What are We Looking for in a Creative Director?

This spring we learned that Justin O’Shea, the former fashion director for German e-commerce site, MyTheresa, would be taking the helm at Brioni. Yes, the Italian design house appointed a non-designer to take the lead creative role. O’Shea filled the void - albeit temporarily - left by Brendan Mullane, who served as the brand’s creative director from July 2012 to February 2016.

O’Shea’s appointment raised a number of questions - ones that extend beyond him and Brioni. What are we really looking for in a creative director? Is "creative director" really just another term for brand ambassador? And what does a creative director actually do? In order to determine what the appointment meant for Brioni and what it says about the industry at large, let’s answer the latter question first – because it is an important one.

THE ROLE OF THE ELUSIVE CREATIVE DIRECTOR

The role of the creative director is a widely misunderstood one, and not surprisingly so. There is a plethora of terminology that gets thrown around in fashion and that gets used interchangeably (accurately so or otherwise). Creative direction is one of those terms that is tricky to define, and it is becoming increasingly difficult as brands continue to evolve somewhat significantly and more is demanded of them and their human capital. 

What we can say for sure – given the tendency for widespread variation amongst brands in terms of how their teams work – is that the creative director’s role, as the position at the top of the creative hierarchy, consists largely of leading, focusing and overseeing the intersection of design direction, actual design and practical strategy.

So, while some tend to think that the creative director of a brand is essentially the brand’s most senior designer, that actually is not the case. That is what design directors are for (in part). The majority of brands – whether it be established houses like Christian Dior or relatively smaller labels like Proenza Schouler – have design teams. The individuals who comprise these teams tend to fly under the radar, especially in comparison to big-name creative directors, which is partially why the role of the creative director is so easily misunderstood.

Take Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski, for instance. She served as the design director for Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen’s collection, The Row, for a number of years. She was intimately responsible for what we saw on the runway each season and yet, most people heard her name for the first time when she accepted the role of creative director of Hermès. The same can be said of Melissa Battifarano, the design director responsible for the Fenty x Puma collection. These are just two examples.

There are others who think creative directors have no hand in the design process at the very foundational level at all, and this is also not quite right. Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel, and Azzedine Alaïa, for instance, still have very strong hands in the actual design of their brand’s collections. Not to be outdone by anyone, Lagerfeld, who took the helm of Chanel in 1983, maintains that he still sketches designs for the Paris-based couture house.

Forbes’ Kim Winser summed up the creative director’s role quite well several years ago, saying: “The remit of the Creative Director is more than designing product: it’s about an overall vision that takes into account the marketing and advertising strategy, the retail environments, the format of the catwalk presentations, the lifestyle that their new label is selling.” And as the traditional fashion brand continues to evolve, especially given the increasingly global nature of the fashion industry and the near-constant influx of new technology, the role of the creative director has notably expanded. In fact, the creative director and chief executive officer roles have begun to overlap to an extent. Hell, Burberry’s Christopher Bailey occupied both roles until he was ousted from the CEO ole by Burberry's board after roughly two years.

Given the gray area in terms of the exact duties of a creative director, Hedi Slimane’s former role at Saint Laurent seemed to be most demonstrative of the modern day creative director. A trained designer, who worked his way up from design director to creative director (as is the trajectory for most creative directors), Slimane - prior to his departure in April - had his hand in everything from YSL’s designs, themselves, and its ad campaigns to the design of the brand's stores, the sets and the music for the runway shows (and the ad campaigns) and maybe most importantly, the complete overhaul of the brand's image. He also had the final say on all castings, and for a while there, he even had control over the brand's social media.

Slimane had a handful of designers under him. In fact, at a design house or an established brand, the creative director has quite a bit of help in terms of design. Hence the term, creative director, as opposed to "designer.” Designers, as overseen by the design director, gives creative directors the time and ability to oversee the greater scheme of things for the brand and how such designs come into play in terms of the overall strategy and the future of the brand.

