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Designer vs Creative Director – leading roles in the industry

Craftmanship, handwork, and technical ability vs culture, consistency and vision. Might this be the difference between a designer and a creative director?

In his debut collection for Celine, Hedi Slimane re-elaborated the work he did for Saint Laurent and Dior Homme. He shapes his idea, whether it be produced for Dior, Saint Laurent or Celine, leaving little room to the identifying cues of each brand. Might this be the difference between a designer and a creative director? Anja Arankowsky Cronberg, who edits the magazine Vestoj, talks about staged authenticity in order to define an authenticity that, first, takes context and social dynamics into account, meaning that one can analyze the difference between one type of creativity that re-elaborates codes and contexts, and a creativity that disrupts any acknowledged reality. In 1955, Saint Laurent is Christian Dior assistant, and works on the dress Dovima wore in the famed photograph by Avedon, where she poses with elephants. When Dior dies in 1957, Saint Laurent is made creative director of the fashion house. His first two collections are faithful to Dior’s aesthetics and receive critical acclaim. His third introduces a beatnik style and is panned. Saint Laurent has a nervous breakdown and is notified of his redundancy in 1960, when he is deployed with the French Army in the Algerian war. Thanks to the support provided by his partner Pierre Bergé, and after a successful lawsuit against Dior, which brings him resources, he finally launches his label. We owe the invention of gender fluidity—now a buzzword in fashion and society—to Saint Laurent, who designed women’s tuxedoes, Le Smoking, and the saharienne, the safari jacket. Avant-garde becomes wearable, and his ready-to-wear expresses sexual freedom and female self-determination.

Much like Chanel is acknowledged as the one inventing 20th-century women’s fashion, Saint Laurent is seen as the one who spearheaded fashion without gender, race, or color distinctions. «The more the press criticized Yves Saint Laurent’s eagerness to provoke, the more the desire rose», writes Marilena Malinverni in these columns, Valentino declared that his archive would have been enough to create collections for years and years to come, but when, in 2008, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli become creative directors of the fashion house, the brand appears stuck in its own formality. Chiuri and Piccioli’s work combines studs, loaned from the punk movement, and full-length, fairy-tale-like skirts, a poetic and demure work of Roman craftsmanship. Their sleeves are long, necklines are modest, their shoes are flat, and their cuffs and collars are preppy. It takes few elements for Valentino to become covetable again, and appealable to a younger demographic.

Now, Piccioli has forgone the attitude he employed in those years when he and Chiuri worked as a creative duo, and has started resorting to some tropes: the volumes and the maximalism of Critobal Balenciaga, the desecrating irony that was Saint Laurent’s hallmark. This is why we find Undercover’s print on Balenciaga-style oversize coats, tshirts with VLTN written across, and baby-pink shoes with gold studs. He is a creative director who re-elaborates the legacy of two fashion designers. In 2016, Raf Simons is appointed creative director of all lines under the Calvin Klein umbrella. Vanessa Friedman from the New York Times defined it as «the greatest re-branding experiment of 21st-century American fashion». Calvin Klein left its imprint on the masses thanks to its jeans and its underwear, Its collective imagery had been defined by a heavily structured and strategized workflow: advertisements featuring a half-undressed Kate Moss and Kendall Jenner, chat transcripts from Tinder and Grindr, with photography by Mario Sorrenti and Melanie Ward. Whether this could work with Raf Simons, an intellectual designer hailing from the avant-garde school of Antwerp, the pupil of Linda Loppa, and a designer who heavily relies on the contamination with music, performance, and visual arts, was a legitimate concern. Sales plummet in less than two years.

Louis Vuitton Marc Jacobs
Marc Jacobs as creative director of Louis Vuitton, 2013

Simons’ involvement with Calvin Klein comes to an end, and the brand discontinues the ready-to-wear collections to focus on mass-market lines. Can we thus say that Simons was a designer, rather than a creative director? In 1997, Marc Jacobs shifts from grunge, flannel shirts to the creative direction of Louis Vuitton, then the leading and highest-grossing brand of high-end leather goods. Jacobs enjoys playing with the monogram: colorful prints, artist collaboration, and the introduction of contemporary speculation on media-addled society. In those years, we witness the birth of the Multicolor Monogram, the Cherry Blossom Monogram, the Cerise monogram—all blends of art and branding. In September 2013, Marc Jacobs stages a monochromatic runway show for Vuitton, all in black. All the elements that characterized Marc Jacobs’ work for the fashion brand are present—hotel hallways, a carousel, escalators that once models clad in optical-pop suits descended. Yet, this time it’s all in black.

