The fashion industry seems to be constantly in flux, as the cycle of designers is changing faster than most of us can blink. So, what does all this turnover mean? It’s inevitable that when the leadership of a house changes hands, it undergoes a rebirth, but whether this transformation is a revitalization or a calamity lies in the mission of the designer. Taking over a label is a balancing act. A fresh and unique eye is essential for design but coming into an already formed label requires a vision that aligns with the past and rejuvenates it, rather than rewrites it.
The job is a delicate one, and while there are a few savants of the craft (Raf Simons *cough cough*), many, if not most, designers fail to make a lasting impression based on the lack of individuality (what we generally deem “genius”) in their garments. While these unobtrusive initiations may lack that special something that inspires true awe, the work of designers that air on the side of consistency and caution is seldom cataclysmic in terms of a brand’s character. Fashion is a game of risk and reward, but too often creative directors have too many of their own ideas, which too often ends in (*Devil Wears Prada voiceover*) catastrophe.
The most obvious (and perhaps most poignant) example of a designer who is overpowered by his own sensibility, regardless of the house he’s designing for, is Hedi Slimane. First at (Yves) Saint Laurent, now at Celine (nee Céline), Slimane’s entrance into a house alone is a signal of immediate transformation. What has followed Slimane’s appointment at Celine has been one of the most controversial debates I’ve witnessed in fashion. (If you know me, this isn’t necessary, but for those of you who don’t, I feel that I should confess that I am a die-hard fan of what is now Old Céline. If you’re a Hedi fan, proceed with caution).
Personally, I disliked Slimane’s rebranding of Saint Laurent. His club-kid vibe, with studs, short skirts, and leather both reduced and reframed Saint Laurent in a way that stripped the legacy of YSL from the clothes and reinterpreted the ethos in terms of what Hedi thought was contemporary. That being said, Saint Laurent was always intended as a modern label, designing for those at the forefront of young fashion, and it would appear that Slimane was simply interpreting this heritage as best he could for a 2012 audience. And initially at YSL, he stayed true to original designs, such as Le Smoking Jacket, while putting his own spin on them. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Hedi’s interpretation of Céline
In the decade that Phoebe Philo helmed Céline, it became synonymous with understated elegance. Oversized garments, structured fabrics, menswear gone-femme that in my mind, was to die for. She had an exceptional vision and understanding of the modern woman that was both practical and chic, and while she didn’t found Céline, she transformed it into the monolith of mature style that filled the industry gap left by clothing to young or ostentatious to be truly wearable.
The heart of the problem with Hedi’s Celine does not lie in a lack of genius. Slimane is brilliant at Slimane: skinny, rocker, waif chic. We saw it at Dior Homme, then Saint Laurent, and now Celine. So, while we might have a self-plagiarism problem (seen in many a post of Diet Prada), ultimately, the problem with Hedi is that he just doesn’t design for a label, he designs for himself.
While Slimane is the prime example of directors who design for themselves rather than their houses, Raf Simons is probably the most notable designer to reside on the other end of the spectrum. From his work at Jil Sander, to Dior, to Calvin Klein, Simons' designs are always representative of a larger, more label-centric vision. Simons has been widely revered throughout the industry as being “the one to watch”, and his appointment at Calvin Klein sparked conversations of the rebirth and renaissance of NYFW. His collections for Calvin Klein were generally well received by the public and critics, but despite all this, he lasted only three seasons at the house, after which he was ousted (six months short of the end of his contract), and pinned with the blame by PVH for falling sales. This relationship between the director and the conglomerate sparks new questions as to what it means to be a successful designer based on the value of profit versus the value of creative ingenuity.
In the past, fashion houses were defined by their creative directors. Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, these designers had visions that shaped their labels and turned them into the iconic empires we think of today. When a new designer enters a house following an icon, there is an understanding that there will be change; however, there is also an expectation that the designer will create in line with the legacy of the label. The conglomerate system (LVMH, Kering, PVH) has complicated this role with the added expectation that these designers will immediately boost profits and design within the lines of the corporate vision, which may be why we see creative individuality and house consistency losing out to designers who are known for their marketability and media “hype”, which make them more likely to turn profits. Hiring a new creative director is a game of risk and reward, but more often than not, we see companies playing it safe at the expense of, well, fashion.
The one house that eschews these constricts of the conglomerate is Chanel, who is both privately owned and operated, and also was helmed by a single designer, Karl Lagerfeld, for almost four decades. Because of this highly constructed and developed vision, Chanel holds an interesting position within the fashion industry. When Lagerfeld joined the house in 1983, two years after Coco’s death, a new era of Chanel began, categorized by the melding of Chanel’s signatures (tweed) and Lagerfeld’s fresh eye. Thirty-six years later, the eye may not've been so fresh. Fashion has always been about being contemporary, and while too much turnover may cause problems related to brand identity, a lack of it may not be ideal either. Many people in the fashion industry view Lagerfeld’s designs as outdated and repetitive, yet Chanel still sits as the crown jewel of Paris Fashion Week thanks to his infamy. Following the death of Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel is at a turning point, begging the question: was the brand’s relevancy tied solely to Lagerfeld’s status as an icon? And moreover, will the house be able to modernize? By hiring from within, it would seem that Chanel is making an effort to cling to this golden history, however, it is impossible to say what direction Virginie Viard will go and how she will position herself within Chanel’s legacy.
While the role of the creative designer in the modern era of fashion is incredibly complex, nuanced, and almost political, at the end of the day (in my opinion) what makes a successful designer is vision. Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Phoebe Philo at Céline - each of these designers brought their own unique eye to the labels they helmed, shaping them to remain defined not just by these unique eyes, but by the original concept of their houses. This line between singular vision and brand cohesion is a delicate one. Throughout history, we’ve seen the best designers are those who are able to toe that line, allowing houses to grown and evolve within their own framework, and retain the special something that makes Céline Céline, Dior Dior, or Chanel Chanel.