Style / Fashion

The Evolution of Fashion Designers to Creative Directors

From Louis Vuitton’s Pharrell Williams to Pierpaolo Piccioli, LUXUO examines the distinction between heading creative direction and leading a team of designers in a fashion house.

Jun 18, 2024 | By Sanjeeva Suresh
Chemena Kamali during the runway during the Chloé Womenswear Fall/Winter 2024/2025 show

June 2024 sits at the precipice of Milan and Paris Fashion Week. As the leaders of the fashion industry begin to shift their attention from one fashion capital to another, LUXUO examines the creatives who head these prestigious fashion houses ahead of their fashion week showcases. As it stands, the series of new appointments include Alessandro Michele as the creative director of Valentino, Pharrell Williams as the men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton, Sabato de Sarno as the creative director of Gucci, Chemena Kamali as Chloé’s creative director, Seán McGirr as creative director at Alexander McQueen and Matthieu Blazy as the creative director of Bottega Veneta.

Read More: 10 Moments That Shifted Fashion in 2023

Seán McGirr, creative director at Alexander McQueen

While in Gucci, Alessandro Michele worked his way up from senior designer of leather goods to Frida Giannini’s associate creative director. Seán McGirr is a Central Saint Martins graduate, where he obtained a Master of Arts in Fashion. A fellow Central Saint Martin’s graduate, Maison Chloé’s creative director Chemena Kamali was the Chloé’s design director to Clare Waight Keller in 2012 before becoming women’s ready-to-wear design director for Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent in 2016. Sabato de Sarno graduated in fashion design womenswear and pattern making at the Carlo Secoli Fashion Institute. He would eventually go on to accept the position of head designer of the women’s knitwear and jersey collection at Dolce & Gabbana. 

However, fashion heads the likes of the late Virgil Abloh, Pharrell Williams, Prada’s Raf Simons (whose background includes industrial and furniture design) and even Donatella Versace who entered her brother’s maison in the public relations department where she was described as Gianni’s “muse and critic”, also share the title of creative director despite having no formal training in fashion design. This begs the question, what truly separates a fashion designer (or design director) and a creative director?

What is A “Creative Director”?

Former Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli

The main distinction between creative directors and design heads of fashion houses is essentially a formal education or background in fashion design and craftsmanship. Heads of fashion houses are typically equipped with a background that encompasses stitching, construction, fabric sourcing, pattern making, and styling while creative directors are known for their innovative approach to holistic brand development that may not include design experience.

Read More: Investing in the Men’s Fall/Winter 2024 Collections

Because of their nurtured expertise, fashion designers will typically have the final approval on specific design elements, such as silhouette, colour palette, and design detailing. Their skills allow them to work closely with pattern makers and garment technicians to translate their designs into wearable pieces. Creative directors, on the other hand, have an overarching authority that highlights an influence over the aesthetic (or artistic) direction of a collection alongside the overall brand image, marketing campaigns, collaborations, and even business strategies. They work as a midpoint between designers and the marketing, merchandising, and sales teams to ensure cohesion across all aspects of the brand.

Creative Director VS Head Designer

Today, the parameters of what makes up a creative director are slightly blurred. Karl Lagerfeld and Pharrell Williams are two examples of maison heads on opposite ends of the role of creative direction. As the creative director of Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld oversaw every aspect of the fashion house’s creative output, from designing collections to overseeing advertising campaigns and store displays. Pharrell William’s introduction to Louis Vuitton made headlines purely for the fact that Williams was not design-trained like his predecessor Virgil Abloh. The title of “creative director” has morphed beyond “designer” because creative directors and artistic directors today are not necessarily proficient tailors and designers but rather have creative control over the “aesthetic identity” of a collection.

Similarly, former Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli was known to honour craftsmanship as compared to the late Virgil Abloh who was the founder of Off-White and the creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear who saw to create a legacy of inclusion (in part) by merging streetwear with luxury fashion.

Read More: Is Fashion Still Obsessed with Hong Kong?

Swapping Passion for Profits

Earlier this month, Virginie Viard announced her departure from Chanel after serving five years as the French luxury house’s artistic director. It is easy to see why designers are facing burnout when effectively the role one was promised did not turn out to be the reality or the role simply morphed into something different altogether.

Read More: Who Will Replace Virginie Viard at Chanel?

Simply put, company profits can override a designer’s creative control and output. A fashion collection is not necessarily an extension of the head designer’s creative insight but rather part of a bigger conglomerate machine whereby the designer (or creative director) is used as a tool to deliver sought-after collections. The appreciation of craft, design and detail has been overtaken by the demand to meet profits and so designers are not always given the creative freedom to illustrate, experiment with textures, textiles and silhouettes and be creative if they are perpetually met with demands and deadlines.

Read More: Green is the New Black: Fashion’s Unsustainable Practices in Chasing Profits

The Role of Celebrities in Collaborative Capsules

Fashion has shifted and so have the roles of a creative director, partially because of the rise in celebrity culture and its prevalence in fashion. The Versace La Vacanza 2023 was a co-designed women’s collection between Donatella Versace and Dua Lipa. The collaborative collection was Versace’s first see-now-buy-now fashion show on the French Riviera. Also in 2023, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing unveiled the “Renaissance Couture By Beyoncé X Balmain” collection. According to the Balmain website, Olivier Rousteing reportedly teamed up with Beyoncé for over six months to “co-create a truly modern couture offering”.

Aside from lending their name to the brand, how much design input did Dua Lipa and Beyoncé put forth in these collaborative collections? One can hardly imagine Beyoncé visiting the Balmain atelier after hours to stitch beading or refine a hem. These celebrity collaborations are a testament to the power celebrities — particularly musicians — hold beyond the music industry. Beyoncé has a far wider reach than Olivier Rousteing and so creating a collection inspired by Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour only encourages fans of Beyoncé to seek out the collection. Simply put, musicians hold significant cultural and aesthetic value.

Fashion New Landscape

So, what is the definition of a creative director today? While the title of “fashion designer” will always allude to creation and crafting, a creative director does not necessarily need to be a fashion designer. The role of the creative director is a summation of aesthetic narrative, artistic direction, and visual components beyond fabric sewing and pattern cutting.

“Fashion designers” were initially central figures in their fashion houses like Coco Chanel and Gianni Versace, with their names often synonymous with their brands. Today’s creative directors have emerged as pivotal figures in modern fashion houses, reflecting the industry’s shift towards commercial viability and strategic brand management. Creative directors today are therefore championed less on their ability as sewers and pattern makers but rather their ability to balance creativity with commercial viability in today’s competitive market. The success of a maison’s creative director is not only measured by the aesthetic appeal of the collections but also by the brand’s commercial success and cultural relevance.

Read More: Sarah Burton’s Menswear Evolution at Alexander McQueen

For more on the latest in luxury fashion and style reads, click here.

Back to top