Hubert Burda Media

Fashion's Change of Guard

Fashion’s latest spin of the designer carousel brims with unexpected twists.

The other question in fashion as constant as “What’s in, what’s out?” these days must be “Who’s in, who’s out?”. The revolving doors of creative directors never stop spinning, but what makes this round so riveting is the departure of superstar designers and the arrival of new brand stewards, whose names may not even ring a bell with the fashion fraternity.

In October last year, Alexander Wang bowed out from Balenciaga to grow his own successful namesake label that was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Weeks later, Raf Simons announced his own shocking exit from Dior “to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand and the passions that drive me outside my work.” Yet another few days later, news broke that Alber Elbaz was leaving his post at Lanvin after a lengthy 15-year tenure.

Even the reign of legendary American sportswear designers lauded for shaping New York’s fashion scene in the 1990s has entered a new chapter with both Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan stepping down as CEO and Creative Director of their namesake empires.

HIT REFRESH

But far from doom and gloom, the string of dramatic departures made 2015 a year to remember as the rise of new blood in fashion, with greater things expected this year.

Lauren has handed day-to-day operational control over to Stefan Larsson, credited for reviving sagging sales at Old Navy. His Midas touch will come in useful in combating intense competition in luxury retail.

While Lauren’s history of growing talent within the company makes the appointment of the 41-year-old Swede as the new chief executive a surprise move, investors cheered and sent stock soaring to as high as five percent in after-hours trading, and his personal net worth swelled to US$6.4 billion. “I am not stepping down, nor am I stepping back. I am stepping up,” he assured staff in his memo. As chairman, chief designer and the largest individual shareholder in the company, he continues to have a hand in any major decisions. After all, the “partnership” (as Lauren defines it) will see Larsson reporting to the 76-year-old veteran.

Over at Donna Karan, the main line may have been suspended but its younger DKNY diffusion line is enjoying a new lease of life with Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow on board. Better known as the duo behind hip label Public School, the award-winning pair has injected fresh street cred into the three-decade-old label. For its highly anticipated Spring/Summer 2016 debut (DKNY was one of the hottest tickets of the season), the designers took their reference points from DKNY signatures such as pinstripe suits, classic white shirts and T-shirts, as well as asymmetry.

As for Karan, 67, not only has she kept busy with a book tour for her memoirs My Journey, she also remains as an advisor to Donna Karan International and will dedicate herself to Urban Zen, a lifestyle label based on her distinctive timeless basics and artisanal goods, as well as its foundation, which provides educational, holistic, and healthcare services.

These changes echo Calvin Klein’s moves more than a decade ago, when he left his legacy in the competent hands of designers Francisco Costa, Italo Zucchelli, Kevin Carrigan, Ulrich Grimm and Amy Mellen. In August last year, Reuters reported that demand remains high and revenue rose three percent on a constant currency basis, proof that opening doors to other talents can successfully extend a brand’s lifespan.

Can the same be expected of Balenciaga, which has named Demna Gvasalia its next artistic director? It certainly appears promising — CR Fashion Book has touted him as “the coolest designer in fashion right now”, but you’ll have to wait till March to see his inaugural collection for the storied fashion house.

The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp graduate comes with a strong CV, which includes work at Margiela and Louis Vuitton before he founded the cult design collective Vetements. In just two years, the fledgling label made the cut as one of the eight finalists for the prestigious LVMH Prize 2015.

NEW HONOUR ROLL

What makes these new appointments so curious is the fact that despite impressive credentials, their names are largely unfamiliar. The trend of installing obscure talents at the top is no better highlighted than with Alessandro Michele, who singlehandedly made Gucci 2015’s biggest turnaround.

The upstart adored by editors and celebrities alike sent the Italian fashion house’s stock soaring while shaking up the system. “Do the times make the man, or does the man make the times?” asked Tim Blanks when he presented Michele the International Fashion Designer of the Year award at the 2015 British Fashion Awards. “It’s a question that’s often asked about revolutionaries. And a revolution is what Alessandro Michele promised at Gucci,” he added.

