There was a time when the apparel business was starkly divided into two opposite segments and the thriving billion dollar industry, as we know it today, hardly existed.
Extravagant fashion clothing was reserved for an exclusive class, the only ones who could really afford the work of couturiers like Charles Frederick Worth and Jeanne-Marie Lanvin. The remaining public used to buy practical clothes at affordable prices from small merchants, with a lot of people even stitching their own garments.
However, as we entered the 90s and an era of workwear banker suiting ended, fashion became more commodified and designers began cashing in their established brand names by selling everything from fragrances to accessories. Fast-fashion was also born in coherence with the massive new demand for a fashionable everyday wardrobe.
The idea of fashion as a revered craft started veering closer towards business and big turnovers. The infamous ‘mad creative genius’ was now accompanied by his eloquent business partner.
There is no better proof of this partnership than Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé of the now Kering-owned luxury house Saint Laurent. While Laurent, who started designing at the age of 21, is known for his revolutionary ‘hippie de luxe’ fashions, his work would not have reached the heights that it did without Bergé’s far-sighted understanding of the market.
Bergé persuaded Laurent to create luxury prêt-à-porter, a concept unheard of from heritage fashion houses of the time. Together, they listed the label on the Paris Bourse and became the first fashion firm on the French Stock Exchange in 1989.
Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti; Calvin Klein and Barry K. Schwartz; Marc Jacobs and Robert Duffy; Miuccia Prada and Patrizio Bertelli, the list of fashion co-founders is common to almost all successful labels active today.
It is safe to say that the industry is no stranger to the importance of a simpatico relationship between the CEO and the Creative Director (CD). However, it has always been the designer who enjoyed the limelight and served as the brand’s exclusive ambassador. This idea, however, might soon be going for a toss as the new generation of fashion executives is now enjoying just as much attention for driving the businesses forward, if not more.
A perfect example of this wind of change is none other than Marco Bizzari, the celebrated President and CEO of Italian heritage house Gucci. Bizzari took the lead at Kering-owned Gucci in 2015 and his first major strategic decision was the appointment of Alessandro Michele as the house’s Creative Director from within the team.
Ever since the duo came together, the brand has started speaking in a whole new design vernacular to target the millennial shopper and it has definitely paid off if you look at the profits. In 2017, Gucci reported its strongest growth in the last 20 years with 51 per cent increase in their first quarter sales.
While there is no argument that a lot can be attributed to Michele’s ingenuity but Gucci’s smart stratagem has played just as crucial of a role in the process. The brand embraced the power of collaborations before it became a norm, starting with artist Helen Downie aka Unskilled Worker for a Fall 2015 exhibition in Shanghai up to their most recent Spring 2018 campaign imagery created by Spanish painter Ignasi Monreal.
Bizzari revealed in a recent interview that he has a shadow team of millennial advisors that steers many of his business moves and it seems like their counsel has been on point so far. The future of fashion lies in creative collaboration and crunching the right numbers at the right time.
As we go forward, brands might choose to entirely forgo the creative director post in favour of smart business heads who can strategically employ communities of artists, influencers and creators from all over the world to create socially engaged products.
To understand this model, we need not look any further than H&M’s latest initiative, Nyden. The new millennial-focused brand from the Swedish retailer is a result of extensive research on how brand communication and product development will change in the coming years.
Nyden is the brainchild of Oscar Olsson, who joined H&M as a data analyst in 2013 and soon became the Head of its Innovation Lab. If his team’s predictions are to be believed, the new Gen-Y and Gen-Z consumers care more about credibility and authenticity than ever before. He went on to add, “In this future society, as any brand or any kind of provider of anything, you need to embrace the fact that the power is not in your hands. The power has shifted to the tribes.”
This idea proposed by Olsson’s team at H&M falls right in line with the 2018 forecasts predicting personal creativity and individual freedom to flourish in focused groups. These modern tribes will come with ‘tribe leaders’ who will have the power to change their clan’s directions.
Another similar illustration of such a shakeup was the appointment of Isabella Burley (Editor-in-Chief of Dazed & Confused magazine) as Helmut Lang’s editor-in-residence by CEO Andrew Rosen. When Lang himself left his label in 2016, the brand somehow lost all appeal, so Rosen’s decision to do away with the CD position was a bold choice. The brand announced that Burley will oversee their editorial direction while the clothes will be designed through a designer residency programme, also to be handled by Burley. The first such collaboration was with street wear favourite Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver who created their Spring/Summer 2018 collection recently to much applause.
Both of these projects are just a tipping of an iceberg that is about to break off come 2018. Even though all will not change overnight but seeing the Creative Directors musical chair all through 2017, it will not be a big surprise if major fashion houses see a complete structural relaunch soon at every level.