Designer Fallout: The Fashion Industry’s Revolving Door

Riccardo Tisci, Donna Karan, and Francisco Costa images courtesy of BDBhphotos.com, bostoncommon-magazine.com, and vogue.com, respectively

Elbaz leaves Lanvin; Tisci exits Givenchy; Donna Karan bows out at her namesake fashion brand, and after 15 years Costa bids adieu to Calvin Klein. What’s going on here? Has the top creative position at legendary fashion houses/brands become a revolving door of sorts?Apparently so, if you look at the designer fallout at major brands in the last five years, not to also mention fashion designers who have been eased out of their eponymous brands. With all the Russian roulette on in the fashion industry, one would think there is lots of inside information that’s being shared. Well, it’s not that insidious!!

Not so long ago, fashion designers solidly ensconced themselves at major fashion houses for as long as they wanted to reign at these hallowed fashion institutions. Fashion visionaries created these iconic fashion houses, and it was an honor and privilege to helm the houses of Dior, YSL, Balmain, Lanvin, Chanel, Givenchy, Balenciaga, and others. And though tenure at these fashion posts was occasionally short-lived, most designers maintained their positions for several seasons. Tom Ford began working at Gucci in the early 90s and was creative director from 1994–1999. John Galliano was creative director at Christian Dior from 1996–2011. And Francisco Costa manned the helm at Calvin Klein for over fifteen years.

Raf Simons, Public School, and Hedi Slimane images courtesy of highsnobiety.com, Industry Magazine, hashtaglegend.com, clockwise respectively

Well, that is history and no longer the standard at many iconic fashion houses. Lately, it seems that designers are leaving fashion houses in rapid succession. Bouchra Jarrar, who was named artistic director of Lanvin last year, replacing Alber Elbaz, was quickly ousted after she failed to turn a fast upturn in profit. (It should be noted that Alber Elbaz was creative director at Lanvin from 2001–2015 and many credit Elbaz with restoring the Lanvin, the first fashion house in Paris, to its former glory.) Raf Simons was at Dior for only three years; Nicola Formichetti worked at MUGLER for only two years; Public School barely lasted a year at DKNY, and Hedi Slimane directed Saint Laurent from 2012–2016.In contrast to diminishing profits, there are designers who can turn fashion houses into mega million-dollar power players, and still find themselves out of a job. Phoebe Philo at Céline is one such example. Philo, who took the company’s revenue from $235 million to $800 million, is expected to exit Céline by the end of 2017.

Some industry professionals find it odd that Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH)—the holding company for many European fashion houses, including Celine—would discard a fashion designer who quadrupled sales and made Céline a more recognizable name in the US. The reason why these turn of events is happening so frequently is hard to answer. Are there outside influences forcing the hands of big holding companies like LVMH and Kering?

                   Images clockwise courtesy of V magazine and vogue.com, respectively

“In the fashion world loyalty used to account for much and was an integral part of doing business, but with changes in society at large (not only the fashion industry) from the consumer to the designer, loyalty has not withstood the test of time,” says Michael Londrigan, vice president of academic affairs at LIM College. “Whether it is loyalty to the designer or the designer to the company, this virtue has been greatly diminished, accounting for much of the musical chairs that we see. Add to that the notion that you are only as good as your last show, the tolerance for staying with the same designer has been greatly reduced with everyone chasing the consumer and their pocketbooks. No longer are designers at the top held to strict contracts with long term and non-compete clauses, designers are putting personal choice ahead of the customer and the company.”The turnaround at publicly traded companies is even more frequent because stockholders demand exponentially high sales increases from quarter to quarter which can be stifling to designers’ creativity. (In his last seasons at Lanvin, Elbaz couldn’t turn the profit Lanvin’s investors were hoping for, so he was out.)

For many shoppers who were loyal to the design aesthetic of these designers, the turnover has been unsettling. “Regarding Phoebe Philo at Céline, I don’t think she should go, because her bags are sublime,” says Frederick Frost, a stylist and blogger in Venezuela. “Her aesthetic is romantic and chic, but at the same time, it’s all about the business. Perhaps, the brand owners want a new direction; perhaps, [Philo] will start [an eponymous] brand. There are many factors that influence these situations.”

                         Images courtesy of vinylmag.com, and vogue.com, respectively

In the wake of Christopher Bailey leaving Burberry, the company is adopting an interesting strategy. As part of their new repositioning, Burberry plans on reinventing themselves as a super luxury brand in the mold of Gucci and Dior. While Burberry was a must-have brand some season ago, they have lost ground to similar brands looking to appeal to young consumers with deep pockets.Some designers at legendary fashion houses leave of their own accord, wanting to establish their own fashion labels. Unlike in previous decades in which designers would have their own eponymous lines while helming other fashion brands—case in point, Karl Lagerfeld having his own namesake brand while being creative director at Chanel and Chloe, and the same with Galliano while he was at Dior—the pressure to create 5 to 7 collections a year, as well as collaborations is too much of a creative drain. “A lot of these folks have built a name for themselves, and ready to branch out into something that would enhance their brand more,” says Ikponmwosa Edo, stylist and style editor at Fashion360Mag.

This was the case for Peter Dundas, the former creative director of Roberto Cavalli, who went on to launch his own brand to the fanfare of the entire fashion industry. For other designers, the never-ending fashion cycle ends up burning them out. After he was ousted from Lanvin, Elbaz made a notorious critique of the industry cycle, discussing how the over-extension is creatively exhausting.

“The reason most designers, I feel, leave their brands is the growth rate of the brand and not enough inspiration within the fashion design house,” explains Chris Lavish, artistic director of Fashion Week Online. “The acceleration in the pace of the fashion world has sky rocketed; propelling new designers into the spotlight faster, like Demna Gvasalia and Vetements, and well-seasoned designers, such as Hedi Slimane for Saint Laurent out.”    

               Images courtesy of woolmarkprize.com and elle.co.uk, respectively

While Phoebe Philo, Christopher Bailey, and Alber Elbaz brought more market saturation to Celine, Burberry, and Lanvin, respectively, today’s consumer spending tastes have changed. In an era of social media, stagnant wages, and shifts in culture, building a brand’s value goes beyond the opinions of key fashion editors, celebrities, and advertising budgets. Still, one has to ask if this revolving door of fashion designers is the answer to an over-saturated market with ever-evolving consumer wants and needs. Only time will tell.— Kristopher Fraser and William S. Gooch

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