Following his ouster from the Balenciaga creative director position in 2015, Alexander Wang took on the role of CEO and Chairman of his 11-year old company last year. Wang's appointment - which came on the heels of Rodrigo Bazan leaving his position as the president of Alexander Wang to join fellow New York-based brand, Thom Browne - was both interesting and perplexing when announced, given the track record of brands that have attempted to forge similar paths in recent years.
Now, just over a year later, L’Officiel Paris has announced that Wang will no longer serve as CEO. Former Goop head Lisa Gersh has been appointed to take over the position and Mr. Wang will take the title of Chief Strategy Officer, in addition to his existing role as creative director, of course.
The Dual Role Dilemma
Wang's until-recently increased role was compelling, in that it marked the latest development in a larger trend in the fashion industry of creative directors taking on increasingly broad responsibilities (a progression that arguably commenced with the acquisition and corporatization of design houses in the 1980's).
First, it was designers assuming a more far-reaching and much more public-facing role of creative director. And more recently, it was creative directors taking on wider-spread brand and business roles – whether officially as CEO or in a more unofficial capacity, as in the case of, say, Hedi Slimane, the omnipotent creative/pseudo-business force during his tenure at YSL.
The dual role of creative director and CEO is a noteworthy one, if for no other reason than that we are most accustomed to the two jobs being somewhat firmly separated. Alessandro Michele and Marco Bizzarri at Gucci (who succeeded Frida Giannini and Patrizio di Marco), Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy, Raf Simons and Sidney Toledano at Dior, Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, YSL and Pierre Bergé, etc. come to mind.
Moreover, now - when fashion are not just fashion companies but multi-national brands with various collections each year, an array of multi-million dollar, global licenses and complex webs of distribution networks - seems a less than ideal time to let creative directors take the business reigns.
Burberry and Prada
Consider two figures that resided on the aforementioned list of clear separation between church and state (aka - CEO and creative): Angela Ahrendts and Christopher Bailey. That was until Burberry took the plunge, fusing the creative director and CEO roles - arguably out of necessity - in May 2014 when chief creative officer Bailey officially stepped into the role of CEO, succeeding Angela Ahrendts, who led Burberry for almost eight years before joining Apple.
In this new capacity, in addition to serving as chief creative officer, a position he began occupying in 2009, Bailey was also responsible for the company’s overall image, including advertising and store design, and various business aspects, of course.
Wang’s appointment always seemed a surprising one if you were to consider Burberry’s very public struggles following its executive-level shifts. The result at Burberry was a swift decline since Bailey assumed the CEO role in addition to the chief creative one, and the British brand announced in August 2016 that it would replace Bailey-as-CEO with Marco Gobbetti, the former head of Celine.
Bailey's role at Burberry - while one of the most problematic - was not, however, the first of its kind. In fact, we saw something similar occur at Prada in 2014. Miuccia Prada began splitting time between her role as creative director and co-CEO. She stepped down from the company’s chairman position and now acts as co-chief executive officer along with her husband, Patrizio Bertelli. According to a statement from the house in early 2014, Miuccia “will concentrate on the day-to-day management of the business by devoting her time to guiding the further development of the group, mainly in the creative design and brands communications activities."
Like Burberry, Prada is in also financial trouble. Shares in both Prada and Burberry have lost significant value in recent years, and while we can certainly trace the roots of such woes to consumer fatigue and slowing sales in Asia, in particular, there is arguably something else at play. Namely, both companies have made moves that show poor business initiative.
Both design houses seemingly put the brand first and business second (the result of having little separation between the brands' left brains and right brains, so to speak). For instance, as Luca Solca noted not too long ago, "It is not unreasonable to question some of the extravagant cost commitments and strategic decisions taken on the back of 'brand worship' at both companies." This is just one example.
But Back to Wang
And it was against this case study that Wang took on additional roles at his eponymous label.
While it is worth noting that Wang’s label, a privately-held, largely family-run company, is significantly smaller (and at least, in theory, more easily manageable) than Burberry, it has not so secretly made known its desire to expand. With that in mind, looking beyond Wang to for a CEO is prudent, which Mr. Wang acknowledged in a statement on Monday, saying that the recent hires will help the company "to continually challenge the status quo."
Wang further stated, "In my year as CEO, I've been able to reflect and assess the strengths and opportunities of the Company and set the stage for future growth. Lisa and Stephanie's diverse backgrounds in the media, lifestyle, and digital landscape will help us continue to position the business to expand into new categories and territories."
As Gersh - who comes from the same role at Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle company Goop - said in a statement on Monday, "I am honored and excited by the opportunity to help Alex shape this remarkable company. the Alexander Wang brand has always represented style, innovation, and an extraordinary standard of quality and excellence. I'm looking forward to working with Alex and the rest of the team to build on his foundation, and to continue to delight customers with our products and creative vision."
Also in the new mix: Former FarFetch chief marketing officer Stephanie Horton, who will serve in the newly-created position of chief strategy officer, alongside Wang, himself.