Fame Game

The Perks And Pitfalls Of Celebrity Designers

A look at fashion’s big bet on cult designers, and whether the rewards are worth the risk.

The Perks And Pitfalls Of Celebrity Designers
Matthew Williams, who now leads Givenchy's creative teams.Image: Paolo Roversi for Givenchy

At Paris Fashion Week’s Spring/Summer 2021 season, one show was on everyone’s mind long after the shows ended — Matthew M. Williams’ debut at Givenchy. 

The designer, known for his cult label 1017 ALYX 9SM (or more simply known as Alyx) was a surprising choice, given that Clare Waight Keller had only been in the house for a mere three years, and whose aesthetic has been more Audrey Hepburn than Kanye West.

While Keller’s couture collections at Givenchy proved to be a force of beauty and craft — the legacy that will always precede her tenure at Givenchy will be the wedding dress she designed for Meghan Markle’s wedding in 2018 — it was clear she did not bring the same magic and commercial success that Riccardo Tisci brought before.

On the other hand, with a résumé that boasts relations within the pop culture and fashion circles that would make most veterans envious, Williams has the connections and street cred down pat. 

He had already worked with (and dated) Lady Gaga as part of her Haus of Gaga collective; he cites Kanye West as a mentor, collaborated with Kim Jones for Jones’ Dior Men debut and founded the short-lived streetwear label Been Trill alongside Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston and Justin Saunders.

When Williams’ announcement came, the news was met with doubt and reserved apprehension from fashion purists, relegating Williams’ appointment as another cheap ploy by the house looking to pander to celebrity and streetwear fans.

Only time will tell if Givenchy’s gamble with Williams will pay off. But if the positive early reviews and celebrity endorsement of his debut is of any indication, it seems like LVMH’s fame game might be the only way forward for the conglomerate from here on out

This seems to be LVMH’s playbook of late, with the recent appointments of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton, Rihanna and the creation of her Fenty clothing line, and now Williams at Givenchy, it seems like talent and experience isn’t enough for creative directors anymore. Fame is starting to feel like a prerequisite in getting a job from the luxury conglomerate.

Judging by consumers’ hyper-focus on celebrity culture and personality, it makes sense that a brand would want to tap on a high-profile creative for their talent, fame (or even infamy) and online influence to stay relevant in a highly competitive environment.

“Having a big-name designer is a gain in the short-term in terms of buzz, visibility, and communication,” said Susanna Nicoletti, founder of The Fashion Dispatch, which is a Milan-based digital platform about branding, luxury, and fashion strategies.

And to a certain degree, it’s a sound business strategy. 

In today’s world, a luxury label becomes much more enticing to a consumer if it comes attached to someone famous or cool. Kids these days don’t care about storied, hundred-year-old histories anymore. Never mind savoir faire and elegance, they just want to be associated with the endeavours of someone they admire.

At The End Of The Day, It’s All About The Numbers

Just take a look at the designers who have cultivated this cult of personality. One that comes to mind is controversial French designer Hedi Slimane. As the creative director of Dior Homme in the early ‘2000s, Slimane pioneered the rock-inspired, extremely narrow silhouette in menswear, ultimately defining the look for that decade. This earned him legions of fans who loved his severe designs, as well as the metaphorical middle finger he always seemed to be pointing at his critics.

This was a designer that had a singular vision; a tried and tested formula that — to the chagrin of his detractors — Slimane has never strayed from once. With each new appointment at a different house came his loyal following of disciples, and more importantly the spending power they commanded. 

Slimane was never an avant-gardist in a way Lee McQueen or John Galliano was, but he knew how to create an essence with the clothes he created. You weren’t just buying into his clothes, you were buying into this exclusive and unspoken cool club that he created. One where two Slimane fans would silently nod at each other in approval (overt displays of emotion are not cool and forbidden, duh) as they spot each other brooding in a smoke-filled underground Parisian nightclub. 

“He’s a master at branding. He asserts a look or an attitude, and he sticks by it,” said Justin O’Shea, the ex-buying director of online retailer Mytheresa.com. “As an online retailer, it’s hard for us to sell that quality. But what we can sell is the brand. Hedi has created this ‘cool kid’ club, and you don’t get to be in that club if you’re wearing a knockoff. What matters, is that little tag inside, at the back.”

Commercially, Slimane has yet to fail. Dior Homme was both critically and financially a success.

At his four-year mark serving as Saint Laurent’s creative director, The Washington Post reported that Slimane racked up “double-digit, year-to-year growth” and grew the house revenue from 400 million euros to more than one billion euros.

In a statement to The Financial Times, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, Bernard Arnault stated: “The objective with him [at Celine] is to reach at least two to three billion euros, and perhaps more within five years.”

While LVMH does not release individual figures, Arnault revealed that Celine’s revenue currently stands at the one billion euros marker.

When Bad Casting Happens To Good Brands

When matching a designer to a house, it’s important that there is natural inclination between the two. Stunt casting for the sake of publicity or shock value rarely turns out well.

While brands like Balenciaga have managed to tap into a perfectly symbiotic relationship between themselves and their current creative director Demna Gvasalia (who managed to inject the same cheeky sense of irony and money-making formula that he had achieved at his cult label Vetements), sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get it right. 

