Keeping up with fashion houses and their creative directors is fast turning into a soap opera. Who got divorced, married, into which family, and how? Miss a season and you're out of the loop; watch a few episodes and you're back in the game.
Fashion's protagonists have maxed out the storylines, divorcing and marrying houses in a session of musical chairs that gets more frenetic by the month. So how do fashion houses in constant transformation impact our wardrobes? And are the creative directors' comings and goings overshadowing the brands?
We've watched Raf Simons leave Dior, Alexander Wang depart Balenciaga and Hedi Slimane step down from Saint Laurent. Meanwhile, Maison Margiela recruited John Galliano, Gucci promoted Alessandro Michele, Balenciaga hired Demna Gvasalia, Saint Laurent tapped Anthony Vaccarello and Dior hired its first woman Creative Director in 70 years, Maria Grazia Chiuri, formerly the co-Creative Director of Valentino. And yesterday, Calvin Klein announced Raf Simons as its new chief creative officer.
The changes go on, but are shoppers keeping track?
When Hedi Slimane took over Yves Saint Laurent from Stefano Pilati in 2012 he transformed the house, controversially dropping the Yves and rebranding it Saint Laurent. With a fanbase from his time at Dior Homme still in place, Slimane doubled the brand's revenue in just three years and pretty much eradicated any sign of its past. If the Yves Saint Laurent woman who bought into Pilati's romantic tributes to the founder's legacy wanted to be a Saint Laurent woman, she'd better look good in a skimpy negligee and a pair of torn tights, too.
If a designer leaves a brand after a few seasons, does their exit devalue the purchases a shopper made during that era?
After his whirlwind success, Slimane left in April 2016. The move signified a new age where creative directors often stay in jobs for less than 10 seasons, and a shopping terrain that poses a challenge for the women who buy their clothes (and those who buy the looks that trickle down to the high street). If a designer leaves a brand after a few seasons, does their exit devalue the purchases a shopper made during that era? Perhaps with immediate effect, but when Alessandro Michele took the reins at Gucci in January 2015 and brought back ideas associated with Tom Ford, the fashion pack was quick to dust off its archive pieces and give them a second wind.
The less-than-10 seasons club already counts a number of designers. There's Raf Simons, who left Dior in late 2015 after seven seasons, despite a 34% rise in profits, and Alexander Wang, who generated a double-digit growth at Balenciaga during his four years as Creative Director, but was ultimately replaced last October. Fashion's biggest story of 2015, though, was when a then-unknown Michele became the Creative Director of Gucci.
Valeria Napoleone, an Italian-born art collector and dedicated buyer of high fashion, is one of many women who began shopping from the brand again after Michele reinvigorated it. 'Gucci was dying! As an Italian I grew up with Gucci and I was disappointed with the way it was going throughout the years,' she says, 'but I love what Michele is doing.' It's a sentiment echoed around the shopping sphere by loyal Gucci customers who felt distanced by the creative direction of Michele's predecessor. 'When Gucci brought in Frida Giannini, I just could not find myself in that kind of vision,' says Sandra Violante, a Milanese entrepreneur who is a top buyer on Net-a-Porter. 'With Michele, that has changed completely.'
For Sarah Rutson, Vice President of Global Buying at Net-a-Porter, Michele represents a new dynamic between Creative Director and customer. 'He's the perfect example of an unknown name turning a brand into the hottest in the world,' she says of Michele, who was promoted within Gucci where he served as Accessories Designer for 14 years. In the fourth quarter under Michele's watch, Gucci sales had jumped 13%. It remains to be seen if women will feel compelled to buy Saint Laurent under its newest Creative Director, Anthony Vaccarello – a designer who has been attracting ever-increasing levels of buzz since fashion's ultimate talent scout, Donatella Versace, tapped him to creative direct her diffusion line, Versus Versace – and if he'll become a fashion celebrity in his own right after he shows his first collection for the house in October.
Instagram has made idols of Creative Directors such as Balmain's Olivier Rousteing, but it has also broken the myth that high-fashion consumers have little idea who suddenly put that purist touch to their traditional Dior jacket. That, of course, was Raf Simons, who joined the house in 2012 after John Galliano's explosive departure the year before. For two seasons between, Bill Gaytten – Galliano's second in command – filled in, showing stripped-down takes on Galliano's historicism for shoppers who had yet to become addicted to Instagram.
Unbelievably, on Gaytten's watch, Dior revenues hit 1 billion euros (£800m), fuelling the idea that the brand's super-rich clientele still thought Galliano was designing for the house and probably into the reign of Raf Simons, whose clean-cut aesthetics couldn't be further from Galliano's theatricality. Five years on and social media culture may have changed that notion for good. 'Today the name of the designer can outshine the brand,' Violante admits. 'I want to know about the vision, the inspiration, and the story behind the person creating it. It's essential to know more: fashion to me is not a mere financial transaction.'
I want to know about the vision, the inspiration, and the story behind the person creating. It is essential to know more: fashion to me is not a mere financial transaction
But for many customers in the know, the heritage of houses such as Dior still trump the power of the Creative Director – Galliano, Simons, Chiuri or not. 'I loved Raf Simons, but I'll be loyal to the brand regardless of who's going to lead it in the future,' Violante vows. 'Some brands transcend contemporary names. They are an institution.'
If Michele creates a fanbase strong enough, he could join the club of Creative Directors so powerful their clientele moves with them from house to house. Did Napoleone ever follow a designer? 'Yes! Geniuses like Galliano, Raf Simons, my friend Clare Waight Keller [of Chloé],' she says. And it's a phenomenon Napoleone sees lasting well into the future, especially with London's younger generation of designers. Who could be next in line to the creative director positions at the super brands: Simone Rocha, Roksanda, Mary Katrantzou? But, as Rutson reiterates, 'It always comes back to the product.'
This feature appears in the September 2016 issue of ELLE UK