Boom & Bust
Updated: Jul 11, 2021
Arguably the most influential figures in fashion, creative directors have the unique ability to completely overhaul a brand’s image in the span of only a few seasons. Because they create a label’s image, the process of selecting them, especially in high fashion houses like Givenchy, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and more is rigorous. While some creative directors last for years at a single maison—John Galliano famously stayed at Dior for more than twenty five years—other houses cycle them in and out constantly, often because they are unhappy with a particular direction the creative director is taking.
Ultimately, not only do creative directors have the power to completely change a brand’s image, but they also have the power to dictate a company’s profits. Thus, creative directors do not have free reign to exercise their creativity as they see fit. Rather, they have to create designs that sell, and sell well.
Take Gucci, for example. According to CR Fashion Book, in the late 1970’s Gucci was on the brink of bankruptcy, with the Gucci family members in a brawl for who would continue designing for the house. Thankfully, before the now-iconic brand tanked, Gucci’s board hired Dawn Mello, the former president of Bergdorf Goodman, as creative director. While Mello greatly improved the brand, revolutionizing Gucci’s famous loafers by releasing them in a rainbow of new colors, her designs were not well received, and so she returned to her job at Bergdorf Goodman.
In 1990, upon Mello’s termination, Gucci hired Tom Ford as the house’s new creative director. Relatively unknown at the time, Ford wowed audiences with his first Gucci collection, taking the heritage Italian house from staunchy to sexy. Throughout his tenure at Gucci, Ford continued to creative effortlessly minimal and seductively simple designs; slip dresses with cutouts at the waist, metal accents, and expert tailoring. Taking “sex sells” to a new level, Ford saved Gucci from bankruptcy, making it a $10 billion company by the end of his directorship in 1995.
Givenchy had a similar story. After the departure of Alexander McQueen in 2001, Bernard Arnault hired Julien MacDonald as the house’s new creative director. Like McQueen, MacDonald thrived on controversy, creating collections that pushed the house’s creative confines. However, Arnault and the LVMH group were not impressed, keeping MacDonald on for only two years, from 2003-2005, as his collections proved too avant-garde for Givenchy’s clientele. In fact, LVMH was so unenthused by MacDonald that for his final collection in 2004, LVMH chose a venue that only seated 80, and refused to invite any news outlets or cameras, according to the Guardian.
Following the MacDonald disaster, Bernard Arnault brought on Riccardo Tisci, an edgy, upstart Italian designer who was quickly rising in the ranks of the fashion world. Upon Tisci’s hiring in 2005, LVMH’s Fashion & Leather Goods category had only €634 million in revenues; in fact, while the house’s other high fashion brands like Louis Vuitton and Céline were mentioned in the 1H2004 report, Givenchy was left out entirely. However, by 2012, Givenchy had become one of LVMH’s most prized possessions, with more than €917 million in revenues—almost €1 billion just from Givenchy.
This miraculous jump in revenues is a direct result of Riccardo Tisci’s long and extremely successful tenure at the French maison. From 2005 to 2017, Tisci overhauled Givenchy. His edgy yet sleek designs gave the heritage French label a completely new look while still allowing Givenchy to maintain its beloved classic elegance. Ultimately, Tisci infused the house with a sense of modernity that bridged the gap between the house’s old clientele and new, younger clientele. And, unlike McQueen, who created outlandish pieces fit more for museums than for day-to-day life, Tisci’s pieces were uniquely wearable; able to transition from the office, to a cocktail party, and even to a high-end club.
Finally, there are some creative directors whose designs speak to one house’s clientele, but fall flat at others. Take Hedi Slimane, for example. The former creative director at Saint Laurent is arguably a fashion visionary. It was Slimane who re-introduced the classic ladies’ smoking jacket made famous by Yves Saint Laurent in the 1970’s, gave the brand its now-recognizable edgy appeal, and dropped the “Yves” from the brand’s name, simplifying it to the more popular “Saint Laurent” that we know today.
Following his wildly successful tenure at Saint Laurent, LVMH snapped up Slimane, making him Céline’s creative director in 2018. Céline’s former creative director, the beloved Phoebe Philo, had cultivated a soft and sophisticated brand image over the course of her ten years at Céline, creating simple, feminine pieces with an alluringly modern touch. Upon his arrival at Céline, Slimane turned the house’s image upside down, seemingly making it a second Saint Laurent. Gone were the iconic Luggage bags, the much-loved pastels and soft, kid leather, and in came a new logo, prints, and a distinctly harsh edge unbefitting of the house’s history.
While some have praised Slimane for his approach at Céline, more have bemoaned his directorship, sparking an online debate between lovers of “Old Céline” and “New Céline.” While LVMH has not released specific figures for Céline’s revenues in recent quarterly and annual reports, under Slimane the house has undoubtedly lost revenue. Last week, the Business of Fashion speculated that LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault is increasingly unhappy with Slimane, after Céline’s profits failed to rebound along with those of his other more than 75 luxury houses. That, coupled with the fact that Slimane has alienated much of Céline’s original client base with his radical approach spells trouble for the designer’s time at the French maison.
In closing, creative directors have the power to steer a company toward both profitability and bankruptcy. With one bad collection, a designer can be booted from a brand, just as one good collection can save them. Ultimately, a creative director must strike the perfect balance, satisfying a label’s clientele while also infusing a house with their own creative license. This takes a skilled designer that not only understands house politics and expectations, but who understands that fashion is not just about designing and creating, but also about making money.