Style / Fashion

Luxury Fashion’s Ever-Changing Creative Directorships

What makes a fashion brand these days? Is it truly the creative force steering the ships, or a strategy of constant aesthetic reinvention?

Aug 25, 2023 | By Asri Jasman
mind map of the vicious cycle of changing creative directors in the fashion industry

The fashion industry is dizzyingly brutal. Just this past May, Swiss house Bally announced it was parting ways with Rhuigi Villaseñor—the founder and designer of the Los Angeles based luxury streetwear brand Rhude. Villaseñor assumed the role of Bally’s creative director in January 2022 and only managed to showcase two collections before getting the boot, and that is not even the shortest creative director stint in the past year.

Fro Ann Demeulemeester, French designer Ludovic de Saint Sernin made his creative directorial debut on the runway during Paris Fashion Week’s Autumn/Winter 2023 show season. The gender-fluid and skin-baring collection garnered quite a buzzy reception and reportedly prompted stockists the likes of MyTheresa to renew their relationship with the brand. Alas, even before the collection could be realised for retail, Ann Demeulemeester let go of Saint Sernin — a mere two months after his debut show.

Not exactly a new phenomenon, the fashion industry has been going through creative directors so quickly and frequently that having a contract renewal, typically set at the three-year mark, can be considered a unicorn. We have seen numerous occasions where creatives have been cycled through as though they were in a game of musical chairs: Anthony Vaccarello replacing Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent making way for the latter’s entry to Celine after Phoebe Philo; Kim Jones departing Louis Vuitton to join Dior Men while its former creative director Kris Van Assche went on to head Berluti; and Riccardo Tisci’s jump from Givenchy to Burberry, only to be replaced by Daniel Lee from Bottega Veneta.

As the saying goes, the only constant is change and especially so in fashion. While defining a clear, signature aesthetic is undoubtedly the goal for any brand big or small, there’s often a delicate balance to strike for creative directors — crafting a distinguishable look while ensuring a consistent flow of excitement that necessarily translates to increased net profit. Lest we forget, fashion is a business and consumer dollars are king.

Zegna Spring/Summer 2017.
Zegna Spring/Summer 2017.

Zegna’s Alessandro Sartori, for example, is someone who defies the trend, Already into his seventh year at the Italian House, Sartori has proven to be a master at evolving a defined aesthetic. Part of the family-run Zegna Group, Zegna made a name for itself in menswear tailoring through the group’s expertise in luxury fabrics. Sartori’s evolution of the brand’s aesthetic appears to be a shrewd calculation of how to make great change slow and steady. His debut Spring/Summer 2017 collection kicked things off with a unification of Zegna’s core tailoring business with inflections of sporty dress that introduced a more relaxed approach to men’s tailoring.

Zegna Spring/Summer 2021.
Zegna Spring/Summer 2021.

Season after season, the silhouette gradually shifted. Trousers got roomier and outerwear grew to be cut oversized. Drop shoulders almost a given on every design. It was only after the COVID-19 pandemic that the evolution seemed to accelerate in Sartori’s Autumn/Winter 2021 collection which he described as a representation of being in “a world where the indoor and the outdoor are colliding” which softened the rigidity of traditional silhouettes to make way for the elegant ease that has since remained.

Zegna Autumn/Winter 2021.
Zegna Autumn/Winter 2021.

Apart from the sportier “Z Zegna” now out of production, Zegna has offered collaborations with brands specialising in certain areas of sports, the last one with trail-running brand Norda as part of Zegna’s growing Outdoor collection this year.

Coupled with a thorough rebranding exercise which included dropping the first name of its founder (Ermenegildo) in December 2021, a new logo and coloured signifier, Zegna’s reported revenue grew 21.4 per cent year-over-year to EUR271.9 million in just the first quarter of 2023. Safe to say, Sartori has gotten more than a few things right at the Italian house.

