The role of the creative director has been tainted. Now seen as just a position filled by someone who can slap a few images onto a moodboard and take the credit for the in-house designers’ works, many are wondering if creative directors are still relevant.
Back when original fashion houses were created – think Christian Dior or Salvatore Ferragamo – the job of the couturier was rather straightforward: create the designs and oversee the production of it with the help of a few in-house seamstresses. The role of the couturier has now been replaced with the creative director, which has an even broader list of duties, from social media strategy to overseeing the overall brand aesthetic. But with more and more houses adopting the guest designer model each season, do we even need a creative director anymore?
WHY DOES FASHION LOVE CREATIVE DIRECTORS
It’s no secret that fashion loves change. With an industry that works on a seasonal basis, and with the intermittent pre-fall, pre-spring and cruise shoes, fashion is always on the lookout for its brand new shiny toy. So, it makes sense that creative directors come and go every few years, depending on the brand.
Above looking for a new vision for its brand, fashion houses also use creative directors as a business tool. Tapping the right designer to lead a brand can lead to a massive increase in both publicity and sales. For example, Daniel Lee quite literally revived Bottega Veneta during his 3 years spent there, both through its accessory designs and his strategy to vanish off of social media. In a time where shows, collections and campaigns are being produced at a hyper-speed, changing things up by switching the face of behind the brands seems to be the only way to stay relevant.
KEEPING THE LEGACY ALIVE
One of the main reasons why creative directors are now crucial to houses is because they get to keep a legacy alive, after the original designer has passed away. In 1957, when Christian Dior died, closing the house was up for consideration, but due to its enormous impact and financial success, that idea was quickly scratched. Yves Saint Laurent was given the boots to fill and ever since, Dior has lived through the decades with a new designer at the helm every few years.
However, the notion of ‘keeping the legacy alive’ has become a polarising question in recent years. During the recent Balenciaga controversy, many were criticising Demna’s creative leadership for the brand, causing Cristóbal Balenciaga to “roll in his grave”. It’s true, the Balenciaga aesthetic from haute couture ruffled gowns with intricate shapes to oversized everything inspired by street and sportswear. Though this criticism is not unique to Demna – there’s also Casey Cadwallader’s catsuits versus Thierry Mugler’s glamazon looks or even the more recent Alexander McQueen and his fascination for the subversive versus Sarah Burton’s gothic take.
While it’s important to note that fashion and styles change with time, and haute couture is no longer as prominent as it was during the 30s and 40s, it is important to question whether it is worth it to keep a fashion house open after the death of its founder, especially considering the eponymous nature of the brand.
WHAT ABOUT GUEST DESIGNERS?
A new model that has risen over the past few years is the implementation of guest designers. Louis Vuitton dipped its toes into this concept by inviting KidSuper’s Colm Dillane to design its FW23 menswear collection, in between the passing of its previous creative director, Virgil Abloh, and its newly appointed one, Pharrell. Colm Dillane’s Louis Vuitton side quest has become one of the most unique offerings we’ve seen with a vision that couldn’t exist anywhere else.
Moncler, on the other hand, has dived head first into the collaborative ethos of guest designers with its Moncler Genius initiative. Rick Owens, Craig Green, JW Anderson, 1017 ALYX 9SM’s Matthew M. Williams… you name them and they’ve probably designed for Moncler. This business model has reshaped the way in which Moncler is viewed, now with collaboration and the merging of distinct visions becoming a pillar in the brand’s DNA.
Another designer who has opted for this route is Jean Paul Gaultier. After announcing his retirement in 2021, the French designer also decided to open his house to guest designers. We’ve seen Glenn Martens, Haider Ackerman, Chitose Abe and Olivier Rousteing who have all created collections that merge both the JPG aesthetic and the designer’s own, acknowledging that both visions and voices can be present and merged together, rather than acting as if they should be one.
AND IF THE IN-HOUSE CREATIVE TEAM CAN DO IT
If Gucci’s FW23 show taught us anything, it is that the Italian house doesn’t need to rely on a creative leader. The first collection since the decade-long appointed Alessandro Michele stepped down, and the only before the new Sabato De Sarno. The collection itself felt Gucci-er than Gucci itself, with the in-house creative team taking over by referencing past designs and models, as well as creating a well-rounded wardrobe for the Gucci customer.
In some cases, the in-house team has understood the assignment so well that the thought of disrupting that balance with a creative director can seem daunting, as was the case for Ludovic de Saint Sernin at Ann Demeulemeester. It had been since 2020 that Ann D, the brand, was operating solely by a few mysterious in-house designers. Last season, FW23, marked the first season with a leader in charge and to many’s disappointment, felt that de Saint Sernin had lost the essence and vision of the Belgian brand.
WE CAN’T IGNORE THE IMPACT OF CREATIVE DESIGNERS
With all of this being said, it is important to note that there are levels to how successful a creative director can be at a brand (although extremely subjective) and levels to how involved a creative director is with the brand. While for some it’s a side stint, for others it’s their full time job. Creative directors have the power, for better or for worse, to steer a brand in a particular direction. This allows us to look back to a brand’s history and witness its evolution in the hands of different designers.
It’s also important to note that the role of the creative director can propel smaller designers at the highest echelons of the industry – think of Maximilian Davis who arrived at Ferragamo just over a year ago and is already turning the house on its head in the best way possible. While it is worth noting that the guest designer model has produced some of the most fascinating collections, it is still quite new as a concept. Though with the rise of collaborations, it could be the future of many fashion houses.
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