Unlike when a designer helms their own atelier, a creative director’s tenure at another house can be a short-lived affair. For some, the house becomes a home for many years before the cracks start to show. For others, it’s a momentary good fit until, through no fault of the designer, they are evicted. Luxury conglomerates, the owners of the house, and financial pressures can all strain the ties between stakeholders and creatives, and today, brands seem to be picked up and put down so many times they often become unrecognizable, both to the designers tasked to rebuild them and their once loyal consumers.
Last Thursday, Clare Waight Keller and Riccardo Tisci announced within days of one another that they would not be continuing in their current roles next season. Unlike the two, who are leaving Chloé and Givenchy after six and 12 years respectively, most creative directors today are leaving their posts after a mere three or four years, or in extreme cases, after just several seasons. In the last year alone, there have been roughly 30 changes in creative leadership roles across the industry, with the disappointing departures at Oscar de la Renta, Dior, Lanvin, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga among them. Thanks to tension over creative control and a schedule that can demand up to six collections per year, designers are either leaving, or luxury conglomerates are swapping them like trading cards, hoping for a more lucrative match. But where does this leave the brand, and further, how consumers perceive it?
Before Tisci was appointed to Givenchy in 2005, Marco Gobbetti, chief executive from 2004-08, told NY Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman that the brand was “a mess, without an identity.” In the years since, Tisci created a distinct, sometimes dark and gothic sensibility that led to street style frequents donning Bambi-printed neoprene in 2013 and decorative septum piercings since 2015 (an addition that still reigns off the runway). Like Waight Keller’s reinvention of the Chloé girl, which gave consumers a relatable, free-spirited female to identify with, Tisci transitioned Givenchy from associations with a certain waiflike Hepburn to being a little rough around the edges, repeatedly worn by the likes of chameleon Cate Blanchett.
Regardless of who the creative director is, a Givenchy dress is a Givenchy dress and a Chloé bag is a Chloé bag. But, designers bring to a house recognizable aesthetics that strongly tie into the larger business. So even though luxury brands hold enough influence in name alone to maintain a steady customer, those paying attention to the details, from the reserves of the front row to fans religiously checking collections from a mobile device, can see the cracks when the creative lead moves on.
In the wake of Raf Simons’ departure from Dior in 2015, which left behind a distinct visual language, luxury consultant Peter York acknowledged the fragility brands face when a creative director leaves. "There's a real danger that the original spirit of the business goes when one man or one woman goes and gets replaced by a committee of MBAs," he told the BBC. "If you lose your genius you have a bumpy time until you find another one."
When a replacement is found, often all too quickly, many consumers lament an aesthetic they have grown to love. Gone is Simon’s bright, hand-beaded and pleated Dior, to be replaced by Maria Grazi Chiuri’s repeated reiteration of the New Look and pastel Victoriana. Gone too is Alber Elbaz’s consistently fierce and colorful femininity at Lanvin, in favour of Bouchra Jarrar’s mostly monochromatic nod to boudoir dressing. Jarrar’s distinctly androgynous debut collection for the French fashion house was met with mixed reviews, one of which saw Tim Blanks juxtapose Jarrar’s want to connect with the legacy of Jeanne Lanvin with how Elbaz’s former customers would react to the change. “What will his jewel tone and drapery-loving adherents make of this parade?” Blanks asked.
Even Neiman Marcus knew this interpretation was a stark contrast to the palettes and poetic drapery consumers had come to expect. They cut 29 points of sale for Lanvin ready-to-wear in response. According to the Times, while such a change is unavoidable after a creative shake-up, it’s significant for a brand that receives 70 percent of its revenue from wholesale. While it remains her goal for the company, Jarrar’s determination to render Lanvin a daywear brand might be too drastic for a house with an aesthetic so strongly associated with the sensibilities of one designer.
Creative directors can and do contribute to the evolution of an iconic luxury house and bring it up to date. But if with each new tenant comes adornments from another style, first rococo and then mid-century modern, the once consistent interior becomes a mish mash of different design ideas. At a luxury house, frequent changes like this can detract from brand legacy and identity. However, as we saw with the soon-to-be-missed Tisci and Waight Keller, a well-placed creative director revives a brand, adds revenue, and gives it relevance.
Christian Dior, Gabrielle Aghion, Jeanne Lanvin and other such founders nurtured their ateliers for decades before turning them over to a creative director. This gave them time to create brand consistency and in turn, a loyal following. And when their era ended, a successor was carefully chosen for the sake of both the brand and the consumer. Maybe now there’s too much impatience and a focus on the bottom line in fashion, with a seemingly constant quest to instil big names for the sake of sales. But if some of the creative shake-ups and turnover of recent times has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t rush the relationship. Designers need to be given enough time to breath with their brands, and like any good marriage, communication and compromise are key.