There was once a time, believe it or not when Maisons and ateliers took upon a more utilitarian function. A period when the name of a label was synonymous with the pedigree of products that were being offered on sale, and the unsurpassed finesse by which these products were created. Louis Vuitton was synonymous with trunks that could resist the test of use and age, while Burberry conjured the notion of practical, all-weather attire fit for the English outdoorsman in the country. The clothes sold themselves, quite literally. Merchandise and branding went hand in hand, sharing a symbiotic balance that was understood to be simply the way of doing things in fashion.
But of course, that was well over 100 years ago. In the advent of limited collaboration drops designed to exploit market supply/demand and Instagram brand endorsements, the luxury consumers of this decade are herded into storefronts, not by the premise of buying and cherishing one prized steamer trunk meant for posterity. Instead, what we see are the new power-brokers of fashion consumerism, creative directors, amassing, and mobilizing large bodies of consumers between one camp and another as they indulged in a multi-billion dollar game of musical chairs. It’s easy to see how this phenomenon affects brand worth, especially in light of Phoebe Philo’s resignation from Céline (yes, we insist on keeping the accent in this house, thank you). Just weeks after her retirement as Creative Director broke front-page fashion publications worldwide, the signature Céline Luggage bag, which had been designed during Phoebe’s tenure, saw an incredible leap in resale value as vendors capitalized on the urgency expressed by Philiophiles (yes, that is a legitimate term) to lap up what vestiges of Céline’s heydays still remain on the market. HYPEBAE magazine reports that prices have gone up as much as a staggering 30-percent for Phoebe Philo designed Céline merchandise since her departure. That alone should be a testament to the immense influence that these rockstars of fashion command.
Arguably the notion oaf stardom as a designer isn’t an unknown concept, for the likes of Madame Madeline Vionnet had accrued a dedicated following of esteemed clientele that consisted of Hollywood faces, royalty, nobility, and gentry, for her bias-cut creations since the early 1900s. That same mob-driven loyalty was also seen when Christian Dior and Hubert de Givenchy first made splashes into the industry with their own respective labels during the 1950s, gathering a similarly coveted list of ever staunch clients. But the premise of a designer dictating the attention of not just the upper echelons of the socio-economic pyramid, but laymen as well, was too far-fetched a notion to consider. There was no discourse to be had about the democratization of fashion as we know of it today. Showcases were elusive, private affairs that only a select few were permitted admittance to, serving as a reminder that haute fashion exists in a true vacuum from the rest of the world and the decisions made behind closed doors were at the discretion of only the knowing. The same cannot be said today.
In the landscape of an industry that continues to see exponential growth and public scrutiny by all tiers of the societal pyramid, branding is no longer strictly confined to the craftsmanship of the merchandise. Encompassing entire lifestyle principles and values that are tied to the label, a creative director is often charged with creating a vision that while remaining true to the provenance of the brand, adds both fresh character and flavor. All while enticing the appetites of new consumer demographics that not only include the realm of the affluent au courant but millennial Yuppies too. Which is to say, the repute of a creative director in a label, especially when seen candidly through vignettes of his or her life, can make or break a brand. Fashion conglomerates understand this well enough to capitalize on that fact, and like the MGM Grand and Warner Brothers of Old Hollywood, play their moves in the trading of these creative talents among themselves with aspirations of generating consumer buzz. Creative directors don’t come cheap, either. It has been reported that during his tenure as creative director of storied label Christian Dior, visionary John Gallino was paid an annual salary of one million euros, with additional bonuses and allowances totaling up to another 780,000 euros annually. So, is it worth the payout?
Major fashion groups certainly seem to think so, and the proof is in the pudding. Since his appointment at Balenciaga, streetwear wunderkind Demna Gvasalia has introduced the brand to a new cash-cow consumer market that major fashion heavyweights have once sneered at. Taking over as creative director in 2015, the once flagging label has been seeing nothing short of overnight success in the past three years under his stewardship. François-Henri Pinault, the current CEO of Balenciaga’s parent company Kerning Group, reports that “it’s [Balenciaga] the brand which grew fastest in the fourth quarter, with sales leaping 60%, and which posted the strongest increase within the group in the second half of the year…”. As a result, it has sparked a new industry-wide trend of accruing street-cred for the high street, leading to a major reshuffling of relevant talents, most recently being Virgil Abloh’s appointment as creative director of Louis Vuitton Homme after seeing much success with his own label, Off-White. Evidently, it is both in the following that these names bring with them, as well as their inherent talent, that helps bolster profit margins. It’s understandable in that case why entire branding principles change with every new creative director. From logotypes to store interiors and social media content, creative directors see themselves to be in a position to curate a brand philosophy that best gels with their own ambitions.
But it isn’t without its pitfalls. Hedi Slimane’s appointment as Céline’s new creative director was met with nothing short of vitriolic disapproval, where many stalwart fans of the brand have gone so far as to claim that it’s losing its way and that it has deviated from its once masterful approach to comfort and demure sophistication in women’s clothing, in favour of the overly provocative, borderline misogynistic interpretation of womenswear that Slimane is known for.
It remains hard to tell whether the decision to take him on will pay off as revenue reports for the brand have yet to be published, but one thing is clear. Star power is nothing when not paired alongside an adoring audience. When Instagram follower-counts and number-of-likes factor into branding strategies of so many labels today, we are often reminded that despite the influence that these creative directors wield, success or failure will ultimately lie with consumer response. As high fashion becomes increasingly accessible and people adopt the notion that clothing exists as an extension of personal identity, more and more faces will flock to the many fashion camps that now exist under the wings of these creative directors. By that extension, its key to remember our position as customers in determining the decisions made by these brands by the faces that represent it. Idolatry is, thankfully, still only one facet to the many faces of this booming business.