What luxury fashion brands want in a creative director - Vogue Business Talent (2023)

What luxury fashion brands want in a creative director - Vogue Business Talent (1)

© Jamie Stoker

Fashion

By Alexandra Mondalek

(Video) How to Break into the Fashion Industry with Alexa Chung | S1, E1 | Future of Fashion | British Vogue

07 Nov 2019

Headhunters are looking for candidates who can tap into the cultural zeitgeist and establish a brand vision that translates globally.

Key takeaways:

  • The role of the creative director has become more complex, evolving to include store strategy, social media and advertising campaigns, and global brand vision.
  • Recruiters recommend properly vetting internal talent and looking outside of the fashion industry for fresh perspectives.
  • After several years of rapid turnover, brands are now looking for candidates with staying power.

At American Vogue’s October Forces of Fashion conference, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing summed up the role of the modern-day creative director in conversation with Lynn Yaeger. His role no longer begins and ends with designing collections, he explained. Rather, he is responsible for developing and executing an all-encompassing vision for the Balmain brand, one that must resonate with clients and on social media, particularly Instagram, where Balmain has 10 million followers. Rousteing, who was hired in 2011 at age 25, has 5.6 million followers.

What Rousteing once lacked in industry experience, he has made up for with digital savvy, and his appointment was emblematic of a shift in the way creative directors are hired. Creative directors have always served as brand figureheads. But due to increased competition, new communication platforms and a more global consumer, modern creative directors are expected to conceptualise everything a brand stands for, including advertising campaigns, store design, social media strategy and brand collaborations.

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“Today, a creative director has to be someone who is not only good at creating collections and products,” says Valentina Maggi, head of design recruiting at Floriane de Saint-Pierre et Associés. “A creative director needs to be able to apply his vision to the tools [with which] the brand communicate[s] with the world.”

What luxury fashion brands want in a creative director - Vogue Business Talent (2)

Promoting from within

Maggi often instructs a fashion house to start the search for a new creative director internally. Existing design talent, she explains, may best understand the codes of a brand, helping to ease the transition.

Carolina Herrera creative director Wes Gordon, who assumed the role in 2018, joined the Herrera team first as a consultant after launching his own label. The experience afforded him direct access to Herrera, observing how she made design decisions and meeting her staff of 40 years.

“I think that was super special to come into the house and to be introduced into the house by the founder herself,” Gordon told Vogue Business in an interview earlier this year. “I cannot emphasise enough the importance of that towards the transition… to just spend time learning from her and sitting beside her every day for a year.”

To promote internal talent, brands must have systems in place that groom more junior-level employees for leadership. This requires planning on the part of both an existing creative leader as well as business leaders, both of whom can encourage deputies to be in rooms where ideas are brainstormed, and decisions are made, says Karen Harvey, whose eponymous consulting firm focuses on both executive recruitment, and professional development. Foresight is necessary to expose potential future talent to the necessary skills and processes of a creative director.

“Those people may not have product design in their background, but the future creative director won’t necessarily be the product designer,” says Harvey. “Maybe it will be someone with multiple skill sets that has a vision for product.”

Internal appointments can also lead to a stronger relationship between creative director and CEO, helping to ensure brand success. Alessandro Michele’s promotion from the accessories team at Gucci, a decision the Floriane de Saint-Pierre team consulted with CEO Marco Bizzarri about, put the brand on a path to hit €10 billion in annual revenue by 2020. According to Maggi, Michele was among a number of potential candidates considered for the role and was selected based on his vision for the brand. That vision, with the support of the C-suite, now guides the brand’s runway collections, store design and strategy, and overall creative aesthetic.

Regardless of whether candidates are promoted internally or recruited, finding a creative director who gels with the management side helps set up the entire team for success.

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“When a new talent is brought into the arena, the most crucial relationship is between the creative talent and business management,” says editor at Vogue International and fashion critic Suzy Menkes. “So much needs to be hammered out from the company’s image to the price level of fabrics to be used. Unless such basic decisions are made and accepted on both sides — creative and management — the transition will be a bumpy ride.”

Looking for external talent

An external search is the best route when a brand hasn’t established a proper framework for an internal promotion or is in need of a fresh perspective. Bringing someone in from the outside, however, requires detailed screening as well as more involved onboarding.

External candidates are typically assigned a project that requires them to outline their brand vision, ranging from how stores will look to what a ready-to-wear collection’s bestselling product might be, Harvey says. (When it comes to promoting internal talent, candidates may be asked to complete a similar project, although “it depends on the situation, the client and the experience of the internal candidate”, Harvey says.) This process helps both the brand and candidate determine whether a position is the right fit.

When Louis Vuitton appointed Off-White designer Virgil Abloh as men’s artistic director in 2018, coverage focused on his architectural design background as much as his tenure at Off-White. But LVMH executives also recognized Abloh’s hype-building and marketing prowess when they hired him, a move that has so far proven successful: Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke told WWD in January that Abloh’s Vuitton collection sold 30 per cent more in the first 48 hours than the brand’s collaborative collection with Supreme the year prior. (LVMH does not break out its sales by brand, but highlighted Louis Vuitton’s exceptionally strong growth in a recent analyst call.)

Harvey looks as much within fashion as she does other lifestyle spaces to recruit potential creative directors. Her searches can take her to organisations like Soho House and Aman Resorts, or sports-driven brands, she says. Non-fashion candidates are still expected to exhibit exceptional aesthetic taste, Harvey says, but the way they think about products and services can differ. They can introduce a fresh perspective to the fashion industry, which often runs the risk of feeling derivative.

When hiring from outside the fashion industry, it’s important to communicate during onboarding what has and hasn’t worked in the past, as well as regional nuances, manufacturing processes, and product and brand articulation, Harvey adds.

What luxury fashion brands want in a creative director - Vogue Business Talent (4)

Matchmaking

Ideally, a new creative director won’t alienate the brand’s existing customer base, instead catering to them while also widening the brand’s reach in other demographic and geographic areas, says Robert Burke, whose eponymous brand consulting and advisory firm clients include Chloé, Van Cleef & Arpels and Marc Jacobs. When Dior hired Maria Grazia Chiuri as creative director in 2016, the first-ever woman appointed to the role, the move served as a strong branding opportunity for the French house, says Burke.

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“She’s realised how important it is to connect to the customer, and she’s focused on that,” he says. Although Chiuri’s collections have met mixed critical reception, they’ve proven a commercial success with sales expected to increase 26 per cent in 2019 over the year prior, underscoring the importance of a creative director who understands the power of marketing and merchandising strategies.

As the creative director role demands an increasingly robust skillset, a top priority in hiring is finding talent that can have a lasting impression on a brand. Experts expect the rapid shuffling of creative directors in recent years will now slow down.

“Because of the amount of change and musical chairs of creative directors, the brands have stepped back in the last year or two and realised they really want to have more long-term commitments,” says Burke. “That kind of constant change or a change of a designer period causes a great deal of stress and fatigue at a brand. The less frequently that happens, the better.”

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