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What’s a Creative Director for, Anyway?
Three species of creative leaders are poised to redefine the industry
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“I am back to making jackets,” Demna swore of his new mission at Balenciaga in his first on-the-record interview since two ad campaigns from late 2022 sparked controversy. “[The essence of fashion is] in shapes and volumes, silhouettes, the way we create relationships between body and fabric,” his FW23 show notes read. The invitation underscored the seductiveness of armholes; it was itself a cutting pattern for a “perfect jacket,” presumably to be made by the show invitees.
Over at Louis Vuitton menswear, the opposite is occurring: The influential record producer, rapper, singer, songwriter, and hype-master Pharrell Williams is the brand’s new creative director.
These two divergent realities—and the skepticism that greeted both from fashion critics and the gossip mill, illuminate the complex evolution of a job that was once firmly about design. Between the grand pronouncements and speculation, it’s difficult to keep track of who landed where, why, and why we should care. In the past year only, new appointments included Ludovic de Saint Sernin at Ann Demeulemeester, Nao Takekoshi at Wolford, Ib Kamara at Off-White, Sabato de Sarno at Gucci, Rhuigi Villaseñor at Bally, Harris Reed at Nina Ricci, Marco de Vincenzo at ETRO.... The industry known to move at glacial pace is suddenly fired up by the flurry of activity.
“The role of a creative director has become a meme,” says Chris Black, the founder of Done to Death Projects, a consultancy. It’s a quippy summary of the fast-changing pace of creative director appointments and the fact that the same group of people periodically move between major luxury houses, to the extent that one would think there’s a dearth of fashion design talent in the world. Between the three of them, and in short succession, Hedi Slimane, Daniel Lee, and Kim Jones worked at Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Saint Laurent, Céline, and Dior.
“Creative director tenures have gotten shorter as brands are looking to reinvent themselves,” says Amy Odell, author of the New York Times bestseller Anna: The Biography and writer of the “Back Row” newsletter. “In the saturated landscape, there’s desire for a more frequent reinvention.”
If the gifted designers of the past literally shaped the way we dress, “today’s creative directors are in charge of coming up with ideas that will sell things,” Black says. “There is a business-minded portion of the role that wasn’t there before."
“Celebrities have infiltrated every aspect of the business, because of the press attention and selling products,” says Odell. As menswear makes only a tiny percentage of Louis Vuitton’s overall business, which is based on bags and leather goods, and has a negligible contribution to this house’s annual sales that have last year passed €20 billion, Williams’s appointment is about keeping the hype going.
“Ideas that sell things” isn’t exactly a new paradigm in luxury fashion—it’s just become incredibly obvious in the age of social media. If, in the age of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford in the ‘90s, it was the dirty subtext of glamorous and evocative fashion shows, now it’s the entire story. It’s paired well with the rise of influencers and the image economy that sees celebrities—internet and otherwise—as the winners who take all.
Hit bags and viral shoes are made on Instagram and TikTok; so is the brand image. Enter a robot dog disrobing a model at the recent Coperni fashion show (after all, it’s hard to upstage the last season’s spray-painted dress on Bella Hadid by the same brand). Fashion shows are now massive and costly spectacles that last five minutes, which is still more than the average attention span.
Yet luxury brands act as if they need these semipublic spectacles to participate in the fever pitch of global visual culture, and to do that they need entertainers—not designers—to keep the show running.
But do they, really?
The “who is going to spend more and sell more” frenzy reads as a strategy that belongs to a bygone cultural era. Turn on the TV, stream an acclaimed movie and you see that this is an era for underdogs—and for ridicule of the rich, famous, and powerful. Movies and shows like Triangle of Sadness, Parasite, Squid Game, and The White Lotus are all social satires told with varying degrees of nuance and bite. They depict the wealthy and privileged as out-of-touch, morally corrupt, and repulsive—hardly role models worth emulating. The message goes, if we cannot beat the rich, we can at least make fun of them, trick them, outsmart them, reveal them as lacking in some fundamental humanity.
In fashion, Telfar Clemens built an entire entertainment platform around his brand, including a 24/7 TV show, a community-led Instagram account, and the myth of Bushwick Birkin that is more visible in downtown NYC than any luxury brand, save the knockoffs on Canal and Broadway.
