The Fashion Power Battle Between Brand and Creative Director

Ewald Damen, Creative Director, Virgil & Partners

The world’s best-known luxury fashion houses have been the historical work of some of the most visionary designer icons like Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent or Céline Vipiana.

Their innovative designs were ground-breaking and influenced the way people dressed and became iconic evocations of their times. However, it was not only the haute couture that contributed to the success of the fashion house, the vision and lifestyle of these design icons, followed through in all aspects, becoming the core of the brand’s identity, arguably long before the name on the door became a “brand”.

With most of these first-generation fashion pioneers now gone, their fashion houses have been absorbed in big brand portfolios for the likes of LVMH, Richemont, Kering Group, who carefully manage their collection of brands within the competitive and ever-growing market by a continuous evolvement of the brand and the rise and influence of the appointed Creative Director(s).

Steady growth in the luxury sector over many years has upped the game. When Pierre Cardin started his global expansion at the end of the ’70s, he was soon followed by other fashion houses in a desire to grow their business globally into ready to wear.

The couture collection was no longer just for the few, but ready to wear paved the way to a more accessible (read affordable) product range, attracting a different and growing customer base.

Further growth of licenced product categories such as fragrance and sunglasses have had an influence on both the sales and recognition of some of the top luxury brands.

One could argue that while this aggressive expansion did grow the luxury sector and increase sales due to the more affluent growing middle class it also potentially had a “devaluing” effect on the fashion house, with some fashion houses like Calvin Klein becoming perhaps better known as a fragrance and underwear brand.

We’ve become accustomed to fashion houses changing hands. As Christian Dior passed away, Yves Saint Laurent saved the company with his creative direction on the 1958 collection, only to leave the company very shortly after a less successful period giving control to Marc Bohan. Both Saint Laurent and Bohan left their mark on the house of Dior, but broadly followed Dior’s vision, continuing the established reputation of Christian Dior before moving on to create their own fashion houses. Fashion houses were rarely drastically overhauled, and the creative directors seemed to be respectful and inspired by the origin of the creator as Karl Lagerfeld was to Coco Chanel.

In the past decades, we have however seen a more expressive approach to the luxury market, giving the luxury brands a stronger and more individualistic identity. A change in the luxury market, steering away from the traditional cues was introduced and seemingly driven by a new guard. Designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Martin Margeila did not conform to the unwritten rulebook and turned the luxury market on its head. Their disruptive approach to fashion and their own-created fashion houses portrayed confidence and individualistic style transcending into their newly created brands. Like many other fashion design icons, Margiela became a creative director for Hermés towards the end of the ’90s. Having already established a sound reputation for his own label at the time, his stint at Hermés was recognisable Margiela, though a more subtle expression of his own vision.

The following generation of influential creative directors took a different course and were not scared of challenging the brand or fashion house they work for. John Galliano and Alexander McQueen provoked this new direction as the “design rock star” when they took over the creative direction of Dior and Givenchy in the mid-’90s and had the full support of Bernard Arnault of LVMH to renew the brands. Arnault followed this strategy with the appointment of several creative directors throughout that helped to change the direction of many of the fashion houses. The success of this approach has been widely adopted by other fashion houses outside the LVMH group and have managed to revive the luxury market into steady growth.

Hedi Slimane has moved from Dior Homme to Saint Laurent and is currently Celine’s creative director. His influence on all three brands has certainly left a strong statement that incorporated his mark, even to the extent of dropping the Yves from Saint Laurent and the accent grave on Céline. His work has often been followed with a watchful eye, as critics have been quick to judge his direction which often disregards the style or avenue his predecessors followed. His last stint at Celine saw some disapproving press when he made a complete U-turn on Phoebe Philo’s minimalist female direction which during her 10-year reign had put the brand into the spotlight.

The quick judgement however is not proving to be harmful to the brand of Celine and Slimane has yet again managed to create success with LVMH reporting a “solid resilience” in the brand even though the current market has been tough. One could argue that Celine needed to take a different course after the strong influence Philo left behind to continue to grow the brand into a new direction.

The support of the luxury groups has proven to be a working strategy and the vision of the likes of Philo and Slimane, Gucci’s Allesandro Michele and Burberry’s Ricardo Tisci, have put some of the brands into a new era with continuing profit growth.

The luxury market has shown continuous growth and is expected to increase by another 5% over the next 5 years. This increase is likely due to a new and younger customer base, which no doubt is intrigued by the expressive visions of the iconic creative directors. Most certainly, Virgil Abloh managed to attract a larger, younger and more inclusive customer base during his three years at Louis Vuitton as the menswear creative director. His streetwear style undoubtedly appealed to a different audience and helped to re-energise the brand. 

The future for the creative director and brand might lead to a new generation of fashion houses with their own distinguishing style. Abloh just sold the majority share of his own label Off-White to LVMH, whilst Phoebe Philo is setting up her own brand with a minority share of the same group. Although the big luxury brands like LV and Gucci will most certainly continue to thrive past their passing line of creative directors, it seems their owners are welcoming a more expressive direction attracting a new generation and ensuring a stronger diversification within their growing brand portfolios.