Previously little known outside Gucci, the Roman’s surprise promotion earlier in the year tells as much about the state of fashion as his pretty pieces. He is part of the wave of quiet drivers behind illustrious fashion houses, such as Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, former design director at The Row, who is now the first female ready-to-wear designer at Hermès in two decades. She took over the reins from Christophe Lemaire, another low-profile talent who succeeded Jean Paul Gaultier, otherwise known as French fashion’s enfant terrible, in 2010. Like Michele, Vanhee-Cybulski’s debut collection was Autumn/Winter 2015.

Sonia Rykiel is another French label banking on a behind-the-curtain successor: Julie de Libran, who was appointed artistic director in May 2014. The former Louis Vuitton womenswear studio director was Marc Jacobs’ right-hand woman who used to oversee the brand’s Cruise and Pre-Fall collections. Both de Libran and Jil Sander’s Rodolfo Paglialunga made their debut with the Spring/Summer 2015 collection. Previously a creative director at Vionnet and womenswear design director at Prada before that, Paglialunga had succeeded Jil Sander six months prior, when the eponymous designer left her fashion house for the third time.

One possible reason why brand owners are seeking out lesser-knowns is because they have seen what happens when headlining superstars (John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Nicolas Ghesquière) take their leave — reputations become precariously at stake. So while brand owners at Hermès and Jil Sander prefer to cherry-pick talents from outside the company, those like Gucci have benefitted from the quick mobilisation of those within the ranks.

Other than the sheer convenience of filling a vacancy immediately, fighting for famous names also means having to pay top dollar and waiting for the new head to wrap up other commitments before coming on board. A compelling reason for a fashion house to promote someone in-house is that they will already have the experience of working with the team and an understanding of what the company wants. And there’s also that prize of discovering talent waiting in the wings.

LITTLE LUXURIES 

Michele’s appointment highlights another hiring trend: Head honchos are installing accessory whizzes to take the creative helm. After all, bags and shoes — the undisputed cash cows of the global luxury goods industry — can make or break a brand.

Michele and his predecessor Frida Giannini both cut their teeth at Fendi and Gucci with leather goods. Ditto for Valentino’s power duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, who spent a decade as accessories designers until they were handpicked by Valentino Garavani to become his co-successors in 2008.

Stuart Vevers made his name creating arm candies such as Mulberry’s Bayswater and Loewe’s Amazona. Now, the award-winning Brit is endowing Coach a new edge as he establishes it as an American lifestyle brand. Meanwhile, Mulberry is hoping to spin magic with Johnny Coca, Céline’s former accessories director whose resume also includes stints at Bally and Louis Vuitton. His first full runway collection is expected for Autumn/Winter 2016.

Carven enlisted accessories designer Adrien Caillaudaud, in addition to ready-to-wear designer Alexis Martial, as co-artistic directors of its womenswear division in 2015. Caillaudaud hails from Givenchy, where he worked with Riccardo Tisci in the development of footwear and accessories lines.         

PASS THE BATON

For now, all eyes are on who’s next at Dior and Lanvin. While there are no updates at the time of writing, it’s widely believed that Dior executives are reconsidering the candidates from their earlier search to replace Galliano. One of the contenders was Elbaz, who is now free from his  obligations at Lanvin. At the moment, Dior has decided to let its in-house design team take charge of the next two seasons. Is this an undercover audition for its next-in-line?

Over at Lanvin, it’s also full-steam ahead. As Lucas Ossendrijver continues to take care of menswear, new hires Chemena Kamali and Lucio Finale are working on the pre-collections and accessories respectively. Meanwhile, emerging designers such as Simone Rocha and Huishan Zhang are named potential frontrunners for the artistic director position.

Will Lanvin — and Dior, for that matter — go for a known name with ready fans, or uncover the next name-to-know from within its atelier?