Fashion is a brutal industry. 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 collection, which was skin-bared, received a lot of buzz and led stockists such as MyTheresa renew their relationship. 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.
It’s not a new thing, but the fashion industry is so fast-paced and prone to turnover that a three-year contract renewal can seem like a rarity. 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.
Fashion is no exception to the rule. 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. We must not forget that fashion is business and that consumer dollars are the king.
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.
The silhouette has changed season after season. Trousers became roomier, and outerwear was cut larger. Drop shoulders are almost always a part of 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.
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. Sartori is doing a lot of things right in the Italian house.
Gucci took a different approach. In 2015, the appointment of Alessandro Michele, a relatively unknown designer at the time, created a major shift in the fashion industry. Michele’s clear vision of a more poetic and referential Gucci marked by exuberantly excessive styling was a stark departure from his predecessor’s. The dawn of a brand new era was greeted with enthusiasm by consumers and insiders 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. His style became so distinctive that it was eventually a victim of 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.
Michele was a great innovator in the industry. 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. The consumer found it overwhelming, predictable, and boring.
The creative director is often given so much attention that the essence and character of the house can be lost. Hiring established figures is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it is possible to tap into their previous commercial success. But on the other hand, each house is unique and creatives with their own distinctive look could be either a boon or a bane.
Riccardo tisci’s takeover of Burberry, for instance, wiped out all traces Britishness. 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. The spikes, embellishments and animal patterns that were reminiscent of Givenchy and the heavy streetwear elements all felt forced. Tisci aspired to create a brand new Givenchy when the world was already moving 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. Celine’s revenue in 2022 will surpass EUR 2 billion thanks to a loyal fan base and his consistent vision.
In any case, a fashion company should not be led by a single 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. Jonathan Anderson, after nine long years of defining Loewe-elegance in his own way, is still going strong at Loewe. Similarly at Maison Margiela since 2014, John Galliano’s personal style only complements the House’s core avant-garde storytelling.
Radical changes that resemble slimane are dangerous. If done in repeated succession and especially within a short period of time, they tend to dilute or confuse a house’s identity. While fashion loves to be innovative, consistency can also be comforting. Sartori and Vaccarello, both at Saint Laurent and Zegna, have made efforts that work. Both brands were strategic, taking a gradual transition. This allowed time for the consumers to adjust.
Maybe, time is the key to it all. The creative director has a lot of time, but it is not always available. To fully realise a vision for a new brand identity, time is needed. Could Bally have expanded its brand narrative if Villaseñor were afforded more time?
Sabato de sarnao has been appointed as the new creative director of Gucci. Like Michele, de Sarno is a relative unknown who has all along been working under Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli. The debut of de Sarno for Gucci will be in September. Ann Demeulemeester chose Stefano Gallici as a new designer within the company.
Here’s hoping that they’re all given time. Or, at least, to provide much-needed inspiration in the beginning of new houses.
This article first appeared on Esquire Singapore.
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