The rapid pace of fashion isn’t new. An overabundance of shows, sets, ad campaigns and locations have inundated industry insiders for more than a decade. But other than widespread burnout, it may have produced another unintended consequence: the rise of the creative director.
Once, there were simply designers, but as the sheer number of collections exploded at the start of the new millennium–Burberry is known to produce dozens of small collections throughout the year to keep stock fresh–it became impossible for one person to shoulder the heavy design responsibilities. Though the presence of design assistants is not unusual when looking back at the history of fashion, now those at the helm often oversee many designers, each of increasing specialization. And this change has fundamentally altered the fashion business.
During the twilight of Halston’s career in the early 80s, the icon painstakingly designed every single item that bore his name, from bathrobes to suitcases to the finest ready-to-wear, refusing to delegate to assistants. The taxing work only added to the terrible effects of the drug addiction that was a huge factor in ending his career. Halston was among the first celebrity designers, and the massive ballooning of his business would foreshadow the need for creative directors in an increasingly corporate fashion landscape, one propelled ever-faster by the proliferation of digital technology.
Today, top designers such as J.W. Anderson actively reject the title of ‘designer’, claiming the moniker of ‘creative director’ instead. However, the shifting vocabulary is not merely a matter of semantics. It suggests curating rather than creating, perhaps necessarily considering the volume, and while it gives them oversight of the clothes, it also allows for heavy input in store designs, packaging and cosmetics all on a global scale, as Hedi Slimane’s time at Saint Laurent recently demonstrated.
Yet, this level of input has lead to a troubling development that the industry seems unable to solve as of yet. What to do when a creative director who was instrumental in establishing this infrastructure exits a company over differences in vision or is pushed out by the top brass? Dior is in just such a quagmire. Raf Simons left the storied couture house after a short tenure citing the extreme workload as his primary rationale. It didn’t take long for rumors to begin circulating that it was also his limited control over the brand’s image that compelled him to depart. Even a cursory analysis could make an observer understand why. The famous J’Adore perfume ads, Lady Dior handbags, and boutique interiors were all relics of the label’s prior creative director, John Galliano, and all fundamentally out of alignment with Simons’ aesthetic.
The world’s major fashion brands hold tremendous power, but without a focused head to steer them, they turn into mausoleums, temples to needless consumption. Today, that leader must be one with a keen understanding of what he or she has to say about fashion on a macro level. An oxymoron though it may be, luxury has gone mass in ways unimaginable in the golden era of couture. Whatever the chosen title, can the leadership of today usher us into the future like the great designers of the past?’
With the collective conscious in a flux of focus, it will be hard to understand exactly what the short-term implications are. The industry itself seems unsure of how to execute its collective next steps. It may take creatives like Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air to lead the way as they seek new avenues to evolve ideas from the past to challenge how we perceive ourselves in the present.