In 2012, after a 15-year tenure at Balenciaga, then creative director Nicolas Ghesquiere was swiftly replaced with the energetic and effervescent Alexander Wang. The king of downtown cool, Wang had seen success in almost everything he touched, from the $4,000 silk dresses from his mainline to the $80 sports bras in his collaboration with H&M. He also had a great network of celebrities and global appeal, and the house was eager to capitalise on that.

Despite the fact that Wang was at the height of his popularity, it was an odd pairing for the house from a creative standpoint. Balenciaga’s design DNA was rooted in abstract shapes, technical brilliance and avant-garde fabrications; on the other hand, Wang’s own lines veered towards a sporty and sexy aesthetic, employing simple cuts and designing with a laid-back vibe. 

Even though Kering, Balenciaga’s parent company, reported that the brand was financially “accelerating double-digit growth”, critically Wang’s collections never found its groove beyond his debut, resulting in unmemorable collections that didn’t feel like either designer. Tim Blanks referred to Wang as  “coming second in this revival story” in comparison to his predecessor.

…And When Really Bad Casting Happens To Good Brands

While Balenciaga’s tale may not have been the first example of mismatched partnerships, it will never come near the legendary cautionary tale that is Emanuel Ungaro.

After years of floundering on the catwalk, the Parisian label was struggling to reclaim its identity and reputation as the once-venerable couture house it was in the ’80s and ’90s. This lead Mounir Moufarrige, then president and chief executive of the house to hire actress Lindsay Lohan (yes, you read that right) as artistic advisor to the brand in 2009, hoping that her placement would bring back some Hollywood glamour to the label, or at the very least, pull in legions of young, star-struck fashionistas who were fans of the troubled actress. At that time, Lohan was already going through a very public struggle with substance and alcohol abuse, checking herself into rehab several times in the years prior.

Unsurprisingly, her debut was a disaster and widely-panned by critics, with a key motif of the collection being glittery heart-shaped nipple pasties (again, you read that right). Lohan’s act was no match for the Olsen twins at The Row, or at the very least, Sarah Jessica Parker at Halston. The truth was blatantly obvious: Moufarrige had hired a flaky actress with little to no experience in design, and that was exactly what he got. 

  • Image: Emanuel Ungaro
  • Image: Emanuel Ungaro
  • Image: Emanuel Ungaro

To his credit, Moufarrige was no stranger to shocking the industry. He was the one responsible for replacing Karl Lagerfeld at Chloe with the surprising choice of a 25-year-old Stella McCartney, who was more known for being a daughter of one of the Beatles’ rather than her design chops. Her work at Chloe attracted rave reviews. With Lohan, it seemed that lighting did not strike twice.

But placing too much emphasis on a personality can backfire too. While a huge following and social media fame can net a wider customer base and potential revenue, it could also fail spectacularly if the designer outshines the brand they are working for, especially if the brand’s DNA isn’t sharply defined.

Just take a look at Lanvin’s struggle to replace the beloved Alber Elbaz, who was unceremoniously fired after disagreements with upper management. Couture designer Bouchra Jarrar was brought in to replace him, but Jarrar’s new approach did not resonate with Lanvin’s customers, resulting in a 23 percent loss from 235 million euros to 162 million euros. Since then, the house has changed four different creative directors in the last four years, with the latest being 32-year-old French designer Bruno Sialelli.

The Pitfalls Of Personality

There can be plenty of good in terms of brand association when it comes to banking on a designer’s clout. But what happens when their less than stellar behaviour is out there for the world to see?

When John Galliano was appointed head of womenswear at Christian Dior, his fantastical and ethereal design won him legions of fans. His couture shows were the highlight of the season, thanks to the theatrical spectacles that he would put on. From Egyptian goddesses to oversized origami flowers, his work were fashion fantasies coming to life.

This was not a man who scurried off modestly with a shaky bow after the final model had walked off the catwalk. Galliano often paraded down the runway in his over-the-top get-ups, lapping up the spotlight and the applause. He embodied the spirit of the house, just as much as the house was very much a part of him, and it was clear to anyone who could see.

Then came the shocking anti-semitic rant that called for Galliano’s arrest and eventual firing. With Galliano gone, the house felt rudderless for a year, before the appointments of Raf Simons and present-day creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri.

While both are massively talented creative directors in their own right, with both creative and financial success, the stain that Galliano’s behaviour left will unfortunately be remembered for a long time. That magical  je nes sais quoi the house held during Galliano’s time never really seemed to return.

Are Fickle Fashion Houses To Blame?

While Galliano courted fame, he also had a good 11 years at Dior to do so. These days, an appointment of that period at one fashion house almost feels like a novelty. Fashion houses are impatient, and rarely allow for lengthy stints to cultivate a new designer long enough for his or her imprint to be felt. Hiring someone famous with a specific point of view — no matter how jarring — might feel like an easier way up.

For a partnership between designer and house to truly last, there has to be investment in the relationship from both sides.

According to Susanne Tide-Frater, a fashion consultant and director on the board of Browns Fashion, it can take five to six seasons for a luxury house’s new direction to fully come together under a new creative director. “It is necessary not to confuse media-induced hype and the commercial reality of a brand reinvention, which in its entirety can only be judged after about three to five seasons.”

And Robert Burke, of New York-based fashion consultancy Robert Burke Associates, agrees. There needs to be a balance between preserving a brand’s identity while communicating a new visual direction. “The one thing that a brand never wants when they’re having a transition is for someone to say, ‘I really miss the old Gucci’, for example. If someone is left longing for the old version of the brand, that’s not a positive sign.”

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