Gucci took a different approach. Its appointment of the relatively unknown Alessandro Michele in 2015 created a seismic shift in the industry at a time when newbies were never given the reigns. Michele’s clear vision of a more poetic and referential Gucci marked by exuberantly excessive styling was a stark departure from his predecessor’s. It was the dawn of a new era, one that was quickly lapped up by both insiders and consumers alike. Gucci saw a boom like never before, landing at the top of every luxury fashion list imaginable and quickly rose to being the Kering Group’s top-performing asset.

Michele’s meteoric ascension and cultural-shifting aesthetic would however soon prove to be his downfall. The look that he crafted became so distinct that it eventually fell victim to consumer fatigue. Although Gucci remained Kering Group’s majority revenue earner, accounting for 52 per cent of the group’s total 2022 revenues, its growth started lagging behind other Kering-owned fashion houses such as Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta.

To his credit, Michele injected palpable excitement into the industry throughout his tenure. Gucci collaborations were plentiful, ranging from a capsule collection with one of South Korea’s top entertainers Kai, to an unprecedented two-pronged partnership with Balenciaga. But at the same time, these contributed to an onslaught of the “GG” monogram that was central to Michele’s design vocabulary with almost every collection incorporating the motif in some form or another. It became overwhelming, predictable and ultimately, boring to consumers.

So much emphasis is placed on the creative director that the essence of the house themselves can often get lost. Hiring established figures can be a double-edged sword, there is hope on one hand of tapping into their prior commercial success, but on the other, every house is different and well-known creatives who come packaged with their own signature look can be either boon or bane.

Fo example, Burberry lost traces of its Britishness when Riccardo Tisci took over. His goth streetwear leanings — a winning combination throughout a 12-year appointment at Givenchy — were pared back to fit in with Burberry’s more sartorial heritage. There were the odd spikes and embellishments peppered here and there, Givenchy-like animal motifs and heavy-handed streetwear elements that all felt forced. Tisci seemed to aspire to create a new Givenchy, even when the world had already moved on.

That’s not to say that having an individual point of view spells disaster. Hedi Slimane’s time at a wholly rebranded Celine mirrors more of his personal style than that of the clean, minimalist leanings built by predecessor Phoebe Philo. A hardcore fanbase and the sheer consistency of his vision helped Celine achieve a revenue exceeding EUR two billion in 2022.

Jonathan Anderson remains consistent in his craft-centric approach at Loewe while still producing collections that are refereshing and at times, shocking.
Jonathan Anderson remains consistent in his craft-centric approach at Loewe while still producing collections that are refereshing and at times, shocking.

Regardless, a fashion house should never be buoyed by a sole creative force. After all, a creative director’s time is only finite. Ultimately, a house’s core identity has to stay consistent and somewhat independent from an ever-changing roster of creatives. Hermès, for example, repeatedly doubles down on its storied heritage of artisanship dancing with playfulness with Véronique Nichanian at the helm of the men’s line since 1988. At Loewe, Jonathan Anderson is going strong after nine years of formulating his own unique take on Loewe-elegance. Similarly at Maison Margiela since 2014, John Galliano’s personal style only complements the House’s core avant-garde storytelling.

Slimane-like radical changes are risky. If done in repeated succession and especially within a short period of time, they tend to dilute or confuse a house’s identity. As much as fashion embraces newness, a certain level of consistency is only comforting. This is precisely why efforts like those employed by Sartori at Zegna as well as Vaccarello at Saint Laurent work. Both were strategic in a slow transition, allowing time for consumers, both existing and prospective, to adjust and make their own choice on whether or not they were still fans of the houses.

Perhaps, there lies the crux of it all: time. It seems almost necessary yet scarcely afforded to creative directors these days. A vision of a new house identity requires time to be fully realised. Could Bally have expanded its brand narrative if Villaseñor were afforded more time?

Gucci is gearing itself for another revival with the appointment of Sabato de Sarno. Like Michele, de Sarno is a relative unknown who has all along been working under Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli. His debut for Gucci is scheduled for this September. Ann Demeulemeester also opted for a fresh perspective in the form of Stefano Gallici, a designer from within its own ranks.

Here’s hoping that they’re all given time. Or at the very least, are offered much needed creative inspiration starting off in new houses.

This article was first published on Esquire Singapore.

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