Musical Chairs: Creative Director Edition

Some of this year’s most prominent creative directors taking part in the fashion industry’s version of musical chairs

One of the many joys of attending London College of Fashion is being able to spend hours on end in the library encountering texts and historical journals you had no idea even existed. My favourite new tradition is rummaging through the expansive collection of British Vogue, choosing one at random and flicking through the creased pages printed generations ago. Like who was the woman who bought this 1966 copy?! In a way, I hold a real time-machine -extremely high tech of course made from paper and glue- and find myself in a different decade, viewing the world in a new light. Seeing the world from my mother’s or grandmother’s eyes when they were my age.

It was therefore hilarious to read about Karl Lagerfeld who had been appointed to Fendi in 1966 – who would have though he would still be designing for them 50 years later! Lagerfeld producing the greatest fashions then and now. This incredible stability and long lasting career however completely contradicts with the environment we see today. Only this week we saw Peter Dundas leave Roberto Cavalli, Justin O’Shea exit Brioni, and Marni founder Consuelo Castiglioni stepping down with Francesco Risso replacing her. All of this change only a few moments from Paris Fashion Week which debuted new creative direction for Dior, Saint Laurent, and Lanvin. Although most fashion folk are still recovering from the herculean task of fashion month, we have almost become numb to such Breaking News announcements and end up eagerly waiting for the new season to observe the new direction of a brand.

But what does this tell us about the fashion landscape? Do we even have a need for a creative director?

On one hand, the concept of an interchangeable and “replaceable” designer undermines the  very purpose or even the need for a prominent head or creative leader. What was once considered very hierarchical and a top-down approach to design, businesses are thought to becoming more flat with clusters of teams replacing a single leader. That in turn, means more democracy and cross-functional teams. Rumours have surfaced that Chanel won’t even replace Lagerfeld when that time comes (in many many many years)… because how can you replace an icon who at times outshines the brand. More input from a collective of creatives possibly welcomes a more effective assimilation of talent and ideas, as more minds are better than one. With more and more qualified designers and pattern cutters graduating from top- tier fashion schools, this could lead to more efficiency in quality and sustainability – not to mention innovation. Moreover in order to keep up with the change in seasonality and “see now buy now”, the more manpower working together the better. Also, in many cases the pressures and expectations placed on one person is uncanny and dangerous – just remembering the tragedy of the great Alexander McQueen.

However, if we imagine the biggest houses in fashion without a creative director – but instead with a team – wouldn’t we lose that sense of personality? A muddle of confusion with whose idea was that? While a flat organisation proposes many benefits, you risk the consequences of less motivation as there is no progression on the ladder, a power struggle within teams, and a lack of control and organisation. Of course we still have creative directors and “leaders”, but with head designers in a constant game of musical chairs it is not unreasonable to question if this is a long term solution.

With designers joining and leaving so fast -Justin O’Shea only lasted 6-months at Brioni – you are  essentially playing with fire. No consistent strategy harming brand image, employees facing whiplash due to constant change and a business direction going in circles not linear progression.

Or maybe this volatility is just simple, pure evolution. Designers have evolved from couturier to creative director and this process will surely continue into something new in the future. Looking at the 20th century, premium market designers started and headed their own houses- Givenchy, Balenciaga … Now their brands have overshadowed themselves as designers. The brand essence, the brand aura, have become much greater than a single person.

We as consumers identify with certain brands and sub-cultures – not so much anymore with certain people as we are all on the path of creating our own personal style and our own brands – anyone on social media is essentially branding themselves. Maybe there lies the problem – the brand of Anthony Vaccarello may be different than the brand of Yves Saint Laurent. Instead of hiring a new creative director, a brand is undergoing a collaboration? A few weeks ago I wrote about collaboration. This model which was certainly successful for Vetements SS17 and you can understand why this would work so effectively on a greater scale for both economy and premium fashion brands: capitalising on other’s expertise, bringing together resources and skills outside of your company. Digital and the economy of co-creation can potentially make a flailing brand fresh so all I can say is that it’s about the implementation and committing to a long-term strategy – of course with room for adapting to an ever-changing environment.

Are the days of the Lagerfelds over? Well, maybe. Which is a shame as over the span of his long- lasting career he has been able to develop artistically, define generations aesthetically, and digest and incredible amount of knowledge. However genius and talent transformed him into legend, not necessarily the job title of creative director for Fendi/Chloe/Chanel. While the so called employability market is changing there will always be room in the storybooks for the unique, restless, and heroes.

For designers: job roles fade, but creativity, ambition, and talent is eternal.