Last week the fashion industry brought us not one but two record-time partings. Rhuigi Villaseñor, the creative director of Rhude, left Bally, a Swiss shoemaker, after less than a year and a half at its helm, only to be outdone by Ludovic de Saint Sernin, who was ousted from a cult favorite Ann Demeulemeester after showing just one collection. Their exits raise a host of questions, about a proper fit between creative directors and brands they are hired for, about the relationship between business and creative, and most importantly about hype.
In recent years we have seen a slew of appointments of creative directors whose main criteria seems to be their high media profile. It began with Louis Vuitton hiring Virgil Abloh to design its menswear in 2018, while moving Kim Jones, fresh off the explosive LV x Supreme collaboration, to Dior Homme. That marriage worked for several reasons: Abloh was given a mandate to basically do what he did at Off-White™, that is design luxury streetwear, a virtually unlimited budget to put on spectacular shows, and serious marketing muscle and managerial support from LVMH. Meanwhile, Kim Jones was doing the same at Dior Homme, where he turned the brand into a formidable collab machine.
It seems that Abloh’s and Jones’s success was misinterpreted and that some fashion executives drew the conclusion that a creative with a large social media following and attention from the fashion media is all that’s needed to rejuvenate a brand. It opened the floodgates of hype appointments – Matthew Williams at Givenchy, NIGO at Kenzo, Pharrell at Louis Vuitton, Maximilian Davis at Ferragamo, and the two above. Fast forward to today and some of those same executives are realizing that they have made costly mistakes and that hype does not necessarily translate into critical and commercial success.
Villaseñor’s appointment to Bally seemed like an especially egregious misalliance. One is a maker of California streetwear, the other is a storied European luxury leather house. The appointment of Saint Sernin, who is known for his aggressively sexy designs, at Demeulemeester, a brand whose DNA rests on a romantic, attenuated sensibility was also a mismatch. Neither was equipped to lead the brands they were appointed to – they had neither the experience nor the sensibility required, nor, judging by their output, the desire to learn the house codes. On the other hand, one must also ask whether they were given a fair chance and the necessary support and guidance by the management. It seems that today some brands operate like record labels – instead of growing an artist, they require immediate hits, and if those don’t materialize quickly, the artist gets dropped.
We have been here before. Villaseñor and Saint Sernin join an illustrious club of disastrous hype appointments such as the erstwhile streetstyle darling Justin O’Shea at Brioni and the pop singer Lindsay Lohan at Ungaro. Both were flash-in-the-pan hires for which brands took reputational hits. It seems that today we are simply at the end of another round.
What brands need to understand is that hype appointments rarely work. Even the mighty Rhianna’s Fenty line of clothing with LVMH did not work, whereas her cosmetics line has taken off. The Pharrell appointment may prove successful, but only for the reasons stated above; his mandate is to make luxury streetwear for men, which he knows how to do, and which is not nearly as hard as designing a proper womens fashion line.
Perhaps Louis Vuitton’s success in turning a fancy luggage-maker into a full-fledged fashion juggernaut set unrealistic expectations for the rest of the industry. But that does not mean that similarly positioned brands should follow. Do grownup luxury players like Bally, and for that matter Ferragamo, where Davis’s output so far has been uneven, need to be remade into fashion brands? Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana seem to be doing just fine catering to the 1%, as they have always done, especially with the whole purported “quiet luxury” revival.
Whatever the future holds, one thing is clear; brand managers will have to learn some lessons anew with regards to whom they appoint as creative directors. It is too easy to say the system is broken when it’s pulling in record-breaking amounts of money each year. But some brands will have to reassess their values and realize that hype is no substitute for talent. One solution is to go back to hiring or promoting fashion designers who know how fashion works (see: Matthieu Blazy at Bottega Veneta, Pieter Muilier at Alaia, Phoebe Philo at LVMH, and, hopefully, Peter Do at Helmut Lang) and giving them a proper set of resources – managerial and marketing – that will allow them to do their best. Fashion will be better off for it.