company LVMH, this new aesthetic will spur growth in women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, unlike Keller’s albeit critically acclaimed designs.
“Sometimes you need a sequel. Sometimes you need a break,” says Ortelli.
In her six years at Balenciaga, Demna has undoubtedly taken on the latter with headline-grabbing reinventions of everyday pieces — high-heeled Crocs, $2,000 Ikea-style bags, off-the-shoulder windbreaker – and a hug that is both dramatically oversized and bodily. – tight cuts.
Yet amidst all the hype, there is a fundamental respect for the craftsmanship and high fashion on which the house was built. “Demna has done a very interesting job of keeping his speech and his narrative very grounded in things that make sense for Balenciaga in terms of the cut, in terms of the proportion,” says critic and designer José Crisales-Unzueta, referring to the “invisible thread”. linking the new models to those that came before. “These silhouettes make sense and you can see the legacy consideration.”
This – along with Demna’s enthusiastic experimentation with virtual reality and games, irreverent ties to The simpsons and sister brand Gucci, and the release of one “It” accessory after another – set the house on the path to becoming Kering’s next “megabrand”, as the conglomerate’s CEO François- Henri Pinault at The New York Times. By constantly innovating and iterating even as he himself stays put, the designer seems to have found the secret to continued success at a time when many creative directors have already reached their sell-by date.
And while it’s hard to imagine our current culture giving birth to another Karl Lagerfeld — who, when he died in 2019, had spent 54 years at the helm of Fendi and 36 at Chanel — there are upsides. to the ongoing game of fashion musical chairs. On the one hand, says McMullen, we see emerging talent getting the chance to step out of the shadows and share new ideas. Additionally, Serdari argues, designers themselves are often eager for opportunities to learn and grow in new ateliers.
“Sometimes if you stay in the same environment, it’s hard to keep being creative,” she says. “And it’s good for these great houses to continue to encourage their creative talent to move into different brands, to take on new challenges, to be inspired, to work with different people.” Fashion, after all, requires collaboration; even the most visionary designer can’t do magic without a team behind them.