The role of the creative director and the general visibility of these individuals has been evolving for some time. Sure, emphasis on individuals, such as Olivier Rousteing, the fame-hungry creative director charged with overseeing Balmain, is becoming quite commonplace in the modern day fashion landscape. This practice, however, was not always the norm. Prior to the shift from designers to creative directors and the subsequent rise of public figures like Karl Lagerfeld, Valentino Garavani, and Calvin Klein – followed by Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, among others – achieving fame that extended beyond the boundaries of the fashion industry was rare.
The Old World Fashion Designer
With the prevalence of creative directors in the market, it is easy to forget that prior to just a few decades ago, the role of a creative director was largely unfamiliar. Designers – individuals who are involved in crafting the physical or literal aspects of a piece of work, such as a garment – reigned supreme when design houses were simply that – largely insular houses and not multi-national, billion-dollar design brands with various collections, an array of licenses and complex webs of distribution. Since then, what were once designer labels with relatively small footprints have become massive businesses. Along with this came the creative director, whose “primary concern” is “making sure the art direction & design approaches always support the [brand’s] bottom line.” In fashion, this means overseeing all of the various teams (think: menswear, womenswear, accessories, branding, etc.), and generally having a much wider reach in terms of a job description that is not limited to sketching and/or creating designs.
The shift from designer to creative director coincided with a larger shift in the fashion industry. For decades, “the luxury fashion business was small — it was a niche business for a niche clientele," says fashion writer Dana Thomas. Couture houses served a limited client base and even brands like Louis Vuitton, for instance, were small. The Paris-based brand maintained only two stores — one in Nice and one in Paris for quite some time. Such companies were “privately held, and they did not have great ambition to be these corporate global behemoths.”
But this changed (obviously), most tangibly beginning in the late 1980’s. The “old world” fashion industry – with its family-owned companies and their relatively small retail networks – began to undergo a seismic change, particularly towards corporate dealings, as these companies were snapped up by big conglomerates, such as real-estate-developer-turned-luxury-fashion-magnate Bernard Arnault’s (pictured above) empire, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (which was created through a $4 billion merger in 1987 between Louis Vuitton with Möet-Hennessy and which allowed Louis Vuitton to expand its investments in the luxury business). This was followed just a few years later by the of development François Pinault’s Kering (née PPR née Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, etc.), LVHM’s now-rival.
The Modern Day Designer: Famous in His Own Right
It was around this time – in the late 1980’s until as recently as 2001, when LVMH acquired Fendi – that many of the fashion brands that occupy the upper echelon of the industry and many of the individuals with whom they were (and in some cases still are) associated really made their names. “The businesses exploded. The designers made headlines — that was their mandate. The shows were about drumming up publicity, even more than making clothes that people would buy,” Thomas noted. And the famous designer, who would soon pave the way for the famous creative director, was born. It was here that the seed was planted for designers/creative directors to become names that rivaled their employers in terms of renown.
“The force of LVMH — particularly the economic power that they can bring to the endeavor of a fashion designer — you know, you bring all of that in-house, you put a star designer up in front of it, so you have a sort of celebrity face to the enterprise. It's a pretty unstoppable force,” says Mary Davis, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.
But such fame was more widespread than that; it was not limited to the houses being brought under the LVMH and Kering umbrellas. In the U.S., designers like Calvin Klein and Diane Von Furstenberg maintained high public profiles while their businesses grew, frequenting Studio 54, alongside fellow designers like Halston and Yves Saint Laurent.
Skip forward to the early 1990’s. Marc Jacobs was at the helm of Perry Ellis, appointed in 1988 after the label’s founder died two years prior. In 1992, Jaocbs showed his iconic (yes, truly, iconic) grunge collection. “He never played it safe design-wise, exploring the ideas that have since become his signature: looking backward for inspiration, a sense of irony and wit, and the tendency—so familiar now, so remarkable then—to represent street clothes on the runway … Jacobs was into grunge, and he decided to put it on the runway: flannel shirts, thermals (his reimagined in cashmere, a Jacobs signature to this day), Doc Martens, layers and layers, all of it topped with a little crocheted skullcap. The press was smitten,” wrote Amy Larocca for New York Magazine.
Perry Ellis’s higher ups were not as amused, and Jacobs was shown the door shortly thereafter. He may have been out of a job initially but his star was soaring so much so that he was flooded with job offers thereafter. He landed at Iceberg in Italy before he was approached by Arnault in 1996, who, as Larocca noted, “was in a wildly acquisitive mode: matchmaking hip designers to old French houses—he had John Galliano at Dior, Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Narciso Rodriguez at Loewe.” After eighteen months of negotiations (which included strong demands on both sides, such as Jacobs bringing his business partner Robert Duffy with him and securing funding from LVMH for his eponymous label), Jacobs was named creative director of Louis Vuitton in 1997, a star in his own right at one of the most well-known design houses in the world.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Tom Ford was making his own name on a large scale. In 1994, he was promoted to the position of Creative Director of Gucci, which was severely struggling to avoid bankruptcy. In his early years, he introduced Halston-style velvet hipsters, skinny satin shirts and car-finish metallic patent boots, and scandalously-sexy ad campaigns, helping to boost sales by 90% between 1995 and 1996 alone. When Gucci (then the Gucci Group) acquired Yves Saint Laurent in 1999, Ford was named Creative Director of that label, as well, working his magic and revamping the tired French house with his enticing designs and controversial ad campaigns.
