Why Are All of the Creative Directors Leaving?

Today’s news that Lanvin’s longtime creative director Alber Elbaz is slated to depart comes just a week after Raf Simons announced his exit from Christian Dior. Before that, we heard that Phoebe Philo may be looking for a way out of Celine, as she reportedly “wants to stay more with her family.” (This exit has not been confirmed.) The recent round of musical chairs is in fashion’s must upper echelon and has left many asking: Why are they all leaving?

There is the argument that they are simply “over it.” That they want out of the sped-up cycle that leaves little room to breathe, let alone really be creative. That they have grown tired of the pressure to perform six times a year (Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter, Pre-Fall and Resort on the ready-to-wear side, and Fall/Winter and Spring/Summer couture collections) in Simons’s and others'  cases. This is certainly a large part of it. Simons spoke to this point recently, noting the pressure that comes hand-in-hand with the “highest level of expectation within the business, like massive blockbuster shows, commercial clothes, big concepts.”

Similarly, Elbaz, who accepted a Fashion Group International award this past week in New York, stated in his speech: "I think everybody in fashion these days needs just a little more time." He interrupted the audience's subsequent applause, putting a hand up to the crowd: “Wait,” he said.

Fashion as big business - owned by even biggest businesses - has become a markedly different animal than when Elbaz joined Lanvin fourteen years ago, for instance, and that is not something everyone wants to be a part of. So, there is a chance these individuals are simply opting out. But I’m not sure we can really stop our inquiry there. There is arguably another element in place: Control.

On the heels of Simons’s departure announcement, Vanessa Friedman, writing for the New York Times, noted: “Hedi Slimane at the rival brand Saint Laurent, a designer known for not simply making the clothes for the brand but also for photographing the ad campaigns and creating the furniture in the stores as the new paradigm for many peers. ‘It seems to me many people are looking at Saint Laurent in awe,’ Mr. Solca said.”

Cathy Horyn, writing for New York Magazine’s The Cut, stated that Simons’s departure is not in protest of the way fashion has been developing over the past two decades but “does suggest that the even-tempered Simons is seeking a better sense of proportion — fewer shows, more time to create — and with it, greater control and personal satisfaction.”

Designers demanding more control has been a brewing trend for awhile. We all know by now that Nicolas Ghesquière left Balenciaga in 2012 because he felt he lacked control. Who could forget that snippet from his System Magazine interview in which he commented on Balenciaga, saying: “I was being sucked dry, like they wanted to steal my identity while trying to homogenize things.”

This notion of control is something Simons continually speaks of in connection with his Antwerp-based eponymous label, which he owns outright. It is something he cherishes. It is also something he really did not have at Dior. In fact, Simons commonly refers to the dichotomy in his work between Dior and his own label, the latter of which is quite discernibly more underground and independent. Dries Van Noten, another Belgian designer who holds full control over his brand, similarly lavishes in it. As Susannah Frankel noted in The Independent some time ago, "In the last decade of the 20th century, when corporate superpowers were snapping up each and every designer name they could get their hands on, Van Noten resisted the temptation to play along." He does not seem terribly regretful. 

While most big houses have a rather rigid totem pole in terms of organizational control (particularly those owned by large luxury conglomerates), some are becoming more willing to give some up to the creative force at the house’s helm. Jo Ellison, of the Financial Times, recently noted: “Alessandro Michele, creative director at Gucci, who was appointed in January and has enjoyed free rein to express his ‘vision’ across the brand.” The Florence-based brand also permits Michele to work from his studio in Rome, purposefully so he can "stay a little bit away from fashion." Another name comes to mind instantly: Hedi Slimane. When I think of control in the fashion industry – at least from a creative perspective – I tend to think of Hedi Slimane, first and foremost, as he has been given almost complete control of the house by co-founder Pierre Bergé.

There are other names, though. There is Christopher Bailey of Burberry and Miuccia Prada. These individuals have heightened control at their respective brands; they fit into the organizational spectrum with a role that is part creative – part CEO.

Consider Christopher Bailey. Since joining Burberry from Gucci in 2001, Bailey has transformed the British heritage brand into a full-fledged luxury-goods maker. He enlivened Burberry’s classic designs by using new colors and materials and introduced more expensive ranges including the Prorsum and Brit ready-to-wear collections. Now, in addition to serving as chief creative officer, a position he began occupying in 2009, Bailey is also responsible for the company’s overall image, including advertising and store design as CEO. The dual role of creative director and CEO is pretty noteworthy, as we are most accustomed to the two jobs being somewhat firmly separated (think: Frida Giannini and Patrizio di Marco at Gucci, Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy, Raf Simons and Sidney Toledano at Dior, YSL and Pierre Bergé, etc.).

The move, however, isn't the first of its type. In fact, we saw something similar at Prada last year. Miuccia Prada is now 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."

And then there is Hedi. He certainly acts as an honorary CEO of sorts over the Saint Laurent collection, where he was named creative director in 2012. Slimane, who relocated design to Los Angeles and renamed the brand's ready-to-wear collection, has his hand in everything from the designs, themselves, and the 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, oversaw the complete overhaul of the brand's image. All of which caused gasps in the industry. He also has the final say on all castings, and for awhile there, he even had control over the brand's social media. He technically holds the title of creative director, Slimane arguably shares quite a bit of work with Francesca Bellettini (the company's CEO post Paul Deneve's move to Apple).

From the sounds of things, the expansion of the creative director job description is not actually a red flag; in fact, it may even make some sense. Saint Laurent is thriving, after all. At a design house or a bigger brand, the creative director has a lot of help in terms of design. Hence the term, creative director (as opposed to "designer"). Bailey, for instance, has a handful of designers under him, who do most of the technical work. This essentially leaves him with some 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.

Additionally, brands, such as Burberry, have chief financial officers, which is crucial. While guiding the direction of a brand in terms of branding and aesthetics is one thing, managing a balance sheet is another. Thanks to the presence of such financial positions, Bailey can have the "overall responsibility for creating and delivering the next chapter in Burberry's global vision and business strategy" without venturing into unknown territory because at the end of the day, creative directors cannot be expected master absolutely everything.

And this is something designers are coming to demand. Ellison seems to agree, stating in her article: “Against this backdrop, Dior will probably to have to make concessions regarding creative control if it wants to attract the same calibre of ‘named’ designer.”