(Designers)

What’s Behind The Creative Director Turnover At Luxury Brands?

“Sometimes you need a continuation. Sometimes you need a disruption.”

You don’t have to own a closet full of Bottega Veneta to have felt the impact of Daniel Lee’s tenure as the brand’s creative director these past three years. Those lug-soled boots and pillowy clutches flying off the shelves at Zara and Net-a-Porter? You can thank Lee’s hit accessories in part for their ubiquity. That vivid, extraterrestrial green seen everywhere from the Great Wall of China to Hailey Bieber’s outfit at the 2021 MTV Video Music Awards? There’s a reason the shade has been christened “Bottega Green.”

In November 2021, though, BV’s parent company Kering announced that Lee would exit the brand, to be succeeded by his second-in-command Matthieu Blazy. The news took the fashion world by surprise given the designer’s critical and commercial success, but the brevity of Lee’s term was hardly unique. In recent years, luxury houses have cycled through creative directors at an increasingly rapid clip: In 2020, Matthew M. Williams made his debut at Givenchy and Gabriela Hearst took over the top post at Chloé, replacing predecessors who lasted fewer than four years each in their roles. Lanvin, meanwhile, is on its third creative director since parting ways with the late, much-beloved Alber Elbaz in 2015.

While the reasons for these regime changes vary, many experts believe that the trend of frequent turnovers is related to the increasing speed of the fashion cycle and the changing demands of the creative director role.

Daniel Lee at the Bottega Veneta show.Victor Boyko/Getty Images

“You have this customer [who] is so thirsty for newness,” making it more challenging than ever for “the creative vision of a designer to remain relevant over time,” says Mario Ortelli, managing partner of luxury advisory firm Ortelli & Co, to TZR. “A creative director nowadays is an artist, a marketer, a communicator, and an architect.”

Many of the lauded talents of this decade — Virgil Abloh, Raf Simons, Demna Gvasalia (now officially Demna, no last name, in his professional life) — are known as much for their digital prowess, collaborative spirit, and vast repertoires of cultural references as for their technical skills. Finding the right person to take the reins at a house with a hundred-year history is more art than science, says Thomai Serdari, a marketing and branding professor at New York University and the author of the book Rethinking Luxury Fashion: The Role of Cultural Intelligence in Creative Strategy.

“It's not like when you need an engineer and you find someone who’s the perfect fit because the numbers fit correctly,” she argues. “It’s something else. It’s magical.” When creative vision, brand heritage, and market forces come together to create this ineffable spark, customers are willing to spend thousands of dollars on a handbag (or 30-something dollars on a lipstick) to be a part of [it]. “This is why we are so attracted to this industry,” Serdari continues, “… We're seeking the excitement that these people provide to us and the escapism of beautifully designed and imaginative products.”

Saint Laurent Spring/Summer 2016 ShowPhoto by Catwalking/Getty Images

If enough fans buy into a brand’s new direction, it can translate into staggering sales growth. Upon joining Saint Laurent in 2012, former Creative Director Hedi Slimane helped catapult the Kering-owned company into a $1 billion brand, doubling revenues in less than four years. With those figures in mind, it’s perhaps unsurprising the conglomerate was willing to shell out more than $12 million a year after taxes on Slimane’s salary — nor that rival LVMH would tap him for the top spot at Celine (with the triple-barrelled title of “Artistic, Creative, and Image Director”) as it aims to build that brand into a 2 to 3 billion euro a year juggernaut.

“The arrival of a new creative director can do so much to renew interest in a brand, especially if they have a viral moment or product at their show,” says Heather Gramston, head of womenswear at the London-based luxury retailer Browns, pointing to Demna’s streetwear-influenced designs for Balenciaga and Hearst’s focus on sustainability at Chloé. (In October, Chloé became the first luxury fashion house to earn a B Corp certification, “with more to follow in its steps hopefully,” says Gramston.)

On the other hand, an “out with the old, in with the new” attitude can backfire if it confuses or alienates customers. Lanvin has struggled with just this issue in its efforts to recapture the relevance Elbaz’s fun-loving, feminine designs enjoyed a decade ago.

Plus, there’s the question of whether a typical three-year contract gives designers enough time to realize their potential at a brand. Track records like Slimane’s set the bar high, yet it’s hard not to mourn what could have been if, for example, Raf Simons had stayed on at Dior beyond 2015 rather than decamp for Calvin Klein. (In that case, the decision was the designer’s, though at Calvin Klein, it was the brand’s owners who severed ties after just two years due to “disappointing” sales.)

