All Change

From the raising of hemlines to the release of an updated ‘summer’ edition of your favourite fragrance it is clear that Fashion – with a capital F – is all about the concept of change. As wryly noted by Oscar Wilde in the November 1887 edition of Woman's World, “and, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months” – we’re stubborn in finding the new in the now, more recently demanding that fresh-faced designers breath life into some of fashion history’s most eminent names.

We demand that these creators cut like Cristóbal Balenciaga and wax lyrical on screen like Karl Lagerfeld, partying hard with Kate Moss and dressing both Gaga and Michelle Obama the following morning. Add to this, the very contemporary stress brought on with the production of anything up to fourteen collections a year (whilst negotiating a host of critics, buyers and online pundits) and we begin to understand that the task is not an enviable one. In 1997, upon the shocking murder of Gianni Versace, it was his younger sister Donatella who took on all of her brother’s responsibilities, presenting her first solo show just three months after the tragedy yet, it took nearly ten years before critics accepted her vision. Spring/Summer 2006 is considered her breakthrough collection when a softer and lighter signature embalmed with Gianni’s glamazonian spirit emerged.

Looking around you begin to understand that we are part of a technically savvy generation that is numb to aesthetics, no longer capable of accepting ‘just’ a rail of artfully considered clothes – we’re eager for so much more. Creative direction from Christopher Bailey, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs have turned struggling fashion labels into household brands, feeding the publics continued obsession for all-things-fashion, thrusting the industry under a blinding, global spotlight.

The very public meltdown of respected designer John Galliano burst a bubble, which the fashion industry for so long, had remained safe inside and with that, the tragic suicide of Alexander McQueen only two weeks prior resulted in the mass media’s sharp focus onto a world that is fiercely protective. “There has been huge public interest in the fashion industry since these two tragic events and the charges that big corporations are gobbling up and spitting out creative talent,” considers David Watts, Designer Business Support Manager at the British Fashion Council. In the wake of McQueen’s death, the future of the label was widely debated in national and international press with Twitter rumours fervent in the run up to Sarah Burton’s announcement as McQueen’s successor in May 2010. In the same way, the social networks that vilified and brought the actions of John Galliano to the attention of the world’s media, very quickly became the place to discuss who should take his place next at the house of Dior.

The constant speculation is, as John Skelton, Creative Director of concept store LN-CC (Late Night Chameleon Café) tells, “…twisted. If you have any kind of understanding about something then you should be able to make you're own mind up about what’s actually going on, rather than taking some watered down version that is being broadcast by the media.” Yes, fashion has always been of vested public interest, without it, we have little chance for escapism within easy reach, however as Anna Wintour now appears on the cover of celebrity gossip magazines, Anna Dello Russo stars in advertising campaigns and as ex-Paris Vogue, Editor-in-Chief Carine Roitfeld releases her 386-page biography Irreverent this year – fashion’s superstars are now the public’s property.

“I don't think that the tragic loss of McQueen or what has happened to Galliano had a hugely negative affect on the way people see fashion,” shares Helen Seamons, Deputy Fashion Editor at the British newspaper, The Observer. “Although it would have been nicer to have fashion in the spotlight for happier reasons, the rest of the media have a tendency to either look down their nose at fashion or file it under frivolous. Perhaps the sad loss of a rare talent like McQueen has helped reshape the thinking on the realities of a ‘glamorous’ industry. Glamour comes with its own price tag.”

The absence of Christophe Decarnin at Balmain’s Autumn/Winter 2011 show - where he had been Creative Director for five years - fuelled rumours that the pressure to create another hit collection, pitted against creative differences with Balmain's owner M. Alain Hivelin about the direction of the brand, had reached their limit. Decarnin joined the company in 2005 after a high-speed turnover of designers, bringing the label right up to date with his rock-chic muse. Watts pauses, “it could be argued that when designers take up senior creative roles that they should fully understand the level of work that that job requires of them and their team.” In April, Balmain announced the appointment of Olivier Rousteing as its new designer. Raised in Bordeaux, Rousteing completed his fashion studies at Paris’s École Supérieure Des Arts et Techniques De La Mode (ESMOD) in 2003 and was previously working under Decarnin at Balmain since 2009. His first collection for the label will be Spring/Summer 2012.

