Do brands really need creative directors?
Recently, designers such as Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Hedi Slimane at Celine have reimagined that title to wield all-encompassing power over the aesthetic direction of a luxury house. But at the same time an alternate school of thought — one notably more fluid and flexible — has emerged.
Think of it as Collaborations 3.0.
At Moncler, no fewer than six guest designers and two in-house labels created capsule collections that were introduced in February and then dropped by month, in a kind of fashion calendar: Craig Green for August! Simone Rocha for September! Pierpaolo Piccioli for October! At Tod’s, one-off capsule collections by guests are going to be released sporadically to complement catwalk shows designed by an in-house team. Baccarat, the crystal manufacturer, has enlivened its glassware via a series of accessory collaborations. And Helmut Lang went so far as to create an “editor in residence,” a curator charged with luring — if only for a season or less — a network of designers in residence or photographers in residence.
The advantages are obvious: the ability to offer disparate products to reach a variety of consumers, with less risk to the parent brand and less investment in monolithic names. There’s strength in numbers. The downside, however, could be a lack of creative cohesion and a blurred public image.
“With one creative director, you talk to one generation,” said Remo Ruffini, chief executive of Moncler, whose Moncler Genius collaborations replaced its seasonal lines Gamme Bleu (designed by Thom Browne) and Gamme Rouge (designed by Giambattista Valli).
“The strategy was that we have one strong jacket, so let’s try to attract every generation to it,” Mr. Ruffini said. “I chose designers based on that idea: a designer who can talk to kids who are 15 or 20 years old, one who is more conceptual, one who does haute couture.
“Luxury can become a bit boring,” he added, “so you have to create content every month, every week. That’s what my customer wants.”
In the first half of 2018, Moncler’s revenue was up 27 percent year-on-year, reaching 493.5 million euros, or $561.5 million. Mr. Ruffini acknowledged that the Genius project represented less than 5 percent of overall sales, but he attributed the company’s growth to the project’s success. “The goal is not to make it 20 percent of our business,” he said. “The goal of Genius is to increase the people coming to our store every day, so that they understand what is going on in there. The number is not as important as everyone thinks.”
The Italian leather house Tod’s, best known for its Gommino loafers, also has transitioned from a single creative director with its Factory project, a platform inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory studio and conceived to allow the brand to collaborate with designers and artists on capsule collections that won’t be tied to fashion seasons, for release throughout the year. The first collaborator was Alessandro Dell’Acqua, creative director of Rochas and founder of the contemporary label No. 21 — and his collection, which included a pink leather trench coat, was presented in October during Paris Fashion Week.
“The world is changing so fast,” Diego Della Valle, Tod’s chief executive, said in an interview at the time. “We want to remain dedicated to offering high-quality Italian luxury products, but we also know we need to move with the times and find new clients.”
What Moncler, Tod’s and others have in common is that their businesses were built on classic products that transcend seasons: Moncler, its puffa jackets; Tod’s, its leather driving shoes with pebbled soles; Helmut Lang, its jeans; Baccarat, its crystal. Such products provide the base of the sales pyramid, allowing executives to layer atop the buzzy spectacle pieces that fashion magazines photograph but perhaps only a handful of people actually buy.
“As a brand, you want extreme loyalty,” said Daniela Riccardi, chief executive at Baccarat, which recently produced jewelry designed by Lorenz Bäumer, a lamp by Philippe Starck and a chandelier by Marcel Wanders as one-off collaborations. “You need a good combination of timeless, evergreen pieces, as well as newness, which can be completely out of the box.”
Ms. Riccardi said she worked closely with an artistic coordinator, rather than a creative director: “Because we work with so many artists and designers, her job is to help me coordinate them and make sure there is a consistency.”
As designers continue to enter and exit the rapidly revolving doors of luxury fashion houses, temporary partnerships may appear to be a safer, financially conservative bet. Newly appointed creative directors are increasingly known to shake things up, whether that’s changing the name or logo of a house, redesigning its stores, ushering in a completely new aesthetic — or all three. By engaging with a network of what are effectively freelance creative directors, brands like Baccarat and Moncler tap skills without ceding control of the overall business.
This is a clear evolution of the limited-edition collaborations that have long existed between catwalk designers and mass-market and sportswear retailers. H&M was one of the early pioneers in 2004, introducing a collaboration with Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel’s revered creative director.
As the years passed, other blue-chip names followed: Maison Martin Margiela, Stella McCartney, Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons, Lanvin, Marni, Jimmy Choo and Versace (twice). The list goes on, recently including Kenzo, Erdem Moralioglu and, earlier this month, Jeremy Scott for Moschino.
For H&M, a company without an instantly recognizable creative lead, success was less about sales and more about brand impact, fashion kudos and images of seriously excited fans in sleeping bags waiting outside its stores. For the designers, the collaborations offered major marketing exposure and distribution for lower-priced luxury goods such as cosmetics, fragrance or accessories — as well as significant paydays from the Swedish retailer.
Similarly, giants such as Nike and Adidas have been working with athletes, performers and fashion designers across hundreds of categories for years, never embracing the idea of a single creative leader. “Collaboration is at the heart of the Nike process,” said John Hoke, Nike’s chief design officer.
Athletes aside, in the last year alone, Nike also has introduced fashion-conscious collaborations with Virgil Abloh of Off-White, Kim Jones of Dior Men, Comme des Garçons and Matthew Williams of Alyx. Collaborations with Yoon Ahn of the Tokyo streetwear brand Ambush and the London-based men’s wear designer Martine Rose will be introduced later this year.
At Adidas, Torben Schumacher, general manager of Adidas’ Originals, said, “We collaborate with creatives that have a certain vision or have the capability to do something that without them we couldn’t do ourselves.” That has included Kanye West, Raf Simons, Alexander Wang, Rick Owens, Gosha Rubchinskiy, the skateboard brand Palace and Junichi Abe of Kolor.
“We’ve seen that the right collaboration drop can send customers into a frenzy,” Katy Lubin, communications director at the fashion search engine Lyst, said, “causing huge spikes in search for both brands involved, and then often also a lingering halo effect of increased demand on both sides.”
Little wonder the arrangement seems set to continue. Indeed, Mr. Hoke said he thought collaboration was still in its infancy, and its ultimate expression would be a collaboration between the brand and the individual consumer.
Mr. Ruffini of Moncler echoed the idea that this is just the beginning of an era. “Five years ago, Instagram didn’t exist in our business and now it’s one of the biggest challenges,” he said. “You have to stay tuned to the market and do something more appropriate for the next five years.”
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