Creative director woes plague Christian Dior

PARIS • Christian Dior, one of the world's biggest and most famous fashion brands, is struggling to find a creative director more than six months after the abrupt departure of Raf Simons.

People familiar with the discussions said part of the reason his seat is still vacant is the limited control offered by the 70-year-old label compared with similar roles at rivals such as Yves Saint Laurent, Gucci and Coach.

"Often when a creative director leaves, it is because he did not get enough control," said one fashion communications expert who has worked for big brands including Givenchy and who declined to be named.

Simons is expected to get much more leeway at Calvin Klein, part of PVH Corp, where he should start working in a few months, fashion industry sources have said.

Adding to its woes, Dior's sales growth has stalled in recent months, reflecting a fall in tourism to Europe after the Paris and Brussels attacks and weaker demand in some key Asian markets.

Christian Dior's 2016-2017 autumn/winter ready-to-wear collection in March in Paris. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Before, the designer was a soloist. Today, he is an orchestra director who tells other people what to draw and what to do.

RALPH TOLEDANO, head of fashion brands Nina Ricci and Jean Paul Gaultier, on the new responsibilities of creative directors

Main shareholder Bernard Arnault, France's richest man, wants a proven quantity to steer the label famous for its cinch- waisted Bar jacket, head-hunters and fashion executives said, but the talent pool of potential replacements is small.

A further problem is that most designers are prevented by their contracts from working for a rival for up to a year.

Candidates who have been seriously considered included Alber Elbaz, credited with resuscitating the Lanvin brand but sacked in October after trying to bring in external investors. But Elbaz was put off in part by the limited scope of the Dior job, having been in charge of everything from collections to advertising at Lanvin, said sources close to the designer.

There was also Hedi Slimane, who was creative director at Yves Saint Laurent until last month. Slimane's track record of seeking to gradually increase his control over every facet of a brand, as he did at YSL, meant Dior could not strike a deal with him either, fashion sources said.

To replace Simons, several people pointed to Maria Grazia Chiuri, who designs alongside Pierpaolo Piccioli at Valentino, one of the luxury industry's fastest growing brands.

A move would make her the first woman to design womenswear for Dior, but complicate Valentino's plans to float next year.

One source close to Dior confirmed Chiuri was a potential candidate, but stressed her name was on a list that also included internal applicants. The source said the hiring process was likely to take some time, possibly a few more weeks.

Valentino and Dior declined to comment.

There is no set formula when hiring a new creative director, said fashion executives and head- hunters.

The requirements and expectations vary greatly depending on the brand's size, history and whether it is looking for continuity or a creative reboot.

Dior's desire for someone charismatic and current, with a strong vision but who will be happy to be confined to a relatively narrow role, could be a tall order, said several fashion industry sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Dior job entails designing collections and some accessories, producing six fashion shows a year, giving interviews and representing the brand at events.

It does not extend to revamping boutiques, many of which are designed by Peter Marino; major changes to the Lady Dior handbag; or meddling with Dior's advertising for perfume and beauty products, which generate the bulk of its €5 billion (S$7.8 billion) in annual sales.

Quitting Dior, Simons said he wanted to focus on his own label and personal life, but some in the industry said his intellectual and minimalist style did not sit comfortably with the brand's flamboyant image.

In the past decade, the role of artistic director has evolved from sketching dresses to creating a brand universe that extends to marketing strategies and the shopping experience.

"Before, the designer was a soloist. Today, he is an orchestra director who tells other people what to draw and what to do," said Ralph Toledano, head of fashion brands Nina Ricci and Jean Paul Gaultier and chairman of the French Federation of couture, ready-to-wear designers and fashion designers.

Slimane at YSL was the industry's reference in terms of control: He was involved in everything, from advertising campaigns he shot himself to the atmosphere of its boutiques to the design and content of the website.

YSL is Kering's fastest-growing brand, with annual revenues of nearly €1 billion, roughly half the size of Dior Couture.

Stuart Vevers, creative director of US brand Coach, says his involvement extends far beyond the leather goods and fashion collections he designs, into areas such as the image of its stores.

"I still see myself as a designer, but I am not sure many creative directors still do," he said on the fringes of the Conde Nast International luxury conference in Seoul. Coach's sales and profits rose last quarter.

Some designers lament the fact they have little time left to draw.

"Now we have to become image- makers," Elbaz said after collecting a fashion award in October, just days before leaving Lanvin.

"The screen has to scream, baby, that's the rule. And loudness is the new thing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2016, with the headline 'Creative director woes plague Christian Dior'. Subscribe