The press notices how no look is presented alongside a handbag, which might be a subtle provocation at the usual retail strategy. The title of the runway show is Fade to Black. One should perhaps have paid better attention to the last look, modeled by Edie Campbell: sure, her bodysuit sported the script «I love Paris», but she completely wrapped in chains and shackles. Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton part as a mutual agreement, which allows Jacobs to entirely focus on his own brand, which is part of LVMH. Soon after, Business of Fashion reports that Marc Jacobs declared that he no longer understands what people want. The same article relates an opinion shared by critics, that the brand needs a strong creative direction that can make Jacobs’ vision appealable to the style department. So, would the former creative director of Louis Vuitton be in need of a creative director for himself? In this digression, which is far from comprehensive, all roads can’t help but lead to the case of Gucci. Before discussing Alessandro Michele, we should start from Tom Ford. Influenced by Texas, LA glam and NYC pop art, in 1988 he’s head of design at Perry Ellis, reporting to Marc Jacobs. Two years later, he moves to Italy to work at Gucci. Six months after being named head of the women’s collections, he takes over the men’s and accessories collections.

As Sarah Mower remembers in Vogue, in those years Gucci’s press office might have faced some issues in successfully inviting journalists to attend their fashion shows. In 1994, the general public learns Tom Ford’s name, as the harbinger of scandal at Gucci. His 90s aesthetics can be summarized as follows: the sensual, white dresses from ’95, his ’96 fashion show featuring extremely short dresses for women and skin-tight and patent-like suits for men, g strings peaking out of trousers. It’s an aesthetic that Ford took beyond the catwalk, in ad campai- gns, in collaborations with Carine Roitfeld and Mario Testino. Ten years after Ford’s appointment, Gucci is worth billions. The designer is the same as when journalists were begged to attend the fashion shows. Ford’s focus on sex and Michele’s focus on art might appear antithetical, but they both evoke the 1970s: Studio 54 for Ford, the subcultures for Michele. Michele does quote Ford: in his AW 2015 show, Molly Blair wears a teal satin shirt, black pants and a belt with the double G logo—a testimony to the Tom Ford era, when, ten years before, Kate Moss wore the exact same outfit.

Gucci Tom Ford
Gucci AW 1994 by Tom Ford

The genderless vibe that characterizes Michele’s fashion show is a contemporary reinterpretation of Tom Ford’s androgyny. The Gucci 1996 campaign featured Georgina Grenville and Ludovico Benazzo embracing, and they both wore identical pinstripe suits. Now, Michele has ethe- real female models and ephebic male models walks side by side. What these two creatives have in common—whether designers or creative directors—is the vision of the brand. Going beyond fashion, they propose some ideals and communicate throughout all possible channels, from the flagship stores— temples of minimalism in Ford’s era and maximalist boudoirs in Michele’s era—to the product packa- ging to the shows’ set designs. What worked 20 years ago works to this day. Michele had been working for Gucci for 13 years before being appointed creative director. It only took Ford four years.

Alessandro Michele applied for his current position with a moodboard without images of clothes. It’s 2014: Frida Giannini, the creative director since 2009, just left. Michele had been working for Gucci since 2002, first under Tom Ford, then alongside Alessandra Facchinetti, and then as associate creative director to Frida Giannini. He is also at the helm of Richard Ginori, a label acquired by Gucci and part of Kering since 2013. The CEO of the group, François Henri Pinault, told Business of Fashion how Michele got his position at Gucci. He started from the fact that the company needed innovation because its heritage and legacy were no longer enough to sustain it. For this purpose, Pinault had appointed Marco Bizzarri as the new CEO, and both of them agreed that they did not want a known name at the helm of Gucci. Bizzarri meets all team members in person. Among those is Michele, who tells him that he’s interested in the position. During the interview with Pinault, Michele talks about everything but clothes and accessories. He talks about what he likes and what gets him excited.

His knowledge of the brand is encyclopedic. Michele is appointed creative director one week prior to the men’s fashion show. All the fashion world wonders is ‘Alessandro Who?’. Instead of using the collection that Giannini had already worked on, he decides to start fresh: he creates 36 looks in five days. He uses the last two to organize the fashion show. There isn’t the faintest trace of the sleek elegance perfected by Tom Ford and continued by Giannini. Pinault relates that this experience changed his idea of creative direction. «People remain trapped in the attempt to reproduce that same dna: a brand, per se, is not a style. Rather, it’s made of symbols, icons». Gucci’s revenue experiences a 44% increase. It’s a universe of intellectual and victorian cyborgs. Alessandro Michele knows what he likes and decides that that’s what the rest of the world might like. His strategy consists of disruption, and in the act of communicating said disruption. With a brand, a museum, a restaurant, a podcast and icons such as Jared Leto, Lana del Rey and Florence & The Machine, everybody wants Gucci’s chunky sneakers. Everybody wants to be Gucci.