Working daily with emerging design talent, it is clear to Watt’s that the landscape of fashion has changed and young designers have to prepare themselves. “Fashion has increasingly become a numbers game with large corporations and financial institutions buying fashion brands to add to their portfolios. This can be fraught with risk for emerging and newer designers...” he tells. Recent successors at the house of Vionnet, Carven, Hermès, Mugler, Paco Rabanne and Kenzo have adopted heritage and prestige, alongside the trial to create a fashion legacy that is authentic – and perhaps more challengingly – relevant. Watts warns, “large fashion houses can produce up to 14 collections a season and that can be an incredible volume of work and responsibility that many people would find incredibly pressured and stressful, so it is rather one-sided just to apportion blame to corporate institutions. It can also bring huge reward and fame.”

In January this year it was announced by its new owners that Cerutti would be showing its final womenswear collection for Autumn/Winter 2011 after appointing London based designer Richard Nicoll to the helm in October 2009. His third and final collection for the brand was – as Nicoll reported – his “strongest”, telling, "of course I would have preferred longer to make a success of the womenswear, but I'm grateful for the experience gained at Cerruti. It makes total sense to me that Li & Fung should focus solely on menswear as that's where their experience lies."

Six months later, the news that London Fashion Week’s wunderkind, Marios Schwab would be leaving his post as Creative Director at the American label Halston after only three seasons, revived the discussion that perhaps larger fashion brands are being run by people concerned only with money, caring little for creative vision. Since Roy Halston Frowick’s death in 1990, the rights to license and make Halston products have been bought and sold five times and seven fashion designers – including Schwab – as well as creative advisers including the stylist Rachel Zoe and the actress Sarah Jessica Parker, have failed to revive the label back to its once legendary status.

“There can be a lack of understanding on the part of the parent company or backer, whose drive is profit and not solely creativity. Designers also need to protect their own name and IP when entering into investment deals, which is complicated but doable as failing to do so and having equity partners who control more than 51% of the business could mean a designer losing their own name or rights to use their name if there is a parting of the ways with the investor or backer,” notifies Watts. In October 2005, designer Roland Mouret lost the right to use his name following a split over 'managerial differences' with his business partners, Sharai and André Meyers, the owners of Roland Mouret Ltd. and was forced to show his women's ready-to-wear collections in Paris under the label, 19RM.

Born in 1961 in Lourdes, the son of a French butcher emerged from the fashion scenes of Paris and London working as an artistic director, model and stylist, presenting his first collection during London Fashion Week in February 1998. It was in 2006 that Mouret entered into a new partnership with Simon Fuller’s 19 Entertainment enabling him to buy back his name and develop new collections such as his men’s line, Mr. Earlier this year he opened a flagship store and design HQ in London's Mayfair and was also announced as Creative Director of 30-year-old French footwear label, Robert Clergerie. “For so many people it’s such an important brand and held in the highest affection, as is Robert Clergerie himself,” he said, “this is a chance for me to work with a master on the art and craft of shoe design and to be part of the special relationship that women have with their shoes.”

“It’s essential for a designer to have an overall vision of more than just the collection,” reminds Skelton, “I think the days of just sticking a collection together and hanging it on a rail are well and truly over. I also think this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for young designers as I don’t think they realise the importance of this. It’s this stuff that really sets you apart if it’s well executed.”

But what does it take to be a successful designer? “I think it’s important to be a great designer first, a good business person (or have a trusted advisor or business partner) and I would imagine an awareness of how to translate the brand online. Dolce & Gabbana got this right way before the others,” says Seamons on point with the newly repackaged cult label, Mugler. Today directed by super stylist Nicola Formichetti, the Mugler brand is for a generation of erudite, web savvy, Tumblr-educated, fashion fanatics as images of the collection are shared online and through social networking sites leading up to the show. Formichetti is keen to change the way we see luxury by working as part of a collective, “rather than designing based solely on my opinion” he confides. With Lady Gaga as the brands show music director; he has employed two experienced designers. Sébastien Peigné, a 10-year veteran of Balenciaga is head designer of women’s while Romain Kremer looks after men’s, both taking inspiration from the extensive Thierry Mugler archives.

