When Ann Demeulemeester departed her label late last year, some of her devotees spoke about the end of an era. They wondered out loud whether they would purchase another garment with the tag that bears the designer’s name. This summer in Paris the label showed an undeniably strong men’s collection, but when Demeulemeester’s former menswear assistant, Sebastian Meunier, came out to take the final bow I could not shake off the lightning bolt of cognitive dissonance, even though I knew that Demeulemeester has been quietly preparing her departure for a while now and that her assistants were being given more creative control.
The question of succession has certain uniqueness when it comes to fashion because it is the only creative discipline where the name of the creator is also the name of the brand and the company. When an artist stops making art, a writer stops writing, a band stops making music, no one can take over under their name. Not so in fashion. And as contemporary fashion has gained its own history, we have seen a slew of designers exiting their own brands, sometimes under most unsavory circumstances. What is most surreal is that only in fashion there may come a point when the designer, the author of the garments, can no longer put her name on them. When you can cleave the designer from the brand, the question “What’s in a name?” takes on a whole new meaning.
At the beginning of this century the fashion world was fast becoming the fashion industry. The likes of Bernard Arnault of LVMH, Francois-Henri Pinault of Kering, Patrizio Bertelli of Prada, and Renso Rosso of Diesel busied themselves building fashion empires. After buying up storied but dusty houses like Gucci and Givenchy, these businessmen looked to the cutting edge designers such as Helmut Lang, Jil Sander, and Maison Martin Margiela. The difference was that these designers’ personalities and their design ethos gained them cult following and made them seemingly inseparable from their brands. Lured by lucrative deals and the promises of retaining creative control, these designers were only too happy to sell their companies.
Soon enough, however, all of them were ousted or left, often citing clashes over creative control as reasons for their departure. Jil Sander left twice, and Helmut Lang was ousted. Margiela lasted the longest and left quietly, as befitted a designer who prided himself on anonymity. Now came Demeulemeester’s turn, though she chose the retirement route.
The question here is not whether the corporations are evil and the designers are victims, but how these dealings affect fashion at large. Can you truly replace a creator? And what happens to the designer’s ethos and creativity of the label? Does the brand matter more than the designer? In a sense, do designers create something larger than themselves?
The case is pretty clear for the likes of Gucci and Dior, old houses that have been retooled for the modern times. When Tom Ford was ousted from Gucci in 2004, its parent company, Kering, sent a clear message – the brand matters more than the designer, no matter how famous he is. But these brands make most money through perfumes, accessories, and bags, hammered into consumers’ minds by ubiquitous advertising. Fashion they produce matters less. Brands that are more intertwined with their original designers often do not fare as well. This is particularly the case of Jil Sander and Helmut Lang, the queen and king of minimalism that were bought and then quickly flipped by Prada.
The Jil Sander label has been floundering since Raf Simons left, garnering neither critical acclaim nor doing well financially. Helmut Lang went from high fashion avant-garde to a contemporary brand, now owned by Uniqlo. Two major losses, as far as fashion with the capital “F” is concerned.
It seemed that Maison Martin Margiela has done better. Margiela stayed on as the creative director for some years, putting out critically acclaimed collections. The ethos of anonymity and the accent on teamwork seemed to be tailor made for a smooth succession. But then, in 2012, after Margiela left, came the collaboration with H&M, G-Shock, and Converse, three of the most pedestrian mass-market brands. Though commercially lucrative, these collaborations damaged the perception of the label that was traditionally associated with the fashion avant-garde.
What will happen at Ann Demeulemeester without the designer herself remains to be seen. Will the hardcore fans leave? Will there be enough customers left (and new ones gained) who care only for the look and the image? So far the brand has hewn closely to the designer ethos, which is the best we can hope for.
Fashion, if it is to remain fashion, needs original voices that provide creative diversity. This diversity is what keeps fashion exciting and healthy. Without it, fashion goes from a thrilling spectacle to a polished but dull Hollywood movie. This is what’s currently happening on the catwalks, and one can only hope that a new generation of designers will fill the creative void. A word of caution to them – think twice before you sell your company. After all, it bears your name.
(The original version of this article appeared in issue 4 of Them magazine in Japan.)