During the recent awards season, Jennifer Coolidge became everyone’s favorite, and we root for her because she is an underdog. Michelle Yeoh, even after a career spanning many decades, is still a Hollywood underdog. Virgil Abloh was a fashion underdog. Gen Z is the ultimate underdog, not only because of the innate rebelliousness of the young, but because they inherited a destroyed planet, social and economic inequality, and geopolitical instability. Their resistance to the mainstream has a point. “Youth culture does push culture forward,” says Atlanta de Cadenet Taylor, digital content creator, influencer, and the cofounder of consultancy Papergirl. “Céline sales are up, Marc Jacobs sales are up, and they are highlighting the young customer who moves the needle. What kids are doing is where culture is."
Williams was an underdog—but he’s the establishment now. Louis Vuitton may have misread the cultural moment with this appointment, but it had a strong business reason for doing so. Long gone are days when luxury fashion was by default innovative, creative and risk-taking. Schiaparelli, Chanel, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, and Dior created looks that last; they influenced how people dressed and defined foundations of luxury fashion. Not since Marc Jacobs introduced both menswear and womenswear at Louis Vuitton was there innovation and provocation in luxury fashion, and that was a generation ago.
Two forces shape the current luxury fashion landscape. The first is the pressure to constantly reinvent a brand; the second is to make money. Neither existed when most of today’s biggest Maisons were founded, and most of the legacy luxury houses went bankrupt by the 2000s and were snatched up by Arnaults, Chinese investors, or other corporate entities. Alessandro Michele’s recent departure from Gucci, after seven years and a successful brand reinvention, is a story of what happens when a creative director stops delivering on both newness and sales.
The pressure for constant brand reinvention leads luxury houses to look for a new creative director every couple of years and to keep turning their fashion shows into the ever bigger, better, and more expensive spectacles. But there are two problems with this strategy. The first is that luxury fashion’s battle for eyeballs is a game of thrones: No one stays on top for too long.“What do you get out if it?” asks Black of the expensive fashion show spectacles. “The accessory spenders keep the lights on.”
The second problem is short-term thinking. Consumer fascination with luxury is inversely correlated with its exposure. To keep consumer interest and to charge them premium prices, luxury fashion cannot be too accessible. “I don’t need to know what acreative director had for lunch,” says Black. “The customer knows too much. It has already happened in music—there were 20 people listed as songwriters, and people arguing publicly who wrote a song.”
The pressure for financial performance pushes luxury houses to ever-safer decisions. Promoting a creative director within a house is equally safe as hiring a global entertainer. Nothing makes shareholders more happy than a steady course ahead. The most profitable Maisons are those with the safest collections.
As de Cadenet Taylor puts it: “When you have shareholders to respond to, it’s harder to be creative and risk-taking. Edgy stuff that some legacy brands do didn’t move the needle commercially, and they quickly went back” to safe creative choices. “But the middle ground is so boring. Make a choice and commit to it. Make a decision. When you have these huge houses with so much money involved, they don’t always know what people want.”
The way ahead may be in between pattern-cutter and image-maker archetypes. There are creative directors who are curators, traditionalists, and aesthetes.
Curators connect people, products, and ideas in a way that creates something that’s simultaneously new and familiar—Nike x Dior is an example—and they bridge the gap between different taste communities and introduce them to one another. They also curate design teams. Abloh, a master curator, gave a renewed meaning and purpose in consumers’ eyes to everything from IKEA rugs to Evian water. “Virgil was the first African American to be appointed a creative director,” says Odell. “These were very hard shoes to fill. Virgil bridged music and fashion in a unique way.” For de Cadenet Taylor, “being a good curator is part of being a successful creative director today. It’s a different skill.” She mentions Marc Jacobs as a great example: “[He says,] ‘I see kids doing this. I cannot do this, so let me find someone who can.’” Enter Ava Nirui, the creative force behind Marc Jacobs’s “Heaven” line.
Traditionalists consider luxury fashion in terms of quality. Black mentions Hermès as a brand that “is not tied to a name or a trend. Their promise is quality.” Houses helmed by traditionalists like Nadège Vanhée-Cybulski or the late Karl Lagerfeld don’t move fast or chase buzz. These houses have stable profits (unlike other luxury houses, Hermès sales were undisturbed by the pandemic) and come from highly coverable iconic products that are in purposefully limited supply.
Aesthetes build their own brand worlds. Daniel Roseberry weaves Schiaparelli story with skill, ease and the confident surrealist lens. Creative and innovative, aesthetes’ collections are considered and detail-obsessed; their shows are always narratives that are rich without being excessive or spectacular. Telfar, Thom Browne, Galliano at Margiela, JW Anderson at LOEWE, and Rick Owens are aesthetes.
Like all underdogs, none of the luxury brands helmed by curators, traditionalists and aesthetes will ever be commercially big. But they hold the reins of our imaginations.
This text was originally published on SSENSE on March 31st and edited by Ross Scarano.