The Changing of the Fashion Guard

Fresh Dracula

There has been major turnover at luxury labels recently, with new designers taking charge at Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Dior. But with brand DNA (and financial bottom lines) often outweighing a designer’s hand, Patricia Morrisroe asks: Does it matter who makes the clothes?

In 2004, when Tom Ford left Gucci, it was the fashion world’s Brexit. Vogue’s Anna Wintour predicted a “catastrophe.” Others were equally shocked. Ford was then the biggest star in fashion. If he couldn’t reach an agreement with the brand he’d turned into a commercial and critical hit, what hope did anyone else have?

As it turns out, not much. In the past 20 months, creative directors at major houses have been coming and going at such an unprecedented rate that it’s impossible to keep track of who’s in, who’s out, who’s where, and, most important, who cares? While reporting this piece, I spoke to Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, who cited the team of Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli as one of the few success stories. They’d been creative directors at Valentino for eight years, and according to Downing, they not only worked well together but consistently produced clothes that reflected their high level of taste. A week later, Chiuri moved to Dior. Thirteen days after that, Peter Copping exited Oscar de la Renta, and on August 2, Raf Simons was appointed to Calvin Klein.

Other exits include Frida Giannini (Gucci); Alexander Wang (Balenciaga); Alber Elbaz (Lanvin); Francisco Costa (Calvin Klein); Hedi Slimane (Saint Laurent); Stefano Pilati (Zegna); Massimiliano Giornetti (Ferragamo); and Brendan Mullane (Brioni). Then Jonathan Saunders went to DVF; Anthony Vaccarello to Saint Laurent; Demna Gvasalia to Balenciaga; Bouchra Jarrar to Lanvin; Justin O’Shea to Brioni; and Alessandro Michele to Gucci.

“We’ve never seen such a rapid succession as we’ve seen today,” says Robert Burke, founder of his own retail strategy firm. “Designers have to appeal to customers on so many different levels that it’s become exhausting for them.”

Downing blames a broken system based on a 40-year-old model that is simply unworkable today. “It’s like uprighting the Titanic,” he says. “Technology has changed everything. It’s hard to keep a customer’s attention for more than a nanosecond. The megabrands want speed. As a creative director, you have to have great stamina and also be wildly talented to feed the monster that fashion has become.”

Donna Karan has weathered many a fashion cycle but views the current one as particularly onerous. In 2015, she stepped down as chief designer of Donna Karan International, the company she’d founded in 1984 with her husband and sold to LVMH in 2000. The relationship had become increasingly fraught, with Karan complaining to the New York Times that LVMH had been giving her the “cold shoulder.” Even today, she questions whether she made a mistake selling her company (and LVMH later admitted it had struggled with the brand when it announced its sale on July 25). “You lose control,” says Karan, who cites a disconnect between the financial and creative sides. “Designers believe in what they do,” she says. “They need to be heard, seen, and supported.”

Karan also complains about the antiquated cycle of fashion, in which clothes are shown out of season, as well as the sheer number of collections that are produced each year. “It really burns you out,” she says. “Besides, there’s too much clothing out there. How much does a person need?” Karan is now devoting her time to her luxury lifestyle company, Urban Zen, and its namesake foundation. It’s a way for her to combine philanthropy and commerce and a way for the consumer to buy clothing and artisanal items that aren’t mass-produced. “I wanted to build a community that I could talk directly to about important issues like healthcare and education,” she says.

That’s a luxury few creative directors can afford. In addition to producing as many as five collections a year, they have the added role of being the brand leader, overseeing accessories, advertising campaigns, and store and product concepts. They also need to maintain an active social media presence. And the more responsibility they assume, the less job security they are assured. They’ve become disposable, like fast fashion. “It’s a tough retail environment,” says Ron Frasch, a former president of Saks Fifth Avenue who is now a partner at Castanea Partners, a private-equity firm. “People aren’t buying as much, so there’s a huge demand for performance. The companies want results.”

While there have been major shake-ups on the business side, it’s the designer as the face of the brand who feels the most heat, especially knowing that executives are debating whether his or her “face” is even necessary. “The houses are weighing in on this question,” Burke says. “Many aren’t in a big rush to fill empty positions. It’s unprecedented and concerning. Brands want control, but from a creative perspective, ‘design by committee’ is risky.”

Companies such as Kering and LVMH bask in the rosy glow of “heritage.” Even if the original designer had psychiatric issues or sympathized with the Nazis, he or she is probably dead, and nobody remembers the details. Living designers can develop drug problems, spout off anti-Semitic rants, or desire the unthinkable: a normal life. In short, they’re human, whereas the House, like the British monarchy, is an institution. It must endure.

“Designers are now hired guns,” Frasch says. “You bring in someone, pay them crazy money, and then, when it comes time to renew their contracts, they may want more money, so you bring in someone else.” If brands aren’t loyal to their designers, how can they expect consumers to be? “I don’t think customers really care who’s behind the reins,” Downing says. “What they care about is whether they’re emotionally attracted to the clothes. We insiders pay close attention to various shifts at a house. Customers, even engaged ones, care more about the beauty of a garment.”

There once was a time when we cared so much about designers that we referred to them by their first names: Ralph, Calvin, Donna. They dressed us, inspired us. We inhabited their world. For seven years I was practically married to Mr. Armani—never Giorgio. He gave me shoulders and wonderful flowing pants that made me feel like Katharine Hepburn. Eventually I moved on to the German minimalist Jil Sander. We had quite a few good years together until she sold the majority of her company to the Prada Group and then left and came back so many times I lost count. I then fell for Helmut Lang, who shared Jil’s aesthetic as well as her commitment issues. He abandoned me to pursue an art career. It was particularly hurtful because I committed to his whole look, as I’d done with Jil and Mr. Armani. Mixing and matching struck me as the sartorial equivalent of cheating. “Women today are much savvier than they were,” Frasch says. “They take a high-low approach.”

Sometimes, though, I still crave a uniform, something I can throw on without thinking too much. I’d coveted Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo ever since seeing Helmut Newton’s famous photograph. Since no one does menswear better than Hedi Slimane, I finally bought it. Four days later, Slimane left Saint Laurent.

Recently, I’ve been having an affair with The Row. I never thought I’d have much in common with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, former child actresses who are nine inches shorter than I am, but they produce beautiful, minimal clothes that work perfectly on tall women. Sizing aside, I’m betting on their longevity. No one can fire them because they own the company. They’ve already survived Hollywood, so it’s doubtful they’ll self-destruct. And they’re twins, so if one grows bored with fashion, there’s still one to spare. Most important, the clothes transcend seasons.

Downing believes that customers want timeless clothes. “Alessandro at Gucci has had a lot of success with an interesting recipe,” he says. “He puts things together in an eccentric way so consumers can make the clothes their own. He’s shown the same shoe for several seasons. He gives the sense that fashion isn’t fleeting.”

But it is, and that’s the problem. If clothes were completely timeless, we wouldn’t need to buy anything new. So perhaps we’re being convinced that we need more timeless clothes to distract ourselves from the reality that time is indeed fleeting. It’s a bit like quantum physics, but fashion has always inhabited a distinct universe that’s both far away and immediately accessible. The experts I spoke with believe that the current situation will eventually correct itself. The planets will realign. But I can’t help thinking that whenever someone says they don’t believe in designers, somewhere a star goes out.