These are classic examples of the designer-turned-celebrity of sorts.
The Double-Edged Sword of Creative Fame
Nowadays, many creatives are as branded as the people they dress: Olivier Rousteing, Karl Lagerfeld, Kanye West (if you consider him), and Hedi Slimane, just to name a few, are all creative directors who have placed themselves – or been placed – in the public’s tunnel-vision.
The benefits of being a branded creative director are quite significant. Consider Rousteing. Appointed to Balmain in 2011 at the age of 24, he is arguably more well known for his engagement with social media and his public friendship with celebrities, such as the Kardashian/Jenners, than his designs themselves. “It’s one of my goals at Balmain that I want it to be more pop and more popular. I want more people to be able to afford it,” he told the Evening Standard in February 2015. That November, he went on to collaborate with fast fashion retailer H&M to make the Balmain aesthetic available at more accessible prices, and it sold out immediately.
So, surely, the brand loyalty that comes hand-in-hand with these creatives can be hugely beneficial for a brand. One is often left to wonder whether consumers are purchasing entry-level Givenchy pieces (think: t-shirts, etc.) for the brand name or creative director Riccardo Tisci’s name. Brands are certainly not discriminating between these two on their way to the bank, but this does, in fact, put them in a difficult position when creative directors, whose names are so thoroughly ingrained in a house, decide to up and leave, as seems to be the trend at the moment. When Tisci, for instance, decides his time has come to leave Givenchy, the house will have something of a difficult time rebuilding, as that is what it will have to do, in large part because the brand relies so heavily not only on Tisci’s vision but his presence.
The same can be said for Celine and Phoebe Philo (note: Philo is one creative director who keeps to herself while experiencing great success; Rei Kawakubo and Sebastian Meunier at Ann Demeuelemeester are a few others that haven’t employed the branding tactics of their more famous counterparts), Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld, Balmain and Olivier Rousteing, and other similarly situated brands.
There is also the other looming problem that comes with the duality of such fame, the liability that such famous faces can pose to their employers. Maybe the most damning example: In 2011, John Galliano was fired from his post as creative director of Christian Dior when he made racist comments during an evening out and his downfall was painted all over the media. It was revealed that during his appointment as Dior’s creative director he received an annual salary of one million euros, and up to 700,000 euros in yearly bonuses. After his fourteen-year tenure at Dior, it took three years for Galliano to gain another appointment as creative director at Maison Martin Margiela, a house renowned for its elusive nature.
Years prior, Jacobs made a name for himself at Louis Vuitton in part for introducing ready-to-wear to the classic luggage house, thereby producing surging growth and revenue. He also earned himself a difficult-to-shed reputation for his party-hard ways. “Using cocaine and even heroin almost nightly, Jacobs stopped showing up, got thrown off airplanes, and pissed off his staff, who ultimately found their boss’s debauchery a pain in the ass,” per New York Magazine.
And do not forget the consistent damage done by Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana, who now quite widely known for their endorsement of “traditional” families (think: “We oppose gay adoptions. The only family is the traditional one … No chemical offsprings and rented uterus.”), which caused controversy and calls to boycott their label – namely, coming from musician Elton John, who has two children conceived through in-vitro fertilization with his husband David Furnish. Also on the anti-DG team: musicians Courtney Love and Ricky Martin, Madonna, and Victoria Beckham (who tweeted "Sending love to Elton David Zachary Elijah & all the beautiful IVF babies"), among others. And this is damage that a newly-released bag featuring same-sex parents likely will not fix.
With these instances in mind, such fame must be managed very carefully by brand owners because it seems the one thing worse than no reputation at all (a death knell for modern brands) is one that is offensive or off-putting to clients. This is no easy task, though, particularly given that negative press in fashion can be derived from an array of circumstances. As we saw in the cases of Dolce and Gabbana's “traditional family” PR fail; John Galliano's anti-Semitic rant before that when he was employed by Christian Dior; the time Hedi Slimane lashed out at critic Cathy Horyn on Twitter; and Nicolas Ghesquiere's not-so-nice words about Balenciaga on the heels of his departure from the Paris-based design house, etc., systems to manage reputation are more difficult to implement in reality, especially when creative types, such as famous designers and creative directors, are introduced into the mix.