Christian Dior Haute Couture Spring/Summer 2013 ShowFRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images

While it might be possible to gauge interest in a brand’s new direction instantaneously on social media, it generally takes several seasons to measure its commercial impact. Riccardo Tisci was named creative director of Burberry in March 2018, but a year later, his designs still only accounted for 10 to 15 percent of what was being sold in stores. Even now, the upheaval of the pandemic has made it difficult to assess whether Tisci-fied Burberry is finding its audience, though with a new CEO, the pressure to amp up the brand’s leather goods business and sell more high-end pieces through Burberry-owned channels will be greater than ever.

The average customer may not keep up with every changing of the guard at a luxury brand, but they’re much more educated today about the industry than they may have been in the past. “With social media, you can know so much about fashion and what’s happening day to day,” says Sherri McMullen, founder and CEO of the Oakland, Calif.-based boutique McMullen. “So customers are definitely in tune with the changes. Especially if they love fashion and enjoy it, they are curious about the person behind it.”

“From a buying perspective, it can be refreshing to see a new creative director’s interpretation of the house codes and anticipate how they plan to push the conversation forward and entice a new customer,” Gramston adds.

Lee’s designs for Bottega Veneta worked as well as they did because they drew on the heritage of the house — including its signature intrecciato woven leather — while speaking to a younger, more diverse clientele. Within a few seasons, he reenergized the brand’s ready-to-wear business, courted fans like Rihanna and Missy Elliott, and ditched Milan Fashion Week for shows in Berlin’s notorious Berghain nightclub and Detroit’s historic Michigan Theater. Even at such a traditional house, the youthful joie de vivre felt natural, perhaps because for Lee, it was: At 32, he was Kering’s youngest creative director when he took the job.

Now, a few months after his departure, his pieces still have plenty of sales momentum, says Gramston, suggesting Blazy’s task as his successor will be less a total reset than a stoking of the flames.

Givenchy Spring/Summer 2022 ShowDominique Charriau/WireImage

At Givenchy, Williams has already pivoted away from the red carpet glamour of his predecessor Clare Waight Keller to a sharper, more industrial sensibility. While the vision has echoes of his own label, 1017 ALYX 9SM, it also pays homage to Givenchy’s rich archive — not only the midcentury designs of Hubert de Givenchy, but also the brief tenures of John Galliano and Alexander McQueen in the ‘90s, as well as Tisci’s twelve years at the house.

If all goes according to plan for parent company LVMH, this new aesthetic will spur growth in women’s ready-to-wear and accessories in a way Keller’s creations, though critically acclaimed, did not.

“Sometimes you need a continuation. Sometimes you need a disruption,” says Ortelli.

In his six years at Balenciaga, Demna has undoubtedly undertaken the latter with headline-grabbing re-imaginings of everyman pieces — high-heel Crocs, $2,000 Ikea-style totes, off-the-shoulder windbreakers — and embrace of both dramatically oversized and body-hugging fits.

Still, amid all the hype, there’s a fundamental respect for the craftsmanship and haute couture on which the house was built. “Demna has done a very interesting job in keeping his discourse and his narrative very grounded in things that make sense for Balenciaga in terms of cut, in terms of proportion,” says critic and designer José Criales-Unzueta, referencing the “invisible thread” connecting the new designs to those that came before. “These silhouettes make sense and you can see the consideration of the legacy.”

Balenciaga Spring/Summer 2022 Red CarpetRichard Bord/Getty Images

This — along with Demna’s enthusiastic experimentation with VR and gaming, irreverent tie-ups with The Simpsons and sister brand Gucci, and the release of one “It” accessory after the next — has put the house on the path to becoming Kering’s next “megabrand,” as the conglomerate’s CEO François-Henri Pinault recently put it to the The New York Times. By constantly innovating and iterating even as he himself stays put, the designer seems to have found the secret to ongoing success at a time when many creative directors have already reached their best-before date.

And though it may be hard to imagine our current culture birthing another Karl Lagerfeld — who, when he died in 2019, had spent 54 years at the helm of Fendi and 36 at Chanel — there are upsides to fashion’s ongoing game of musical chairs. For one, says McMullen, we’re seeing emerging talent get the chance to step out of the shadows and share fresh ideas. Plus, Serdari argues, designers themselves are often eager for opportunities to learn and grow in new ateliers.

“Sometimes if you stay within the same environment, it's hard to continue being creative,” she says. “And it’s good for these bigger houses to continue encouraging their creative talent to move around in different brands, to have new challenges, to get inspiration, to work with different people.” Fashion, after all, demands collaboration; even the most visionary designer can’t make magic happen without a team behind them.