What makes a great fashion designer?

Image credit: Yves Saint Laurent

When Alber Elbaz was dismissed from Lanvin earlier this year, the fashion world was in uproar: the thought of such an established fashion house losing what had been the driving force behind it for the last fourteen years was momentous. This news broke just days after Raf Simons announced his departure from Dior, and in the following months resignations and new appointments at some of the most famous brands came thick and fast. September saw Anthony Vaccarello starting at YSL, Jonathan Saunders at DVF, and of course Bouchra Jarrar replacing Elbaz at Lanvin. 

For the new creative directors, it must be the biggest challenge of their lives to take on the responsibility of these houses: after all, they come with an impressive legacy, expectant customers, and a worth of millions (if not billions). But how does one go about creating longevity for a brand in the world of fashion, notorious for its fleeting opportunities for fame and glory, its ever-changing opinions, and its relentless demand for the new and exciting? Does it take commitment to a static aesthetic? Or does it require constant innovation to really establish a brand?

It is probably best to start with the King of Fashion, Karl Lagerfeld. The creative director of Chanel and Fendi (to name just two of his ventures) is the epitome of longevity in the industry. Despite taking over Chanel over thirty years ago, he has never lost sight of Coco's very specific aesthetic. But although there being not even a shadow of a doubt that he has stayed loyal to her philosophy, it would be impossible to say that he lacks originality on the runway. Lagerfeld has managed to create a fluidity in the brand which means he can manipulate and experiment with Chanel’s ground rules in a way that allows him to stay true to the brand without becoming boring, repetitive or passé.

When you think of any well-established fashion house, you probably think of a particular look or product: Valentino’s rock studs, Gucci’s floral print, Burberry’s trench coats. They are unique to each brand and epitomise its philosophy, as marketable as they are memorable. But nowadays, especially with the rise of social media, our opinions change faster and trends have become ever more ephemeral: this makes originality a rare thing to come by for a designer.

Fashion will always be a form of expression, but it is ultimately anchored, for better or for worse, by customer demand. That is not to say that a designer should not always be striving to innovate. In many ways the customers are buying into the designer themselves. It would make sense then to see the aesthetic of the clothes change over the years, just as the personal style, perspective and inspiration of the designer changes.

Nevertheless, there is something enticing and awe-inspiring about a brand that manages to maintain an aesthetic for longer than just one season – it speaks to the timelessness of its creations. Moderation is needed when ‘reinventing’ a brand’s image, because overstepping the mark is a very real risk. Take YSL: originally named after its creator, its rechristening as ‘Saint Laurent Paris’ (under Hedi Slimane) caused a significant backlash, not least because it meant the legendary logo was also changed. This was a logo that had epitomised the brand for many years, and become a universal symbol of the YSL philosophy. Needless to say, the recent change back to the fashion house’s original name was welcomed with open arms – in many ways the YSL legacy had been restored.

As is often the case in the fashion industry, there doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule to follow in order to attain the kind of success designers dream of. But it is clear that a designer who can balance the demands of the industry and still leave space for innovation, stands the best chance of crafting the durability, success and fame to withstand the uncompromising winds of change that are constantly at work within the world of fashion.

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