THE MODERN DAY CREATIVE DIRECTOR

It seems obvious what we are looking for in models, brand ambassadors, and magazine cover stars at the moment: We want numbers. We consistently seek out someone who will come with his/her own established fan base, who will sell the brand or the magazine not necessarily based on its merit but on his/her own personal selling power. Such appeal can be gauged by social media numbers. And we see the values of a brand – at least in terms of strategy – demonstrated very clearly each time it teams up with a celebrity for a collaboration (think: Rihanna for Puma, for instance) or when a designer casts a big-name model for his/her runway show or campaign (read: Miu Miu F/W 2016). 

But what are we looking for in a creative director at the moment? It seems as though the qualities we look for in a creative head (at least judging by O'Shea's appointment and a few others) are not too distantly removed from those of the "it" model or brand ambassador, particularly given the celebrity in its own right that creative directors enjoy today.

If we consider Mr. O’Shea, it is clear Brioni was not looking for the next truly spectacular conceptualist or otherworldly couturier or master showman. The brand was not seeking the next Cristóbal Balenciaga or Christian Dior or Azzedine Alaia or John Galliano for that matter. 

Brioni was not even seeking traditional design talent, as O'Shea certainly lacks that. Not a formally trained designer, O’Shea joined Munich-based MyTheresa in 2009 and was promoted from his position as global buying director to global fashion director. Despite his lack of experience as a designer in any capacity, he was, nonetheless, tasked with Brioni’s collections, as well as its overall image. (Enter: the Brioni in-house design team and the house’s design director – who will play their usual roles).

This appointment - which was put to an end roughly six months after it was announced - seems to suggest that the creative director and CEO roles are combining even further and that the creative director role is maybe more practically-minded – focused on sales and the bottom line – than inherently whimsical, romantic or creative. This would make sense right now, considering that houses are being plagued by any number of factors that are proving problematic for growth, not least of which being consumer fatigue. 

Yes, given the increased span of a creative director’s responsibilities, the O’Shea appointment suggests that we are apparently looking for someone with an understanding of the fashion business, the ability to forecast trends and consumer desire, and a clear vision of how to put forth a marketable collection. These are likely the things O’Shea, a very well-respected buyer, garnered in his time overseeing the operations of MyTheresa, and given the current landscape of fashion, a focus on things other than the actual designs themselves – such as improving the runway-to-retail schedule and the marketing of such collections as ways of enticing consumers to shop – is being hailed as more important than ever. He certainly has his finger on the pulse, at least in terms of what consumers are buying, and this is the most important thing in the fashion business at the end of the day.

In this way, maybe O’Shea looked like a very good fit.

Grita Loebsack, chief executive officer of Kering’s luxury couture and leather goods emerging brands division (Kering owns Brioni), spoke to a few of these points in connection with the announcement of O’Shea’s appointment. She told BoF on Wednesday: “An unconventional profile for such a position, Justin brings a holistic approach and strong business understanding. I believe his vision will accurately translate into this role and add a distinctive signature to the House.”

Then there is the element on many people’s minds when the brand announced that O'Shea would take the helm: Maybe Brioni was simply looking for a relevance boost. O’Shea is, after all, a bona fide street style star and tastemaker. And as the Independent’s Alexander Fury so aptly noted upon O'Shea's appointment: “Every article on Justin O'Shea's appointment to Brioni mentions the number of followers he has on Instagram. Searching for a justification?” It would be naïve to ignore the very real world influence and star-like selling power that O’Shea stood to bring to the house, especially when he is wearing head-to-toe Brioni.

It seems we cannot avoid the fact that fashion is very clearly a numbers game now (to be fair, it always has been but now its not just sales numbers that brands are looking to; it is social media numbers, too). So, why wouldn’t that tide over to creative directors, as well? It seems like it was only a matter of time before an Instagram star took the helm, and Brioni was at the forefront. And with the duration of the creative directorship decreasing as of late (the traditional 10 year tenure has dropped to 3 years and in O'Shea's case, 6 months), it is worth giving this new-ish approach a try, no?