“The pressure is higher than ever, the speed that collections have to be turned around now, the pre-fall and resort collections and collaborations and exclusive pieces for the big retailers play a much bigger part than before,” discloses Seamons, eluding to the collective mood felt by the designers. “I am trying to keep a similar approach, as a sort of discipline whilst reinterpreting it in an up-to-date way,” shares Rodolfo Paglialunga on his work as Creative Director at Vionnet, one of the most revered fashion houses of the 20th century. “Vionnet is synonym of femininity but fashion now needs to be functional: at Madame Vionnet’s age fashion was mostly conceived as haute couture, while now fashion is strictly bound to the concept of ‘speed,’” he opines.

A lot of the clothes worn today can be accredited to the legacy of Madeleine Vionnet and the house she opened in 1912. The French born designer was responsible for both the bias cut and the handkerchief dress and after two flagged attempts at a revival in 2006 and 2007, the Vionnet label was sold to Matteo Marzotto in February 2009 and relocated to Milan where the baton was passed to Paglialunga, ex womenswear designer at Prada. “The main challenge I faced was to design a contemporary collection that bears the name of one of the most iconic designers since always. Creativity needs to be functional, developing wearable dresses that meet the clients’ taste.” The necessity to be contemporary is key. Any pressure felt by Paglialunga becomes his challenge. “To design Vionnet is every designer's dream, yet it can also be a hard challenge as you will be always compared to her. This is amazing as it really gives me more energy and ideas: I cannot afford to relax even when I sleep, as my dreams are often about her creative vision.”

When LVMH announced the appointment of Opening Ceremony founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim as Creative Directors of Kenzo in July 2011 the duo sent a clear message that they wanted to embrace their modish fans, "we are thrilled to take Kenzo, a source of great inspiration for us, into the future with our generation and the next in mind."

After setting up fashion and retail concept OC together in New York City in 2002, the duo are working to reinvigorate the ethos Kenzo Takada had when he arrived from Tokyo to Paris in 1964. The vision to create a youthful, colourful and energetic international brand – something that previous Creative Director of eight years, Antonia Marras didn’t sustain. The duo’s appointment is a shrewd one as they arrive at a well-respected fashion label with a degree of modern credibility, this generation wants to buy into. "Humberto and Carol will bring their fresh creative talent and innovative approach to Kenzo to rejuvenate this iconic brand,” declares Pierre-Yves Roussel, Chairman and CEO of the Fashion Division of LVMH. “I am confident that they will leverage the unique contemporary & lifestyle spirit of the brand to position it ideally for an ambitious development."

The duo aren’t the only new signings to the Parisian fashion circuit as similarly, the two relatively unknown designers behind the Belle Ninon label - which they founded in 2009 - Ling Liu and Dawei Sun replaced Belgian born Cédric Charlier at Cacharel after six seasons as head designer. Both completed art studies prior to entering the L'Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture, where they first met. Thirty-two year old Ling started her career in Nicolas Ghesquière's team at the Balenciaga studio, and then worked for Yves Saint Laurent, at Stefano Pilati's womenswear design studio and subsequently the menswear studio. Twenty-nine-year old Dawei spent the last five years in John Galliano's workshop and studio. Announcing in a statement that the company was “always in search of new talents,” the Chinese born duo will look after all lines, encompassing womenswear, childrenswear, menswear and accessories, presenting their first collection for Spring/Summer 2012.

The first day at any new job is stressful and the latest recruits trusted with maintaining the status of some of fashion history’s most feted designer names will be feeling the strain more than most. “You feel lots of pressure because it’s all on you, but people don't realise it’s a big team effort,” says designer Umit Benan, the newly appointed Creative Director of Italian label Trussardi. Replacing Milan Vukmirovic (who stepped down in March) Benan’s first collection shown during the menswear shows in June was important in introducing his concept for the brand going forward – “identity, a precise personality that was masculine and elegant.” Continuing his eponymous own brand he tells, “it is very hard when you have big pressure of sales from the companies, to impress the press. So that's why people have two collections today - show and commercial collections but some…very few…manage to do it all in one. Personally I do not have pressure, for me it’s all an excitement.”

In order to avoid the fate of their predecessors, these designers need a progressive vision, responsive to the reality that fashion is about more than just clothing. As Benan concludes, “I feel satisfied and I believe I have done what was most important, which was to bring power and identity to Trussardi men’s. But it can always be better.”

As published in METAL MAGAZINE N°25 AUTUMN 2011