The revolving door for fashion’s top jobs is spinning faster than ever. News of creative directors’ tenures ending and replacements by celebrities or unknowns routinely break out. This year alone, the industry has witnessed an onslaught of successions and splits: Pharrell Williams has filled Virgil Abloh’s shoes at Louis Vuitton, Rhuigi Villaseñor and Bally have called off their two-season affair, and Walter Chiapponi has parted ways with Tod’s.
And who could forget Ludovic de Saint Sernin’s exit from Ann Demeulemeester just two months after presenting his debut collection? It was arguably a watershed moment that thrust the vexed question of a creative director’s role back into the spotlight.
The leadership position is by no means an easy feat. There’s the tall order of balancing art and commerce. There’s the task to manage one’s own label and shake the dust off another historic fashion house. There’s the need to constantly deliver on sales and cultural resonance. Plus, the pressure to revive if not surpass the glories of fashion luminaries.
It’s no secret that the weight of such responsibilities is insurmountable, even for superstar designers. The annals of fashion history are all too familiar with the rise and downfall of Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Marc Jacobs. As fashion writer Caryn Franklin wrote in Kingdom of Dreams: “(Creativity) is an indefinable energy and it pulsates within the individual, but it’s all down to their authenticity. When you get big money coming in, suddenly that person’s soul becomes shackled to the outcomes of that brand.” The subversive quartet, whose careers became cautionary tales, revealed the Faustian pact that entails commercial success. As fashion’s relentless pace now runs alongside social media’s algorithms, the chase for newness has interestingly birthed the spectacle of rapidly changing creative director appointments. What’s shocking is the speed with which the designer and brand mutually agree to separate.
It’s certainly not a matter of skill or resilience causing this exodus of talent. Rather, the problem lies with how business leaders anticipate too much from digitally savvy wunderkinds within a tight time frame. Misalignment in artistic visions as well as corporate goals—an age-old problem for fashion—returns with a vengeance. For all we know, perhaps the noise from online criticisms is jinxing the longevity of creative leadership too.
On the flip side, De Saint Sernin and Villaseñor have demonstrated a preference for personal freedom instead of helming a brand with financial backing. “Never compromise your values or culture for anything,” tweeted Villaseñor the day his exit from Bally was announced. Perhaps their gestures of rebellion area first in putting an end to the outdated fashion model that expects young talents to compromise individuality in favour of prestigious, high-paying opportunities.
If one thing is for certain, short creative tenures make for buzzy headlines. However, they fail to maximise the potential of a designer’s gift and a brand’s heritage. No party is satisfied and the identity of fashion houses is unclear.
Whether or not the time is ripe for a creative director to have their own distinct decade à la the Tom Ford-Gucci era remains to be seen. For now, all we can do is to watch fashion’s game of musical chairs play out as a new cohort takes on creative leadership. From Peter Do’s Helmut Lang to Stefano Gallici’s Demeulemeester, plenty of brand revivals await us.
The September ‘Feel the heat’ issue of Vogue Singapore is available for online and on newsstands from September 2023.