Playing House: The Strange Alchemy of Designer-Label Magic

Playing House: The Strange Alchemy of Designer-Label Magic
John Galliano, then the designer of Christian Dior, shakes hands with LVMH president Bernard Arnault at the opening of the label's Japanese flagship, 2006.
( Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images)

Next month, Alexander Wang will face the biggest challenge of his still-short career: his debut collection for the house of Balenciaga. Like so many designers before him — most recently Raf Simons at Dior and Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent — he will face a panel of critics who have not been shy about asking if the designer-du-moment has the mettle for his new gig.

Rarely has fashion seen so much upheaval as in recent seasons, with the unceremonious exits of John Galliano, Stefano Pilati, Christophe Decarnin, and Nicolas Ghesquière from the houses of Dior, Saint Laurent, Balmain, and Balenciaga, respectively. And with each departure, a new designer is chosen to ascend to fashion’s highest ranks, possibly only to fall again.


In a way, says Shelley Fox, director of the Fashion Design and Society MFA program at Parsons, it’s become an international game on a par with professional sports. It might seem like a stretch, but the two industries have a lot in common beyond just high-profile hirings and firings. “They’re incredibly global, their players are worth millions, and it’s a huge market,” Fox told ARTINFO. “The money involved in [Premier League] football is the same as the money involved in fashion, and they’ve got to get it right.”

In the brave new world of luxury, a hyper-global business, fashion conglomerates have made no qualms about canning well-known creative directors, even when their labels appear to be doing well. In the cases of Galliano and Decarnin, who both suffered very public meltdowns, the break-ups were inevitable, but Ghesquière’s exit from Balenciaga was more of a surprise. The designer could hardly have been more critically acclaimed, and his designs were popular with on the streets and with starlets.

It may have appeared unexpected, but at least Ghesquière was spared the embarrassment of Stefano Pilati, whose boss, Pierre Bergé, Yves Saint Laurent’s partner in life and fashion, made it clear no love was lost upon the designer’s departure. “I am happy that Stefano Pilati is gone, just as I was happy when Tom Ford left,” Bergé told the press.

Not that Pilati had been dealt an easy task to begin with. “It’s a great problem, very complicated, to recreate the work of a genius. Like trying to rewrite Faulkner,” Bergé acknowledged upon hiring Hedi Slimane as Pilati’s replacement. But there’s more to it than just filling a particularly big pair of shoes.

Though Pilati hasn’t had his say about the move, it was clear relations were strained throughout his 10-year tenure with the brand (he was infamously not invited to a YSL gala in 2010). For his part, Ford was more vocal, telling The Advocate in 2009 that “being at Yves Saint Laurent was such a negative experience for me even though the business boomed while I was there. Yves and his partner, Pierre Bergé, were so difficult and so evil and made my life such misery.”

Ford's failure to click with YSL only becomes more curious when you consider the fact that it took place when the designer was at the top of his game, in the middle of his groundbreaking reign at Gucci. His directorship the Italian label was so heralded that his name is still connected with the brand more than that of its current creative director, Frida Giannini — despite her many successes since taking over nearly 10 years ago. Likewise, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli have struggled to be accepted at Valentino, as has Kris Van Assche after  Hedi Slimane at Dior Homme, in spite of the designers’ obvious talents and best efforts. And while Raf Simons’s early outings for Christian Dior have been lauded, it's still hard not to imagine the cinched waists, dramatic cascades of fabric, and arched eyebrows his predecessor John Galliano sent down the runway. No need to mention interim designer Bill Gaytten, who really never had a chance.

For the consumer and the critics, surely, part of it is personality, and the publicity machine. Perhaps the best example of a designer who has completely fused with his brand is Karl Lagerfeld. Utter his name and most people immediately think of Chanel. The same is not so for Fendi, however, though Lagerfeld has been artistic director there since 1965 — nearly 20 years longer than Chanel. Even his signature label does poorly, lingering on shelves, and recently subjected to below-$100 discounts on Net-a-Porter.

But Lagerfeld took over Chanel at 1983, and although he was already an established designer, without the instant public appraisals of the Internet Age, he was given the chance to grow, slowly and with room to fail. So, too, says Fox, was Marc Jacobs, who launched womenswear at Louis Vuitton in 1997, just five years after the infamous grunge collection that got him fired from Perry Ellis.

Another key to Lagerfeld’s success at Chanel is consistency. Season after season, Chanel will always have that tweed jacket, which leaves room for the Kaiser’s madcap stagings and whatever fantastically frivilous accessories he dreams up. It’s a delicate balance between staying true to brand identity and to the designer’s raison d'être. “I think the important thing is that you have to be behind the label and not use it as something that pushes your fame,” Lagerfeld told reporters at WWD’s CEO Summit this week.

“An audience has to believe what they’re seeing. They have to be convinced that it’s right, and it’s a gut thing as well as something you see,” said Fox. It’s a process that often takes time. Change too little and be accused of lacking vision; change too much too soon and risk the backlash experienced by Slimane for his sweeping changes upon joining Saint Laurent. “When things start flying and moving all over the place people get confused. They just don’t believe it.”

So how then, can a label be sure they’re hiring the next Lagerfeld for Chanel — or Phoebe Philo for Céline or Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy, etc. — and not the next Lindsay Lohan for Ungaro, who served as artistic advisor for the house one disastrous season in 2009, or Olivier Theyskens for Nina Ricci, a match-up of a young critical darling and established house that never translated to sales?

While experience is helpful and name recognition has its PR perks, some of the most successful recent pairings have come when an unknown young designer has taken the reins at a house that’s gone stale, as in the case of Riccardo Tisci, who took over Givenchy when he was just 30, and Nicolas Ghesquière, who was just 25 when he was promoted to creative director of Balenciaga — a fact that bodes well for Alexander Wang, who takes over the label at 29, just five years after launching his line. But Wang has never worked under another designer, and some say his line is buoyed more by hype than proven skill.

Talent, however, isn’t the only thing that the honchos at fashion powerhouses PPR and LVMH are considering when making these hires, especially in today’s increasingly global market, with its dependence on accessories and “It” items. Marco Gobetti, the executive who hired the then-unknown Tisci at Givenchy — in part, reportedly, because he was the only candidate who didn’t reference former label muse Audrey Hepburn in interviews — told the press at the time, “I saw many creative people with a lot of talent, but the difficulty lies in applying that talent to an actual job.”  

Often in the hiring equation, what matters is who’s really running the show, said Fox. “Is the vision of the designer important, or is it tied up in marketing and markets?”

While it is impossible to know — and oh-so-fun to speculate — the gory details of what goes into fashion’s biggest shakeups, it is only the runway, and the cash register, that tells the true story of a designer’s success or failure. So what will become of Raf, Hedi, and Alexander? Only time, and the whims of PPR and LVMH, will tell.