The Fashion “Ludo”

How Leading Creative Directors Are Switching Roles Between Luxury Brands

Sectors & Markets

27 December, 2023

Table of contents

Choosing The Right Talent

Fashion brands’ owners have always been standing on thin ice when it comes to choosing the right leader for their labels. Be it the artistic director or the creative director, the ideal candidate has to be in a position to think uniquely to brainstorm creative ideas for the brands. Choosing the right leader for a fashion brand is crucial because the person in charge can significantly impact the brand's direction, success, and overall image.

With a lot of pressure to appoint the right one, the various business leaders within the fashion industry have been following a similar pattern in order to keep their brands from stagnating.

The Ludo Game with the Creative Directors

In the current industry landscape, familiar names frequently undergo affiliations with various fashion houses over time. This dynamic cycle of creative directors in the realm of fashion empires has contributed to the emergence of a select group of designers wielding influence over the present and future aesthetics of fashion.

For instance, Belgian designer Raf Simons has worked at Jil Sander (2005-2012), Christian Dior (2012-2015), Calvin Klein (2016-2018), and currently at Prada (2020-present).

Hedi Slimane designed for Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche Homme (1996-2000), then Dior Homme (2000-2007), then back for Yves Saint Laurent (2012-2016) and has been designing for Celine since 2016.

Stefano Pilati joined Yves Saint Laurent as design director under Tom Ford in 2000, and in 2004 was promoted to Creative Director. In 2012, Pilati transitioned to Ermenegildo Zegna. In 2023, Kim Jones and Silvia Venturini Fendi chose Stefano Pilati as the first ‘Friend of Fendi’, a series of collections ‘curated’ by figures outside the house.

The perpetual oscillation observed in the interchange of designers and brands within the industry points towards three distinct aspects of the industry. Firstly, it highlights the industry's existing unsustainable pace, which is potentially detrimental to its growth. Secondly, it highlights the concentrated power residing in the hands of a select few key players, thereby shaping the industry's trajectory. Lastly, it has led to a myopic vision for the future of fashion, due to the industry's insular reliance on a closed circle of familiar figures, potentially limiting innovation and diversity.

Fast-paced Industry

The fashion industry has undergone a notable transformation, evolving into a fast-paced environment that demands constant innovation. Unlike the earlier convention of two seasonal collections, contemporary trends have compelled brands to present distinct lines for both menswear and womenswear each season, alongside the introduction of cruise collections, pre-fall lines, and, in many instances, haute couture.

The role of a creative director has become exceedingly demanding, navigating the intricate web of diverse collections and ensuring their timely release. The heightened competition within the industry has intensified the pressure on designers and brands alike, fostering an environment where creative directors face the challenge of delivering cutting-edge designs while meeting tight deadlines. Consequently, this heightened pace has contributed to shorter tenures for creative directors within fashion houses as they navigate the demands of an ever-evolving and fiercely competitive landscape.

Today’s longevity of the creative directors for a single brand is different from the previous era. Creative directors like Stefano Pilati (2000-2012 in Saint Laurent), Tom Ford (1994-2004 in Gucci), Nicolas Ghesquière (1997-2012 in Jil Sander), and Reed Krakoff (1997-2013 in Coach) served in a single brand for more than 10 years. However, as times changed, the tenure duration of each creative director has decreased. Anthony Vaccarello served in VERSUS Versace for two years. Alessandra Facchinetti was in Valentino for just a year. Justin O’Shea was at Brioni for just one season, less than 6 months. In rare cases the creative directors have worked for more years in a brand; such as Claire Keller for Chloé (6 years), Hedi Slimane for Celine (4 years), and Nicolas Ghesquière for womenswear of Louis Vuitton (Since 2013 to present).

Power Plays in Luxury by LVMH and Kering

Conglomerates Kering Group and LVMH Moët Hennessy - Louis Vuitton have the power to hire young and fresh talents as well as choose creative directors from their competitors. These two companies own more than 20 of the top luxury brands in the world. They have on several occasions poached new creative directors from other luxury brands, and at times invested in their eponymous labels as well.

LVMH appointed Alexander McQueen as the creative director for Givenchy when he was 26 years old in 1996. Kering Group acquired 51 percent of Alexander McQueen’s eponymous label in 2000. Shortly after, in 2001, McQueen left Givenchy.

LVMH hired Hedi Slimane (former creative director of Saint Laurent, owned by Kering) as the creative director of Celine in 2018.

Off-White’s Virgil Abloh was appointed as the creative director of the Louis Vuitton Menswear line in 2018. At the same time, LVMH bought a 60% stake in Off-White. Another similar example includes LVMH acquiring a minority stake in JW Anderson when the designer was chosen to be the creative director of Loewe.

Upon analysing the above chart, it becomes apparent that the brands adhere to a tight circle when selecting higher officials. Beyond considering work and leadership experience, the houses exhibit a reluctance to take risks, consistently opting for individuals with identical personas to fill these positions.

For instance, Raf Simons has been the creative director for four brands as of now. Designers Stuart Vevers, Reed Krakoff, Alessandra Facchinetti, Stefano Pilati, and Walter Chiapponi have all been creative directors for three of the top fashion houses each.

Lack of Diversity

There has been a lot of uproar that the creative direction positions have been mostly held by white men. According to Vogue’s Business Index, at the top 30 luxury brands, from a total of 33 creative directors, only 8 are held by women, less than 25% of the top creative voices of the industry. The list contains the names Donatella Versace for Versace, Miuccia Prada for Prada and Miu Miu, Maria Grazia Chiuri for Dior, Stella McCartney, Virginie Viard for Chanel, Nadège Vanhee-Cybulski for Hermès and Sandra Choi (the only female POC) for Jimmy Choo.

Kering Group has been under the radar for leaning towards appointing white male designers. This has become a topic of discourse due to the recent appointments of Sabato de Sarno at Gucci, and in the past of Anthony Vaccarello at Saint Laurent, Sean McGirr for Alexander McQueen and Matthieu Blazy for Bottega Veneta, all of which are owned by the Kering Group. In response to this criticism, the company asserts that 63% of its total workforce consists of women. The group also exclaimed their plan to balance gender representation in the company by 2025. However, at the present moment, the key positions in the company are largely held by men and lack diversity in terms of ethnicity.

There is a very low representation of other ethnic backgrounds within the luxury industry’s creative directors. A few examples include Maximilian Davis, who designs for Salvatore Ferragamo and Olivier Rousteing, who leads Balmain. Other than them, there is Japan-based Nigo, the creative head of Kenzo.

There is a new trend of appointing celebrities, especially from the music field, to lead the brand. For example, A$AP Rocky has been appointed as the creative director of PUMA x Formula 1 in October 2023. Pharell Williams has previously worked with Tiffany and Co., Chanel and Moncler. After the demise of Virgil Abloh, Pharrell Williams took the helm of Louis Vuitton menswear.

Despite official statements from fashion labels about their commitment to diversity, a 2021 case study by the New York Times reveals that a significant number of the 64 women's wear brands surveyed have not disclosed their employee diversity data. Notably, well-known names like Chanel and LVMH are still in progress and did not contribute to the available data.

Concerns have been raised about a lack of diverse perspectives in higher positions, particularly among marginalised communities. Many creative talents from different ethnic backgrounds, notably the black community, face financial barriers hindering skill development through education and internships at renowned labels. Conglomerates are addressing this by implementing diversity programs.

Cover Image: Zegna fashion show finale, courtesy Zegna Facebook.