Are Creative Directors Bigger Than Their Brands?

Charlie Pea|September 16, 2015

With my MBA coming to an end my focus has turned to writing a dissertation. My title:

‘The response of the ‘Key man syndrome’ within the Fashion Industry’

I will explore the increasing importance of a ‘key-man’ within a business, focusing specifically the way in which a key-man has become a fundamental and essential aspect within the fashion industry.

“A key-man is an individual whose knowledge, inspiration, reputation, creativity and skills are critical to the possibility or growth of an organization”  In many cases, such as within the fashion industry, brands have become increasingly dependent on key-men without whom the company would not survive – this phenomenon is known as the key-man syndrome.

Whilst starting my research this article below captures an argument that will feature a significant amount throughout my paper.

Are Creative Directors Bigger Than Their Brands?


With news of Alexander Wang’s imminent departure from Balenciaga, we ask if it’s time brands take a step back and put their legacy ahead of who’s in charge…

What’s in a name? These days it seems the answer is “increasingly little,” depending on how you look at it. When it comes to fashion’s most coveted brands, old-world ideas of heritage and continuity are giving way to the whimsy of the industry’s revolving door. But is a sense of tradition – one that has been cultivated over many years and has lent a great deal of allure to these brands – something that remains important?

As the most recent edition of Paris Fashion Week Men’s drew to a close, many took stock of what had been a whirlwind few days, with more shows, pseudo-political statements and street style photos than one would care to consume in a full year, never mind a few short days. But while most criticism was reserved for awkward racial appropriation (see Thom Browne and Junya Watanabe) it was the final day offering of Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent which sparked the ire of many fashion spectators.

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“This is horrifying. YSL is rolling in his grave,” remarked one Style.com commenter, and she was not alone, as the French designer had his typical polarizing effect on fans and consumers. Slimane is representative of this new mode of designer – one who brings with them a host of devout fans, but also manages to inspire the fiercest of criticism from those who believe they are dismantling the legacy of their house’s founder under the guise of modernization.

Slimane’s modernization carries with it undeniable elements of self-indulgence and an aesthetic that does indeed jar with that of his brand’s founder, but the decision by Kering group to appoint the 47-year-old creative polymath has proved successful – financially at least. Since taking the reins, Slimane has more than doubled the house’s profits. Arguably, a portion of this upturn in fortune is down to the legions of adoring acolytes Slimane commands, following him from Dior, where he had served as Creative Director for Menswear.

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Meanwhile, Belgian designer Kris Van Assche has struggled to impart the same clarity of vision as his predecessor at Dior, and has had to dismantle his own eponymous brand in the pursuit of finding a formula for success. While Van Assche’s talent as a designer will likely see him attain that winning blend of Dior’s heritage and his own stylistic nuances eventually, many educated consumers won’t give him the luxury of simply trading off Dior’s name while they wait for a solution.

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Like many businesses in the modern world, patience is not a trait you can often attribute to the corporate conglomerates that control fashion’s upper echelons. Be it Kering, LVMH, Only The Brave, the emphasis on turning a profit is all the same. Would Riccardo Tisci have been afforded the time to craft his all-encompassing reinvention of Givenchy had he been appointed in 2015? Perhaps not. The idea of luxury as an increasingly lucrative market to be capitalized on as efficiently as possible has created a sense of urgency for designers to distill their ideas into a collection that marries freshness with commercial viability.

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Today, Givenchy and Riccardo Tisci are inseparable: Tisci is Givenchy and Givenchy is Tisci. And, when he leaves the Parisian fashion house (as he no doubt will at some point) they will be left with some rather large Air Force 1s to fill, along with an identity that will need to be re-imagined once again. This is both the power and curse of having a designer that is arguably bigger than the brand itself – for all they draw in in consumers, they also take them with them on departure. For a pertinent example, look no further than Alexander Wang’s imminent departure from Balenciaga. Given the strength of his personal brand right now, one wonders whether the top brass felt that was overshadowing his work at the storied house he served as creative director for. While it’s a stretch to say we’re witnessing the death of “brand loyalty,” we may, in some part, be in the midst of a reconsideration over what that term means.

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The question, however, remains: should brands be straying so far from their original aesthetic? Dior is important today because of Christian, not Kris, or even Hedi. Dedicated followers of fashion reserve deep respect for the founders of such houses, and there is indeed a general consensus that their visions should not be sullied through crass and abrupt attempts at modernization. These widely-held beliefs were what made John Galliano’s appointment at Margiela such a surprise, as the designer, not exactly known for understatement, seemed to be the exact antithesis to Martin Margiela’s demure deconstructionism. But then, Martin’s no longer at the house he started, having departed in 2011 supposedly due to a lack of creative freedom.

Perhaps, then, it was exactly those theatrical antics Galliano became known for at Dior that Margiela-owners Only The Brave sought through his appointment. Increasingly, it would seem, it really is “only the brave” who succeed in fashion; those willing to forgo tradition in favor of an enigmatic twist are reaping the financial rewards, while many “legacy” brands are struggling to turn the same numbers. These days it’s worth remembering that brands no longer sell on the strength of their collections alone.

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Maybe the answer lies in one of the most creative, yet consistently managed, companies in fashion: COMME des GARÇONS. The creations sent down the runway by Rei Kawakubo today are unlike anything we saw in her earlier work. However, Kawakubo has always championed progress, placing creativity above all else within her work. Stylistically, CdG’s most recent Homme Plus show was worlds apart from the brand’s ’80s and ’90s offerings, but it retained the same spirit – an unyielding desire to challenge our conceptions about clothes.

It is perhaps in this that we can reconcile the increasing disparity between certain houses’ originators and their modern-day creative directors. Ultimately it’s not about recreating the same looks as Christian Dior or Yves Saint Laurent might’ve done, it’s about creating something with that same pioneering sensibility that appeals to a modern market.

Fashion has evolved to the point that “timelessness” matters little – there are a whole host of middling menswear brands that can give you that. Today, fashion’s role is to challenge us, to create something new. Brands should evolve—the ephemeral nature of this industry makes that absolutely imperative. After all, reverential restraint never inspired anything worthwhile.

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Of course, continuity between collections and respect for a brand’s heritage cannot be disregarded, and those tenets are something that Kim Jones has managed to skilfully weave throughout his recent Louis Vuitton collections. However, we cannot stand in the face of progress through some sort of misplaced sentimentalism. This new order of larger-than-life designers may not be to everyone’s taste, but it shows no signs of abating—nor should it. We ought to embrace those willing to channel the wisdom and spirit of their forebears and bring fresh life to their legacy, rather than pining for an era that will never return.

Written by Calum Gordon

What do you think? Is it time brands take a step back and put their legacy ahead of who’s in charge…

Please comment below I’d love to hear your thoughts and advice: