Waiting in the wings

A well-known name is not necessary to helm a design house

Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele was little known to the fashion world when he was appointed to the post early this year.
Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele was little known to the fashion world when he was appointed to the post early this year. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

In January, when he was appointed creative director of Gucci, Alessandro Michele was barely known to fashion's press corps and buying teams, let alone the wider world.

After working quietly behind the scenes for years, he had succeeded his former boss, Frida Giannini, who had been ousted from the position. Few had ever heard his name.

What a difference eight months can make. Now Michele is the toast of Milan, his refurbished Gucci store in Via Montenapoleone thronged with shoppers, including, during the recent Milan Fashion Week, editors from numerous magazines and executives from competing brands.

Michele's from-behind-the-curtain emergence suggests a strategic model for major appointments, and industry figures, including those executives tasked with identifying and hiring the next generation of talent, are increasingly open to finding new leaders within the cloistered ranks of the design studios.

"There is a hunger and a desire within our industry to be relevant, always to the next generation and the next generation," said Ms Karen Harvey, chief executive of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, the executive search and consulting firm that placed Stuart Vevers at Coach and Danielle Sherman at Edun in creative director positions.

No one’s really asking for, ‘Go get Xname’. In some cases, it would be better, I think, to make a discovery than to pick a name.

MS KAREN HARVEY, an executive search consultant,onhowfame is not necessary for consideration of a top design post.

"If I were to point to any trends, it would be to achieve that relevance without losing the DNA. Does that mean we get asked often, 'Gee, who's the No. 2?' Yes. That comes up."

The question of succession is a pressing one for many major brands, not just labels with leaders d'un certain age (Karl Lagerfeld, of Chanel and Fendi, is in his 80s; Giorgio Armani, 81).

Even among young designers, turnover is a regular occurrence. No sooner had Peter Dundas, the former Emilio Pucci artistic director, arrived at Roberto Cavalli than the press, fuelled by a report in Page Six, began wondering aloud whether Phoebe Philo was planning to leave Celine.

The rumour mill went into overdrive, its usual and preferred speed. ("We do not comment on unfounded gossip," was all that Ms Annika McVeigh, a spokesman for Celine, would say, but current indications suggest that Philo is there to stay.)

One vacancy, at least, is sure: at Balenciaga, where Alexander Wang staged his final show last Friday. The company and Wang announced in July that they had elected not to renew their contract after its initial three-year term. Now the question is: Who comes next?

Fashion month, when large swaths of the industry come together and travel in pack formation for weeks on end, provides the perfect hothouse climate for the cultivation of rampant speculation. Popular opinion has settled on three key names, all of whom now run labels.

Chitose Abe, the Tokyo-based designer of Sacai, is a current favourite candidate - despite the fact that, via a spokesman (Abe speaks very little English), she said that she had not been contacted by anyone at Balenciaga. Julien Dossena, the promising young artistic director of Paco Rabanne and an alumnus of Balenciaga under Nicolas Ghesquiere, Wang's predecessor, has been frequently mentioned. So has Bouchra Jarrar, a fellow veteran of Ghesquiere's Balenciaga who designs her own collection of ready-to-wear and haute couture. A spokesman for Paco Rabanne, on behalf of Dossena, and Jarrar declined to comment.

But while gossip and media coverage tend to centre on those names that are already known, Michele's runaway success - at least as far as the critics are concerned, it is still too early to say decisively how the numbers will back him up - suggests that name recognition and a legion of ready fans are not key determinants of future achievement.

Within the design ranks of major fashion houses are designers whose handiwork may sell millions of dollars worth of clothing or accessories, designers whose names are never made public. Balenciaga is thought to be considering candidates with experience, either past or present, at the house.

Of special interest may be those design directors who have the job of overseeing pre-collections, lines that are typically not shown on the runway during major fashion weeks but that, despite their lower profile, can have an outsized retail impact: Stores may invest as much as 70 per cent of their seasonal budgets in pre-collections. (Peter Copping of Oscar de la Renta and Julie de Libran of Sonia Rykiel were first introduced to the public when they were allowed, unusually, to present the pre-collections they oversaw for Louis Vuitton during Marc Jacobs' tenure as artistic director.)

"Oftentimes the pre-collection can be the meat and potatoes of the brand," said Ms Mary Gallagher, a European associate at Martens & Heads, an executive search firm for the fashion and retail industries, "so it's good to know who that talent is."

Fame, Ms Harvey said, was not necessary for serious consideration. "No one's really asking for, 'Go get X name,'" she said. "In some cases, it would be better, I think, to make a discovery than to pick a name."

Ms Floriane de Saint Pierre, whose executive search consultancy, Floriane de Saint Pierre & Associes, is an adviser to the Kering Group, put it even more plainly. "Whether this person is known or unknown doesn't matter," she said. "Doesn't matter at all, at all, at all."

So while LVMH and Kering have, in recent years, selected designers with existing profiles for its top jobs - Jonathan Anderson of J.W. Anderson for Loewe, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School for DKNY and Wang for Balenciaga - such designers come with the logistical baggage of their own separate collections.

Wang's work on his Alexander Wang collection in New York put pressure on the teams at Balenciaga to work around his other commitments. He did not keep an apartment in Paris, preferring to stay at a hotel, and does not speak French.

Although others, like Anderson, who splits his time between London and Loewe's studio in Paris, continue to manage dual collections across country or continent lines, companies' tolerance for such divided attentions may eventually wane.

"Intellectually, it's feasible," Ms de Saint Pierre said, but "now I think there's a lot of pressure because the pace has become extremely fast. Probably it's going to become more and more difficult".

None of the executive recruiters interviewed said that they would dismiss a candidate with a line of his or her own out of hand and there are few ironclad rules governing what makes an appealing candidate, including prior experience (or lack thereof).

"A resume is a resume," Ms de Saint Pierre said - but a resume pales in comparison to an understanding of what she called the zeitgeist. And for that, she said: "There is no rule, fortunately or unfortunately."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 05, 2015, with the headline 'Waiting in the wings'. Print Edition | Subscribe