By VANESSA FRIEDMAN
PARIS — This week marks the ascension of four new designers at four vaunted houses: Anthony Vaccarello at Yves Saint Laurent, Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin, Maria Grazia Chiuri at Christian Dior and Pierpaolo Piccioli, solo for the first time, at Valentino.
It could produce, potentially, the biggest single aesthetic shift in seasons.
Not just because new designers tend to mean new looks, and these brands are so dominant that new looks on their runways will filter down into new looks far beyond their own doors (and at price points far different). But because these designers — as well as Raf Simons, newly installed as chief creative officer at Calvin Klein in New York, whose debut comes next season — have a level of control over their work that will greatly amplify their message.
After a period in which the brand was consciously prioritized over the creative, and designers’ reach increasingly curtailed, so that they might be (like Mr. Simons in his former post at Dior) responsible simply for the women’s wear on the catwalk, with advertising and store environments and celebrity ambassadors and so on dictated by a separate team answerable to management, the pendulum began to swing back and has been picking up momentum. Executives might want to duck, so it doesn’t whack them on the way.
Ms. Chiuri, for example, will weigh in on not only products, but image, ads and stores, responsibilities that Sidney Toledano, Dior chief executive, admitted at her appointment were more expansive than those of her predecessor. Mr. Simons will, for the first time since Calvin Klein himself left the brand in 2003, have creative say over every single aspect of that brand: men’s and women’s runway, jeans, underwear, fragrance and home. Mr. Vaccarello will, like Hedi Slimane before him, have oversight not only of clothes for both men and women but also accessories, image, advertising and store design. Ditto Mr. Piccioli.
The avidity with which their debuts will be watched suggests one conclusion: The era of the brand caretaker is over. The star designer is back.
You could say this is only to be expected. Fashion does one thing, then it does another. Hemlines go up, then they go down. It’s natural law: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. But the rationale behind the reversal is not quite so simple, and its implications, for everyone involved, including the woman in the store searching for a nice dress, are significant.
Once upon a fashion time, designers dictated the look of their brands, writ large: Christian Dior chose not only his silhouettes but the dove gray shades of his walls and chairs. Yves Saint Laurent posed naked in his own advertisements. La maison, c’est moi was the message, and the reality. When the designer evolved into the creative director in the era of Tom Ford’s Gucci reign at the end of the 20th century, it was a specific acknowledgment of not only the globalization of brands, but the extent of Mr. Ford’s dominance over all the visual and emotional touch points between brand and consumer, and the need to have a single presiding imagination ensuring coherence across the whole.
But Mr. Ford and his partner on the business side, Domenico de Sole, were neither brand founders nor brand owners. And after they convinced the conglomerate then known as PPR (now Kering) to buy Gucci (to save them from that other conglomerate, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), a public power struggle ensued that ultimately saw the designer and the chief executive walk away from what they had wrought.
The following breast-beating within the industry — how would Gucci survive without them! Oh, woe is us! etc. etc. — convinced everyone that handing authority to the creative side to the extent that they became synonymous with their house was dangerous as they could just leave. The safest way to proceed would be to make the designer serve the brand, not the other way around. Designers (at least the majority of them; a select few, such as Karl Lagerfeld, remained a world unto themselves) became “work for hire,” seemingly regarded as practically interchangeable by their employers: Shirts not selling? Get rid of X; hire Y! When critics complained about the resulting aesthetic whiplash, executives would shake their heads and accuse them (O.K., me) of myopia; customers, they said, had no idea.
At least that’s that they said until 2008, when LVMH handed the reins of Céline to Phoebe Philo, who rejected any lip service to “brand DNA” and washed the company’s Aegean stables clean. Overnight the products created by the former designer Ivana Omazic were removed from the stores and Ms. Philo remade the brand in her image. It worked.
Little wonder that that move was followed four years later by an even more public reimagining of Yves Saint Laurent under Mr. Slimane, who not only renamed the ready-to-wear Saint Laurent — instead of Yves Saint Laurent — but famously designed everything down to the furniture in the stores, and photographed the ad campaigns.
Then, in 2013, Jonathan Anderson took over at Loewe, and likewise remade the logo, the stores, the show space and the products.
And last year Alessandro Michele got the top job at Gucci, and — well, we all know what’s going on there.
Each time, sales went up, and buzz went wild. All taken as proof positive of the payoff that can result from allowing a single imagination to create a coherent universe, especially at a time when consumer habits were changing, and people were getting more picky about what they bought. For a brand to speak with authority, a designer actually needs authority.
(Ironically, it was Gucci’s owner, Kering, that originally sounded the death knell for star designers, and Kering, which also owns Saint Laurent, that has now done more than any other group to recreate them.)
As a result, designers once again have the upper hand. They have proved their value, can demand their due, and increasingly are. But this time around, unlike the last time, they are doing it while thinking of themselves — not as divas, but as free agents. And that means, if they don’t get what they want, they walk.
When Mr. Ford left it was with a wrench and a moan (during his last Gucci collection, roses fell from the ceiling, and at YSL, which he had been designing since Gucci bought the brand in 1999, the audience was in tears). Now departures are so common, the news gets leaked months beforehand, and everyone shrugs and moves on.
But if that happens, as it has at YSL, with Mr. Slimane taking his leave after three years, and one complete reinvention of a brand is followed by another reinvention of the brand (we’ll see what Mr. Vaccarello does, but the images released thus far suggest he’s interested in starting afresh), it’s a recipe for confusion. One strong statement atop another strong statement and, possibly, another, is not only costly but risks building a tower of babble. It starts to get hard to keep track.
That does not mean designers need to be put back into their little velvet boxes and contained (please, let that not be the takeaway). But rather that a new détente needs to develop between the creative and the corporate sides of this industry: one of mutual respect, that attempts to equalize the balance of power, so that both are invested in, and loyal to, the same future: dressing their customer as relevantly and responsively and reliably as possible.
Think of them as the three Rs of fashion. Wouldn’t you buy that?