Virgil Abloh broke the mold in terms of the skills a creative director can – and should – possess.
According to Valérie Berdah-Levy, director of the Parisian school of the Istituto Marangoni.
Equally popular is Japanese streetwear pioneer Nigo, now creative director of Kenzo. Berdah-Levy explained that he is a multi-hyphen with tentacles that stretch into music production, industrial or graphic design, and DJing, as Abloh has also done.
“Students love multi-creative minds and talents who aren’t just fashion designers, but have many passions,” she said.
Ditto for recruiters: Headhunters say fashion houses are increasingly looking for creative leaders who have the attention of the internet, an enviable creative network and the ability to inspire a community.
They point out that terrific design chops and industry buzz remain important attributes for landing top jobs in fashion. And they note that second-in-command designers often have the inside track, as evidenced by the recent appointment of Matthieu Blazy to succeed Daniel Lee at Bottega Veneta.
But there is no doubt that cultural influence and ties are increasingly important attributes in fashion.
Take for example the artist Daniel Arsham, who recently launched his own clothing and accessories brand Objects IV Life, after several collaborations with Kim Jones at Dior. He has 1.3 million followers on Instagram.
According to Floriane de Saint Pierre, founder and director of Floriane de Saint Pierre & Associés, brands today must be influential on social networks to lead the game.
“With social networks, and the acceleration of their use due to COVID[-19] lockdowns and travel restrictions, we live more than ever in the attention economy, where attention has become a scarce commodity, therefore has value,” she explained in an interview. “Without attention, brands cannot create desires, and therefore sell neither dreams nor products.”
De Saint Pierre noted that today’s creative directors may possess a variety of skills in order to engage consumers.
According to her, they can come from a background and training in more classic fashion – such as Phoebe Philo, Demna at Balenciaga or Maximilian Davis, recently appointed at Salvatore Ferragamo – or they can come from other creative fields.
Examples of largely self-taught fashion entrepreneurs include Nigo, a record producer and DJ who created the A Bathing Ape and Human Made brands before joining Kenzo; Teddy Santis, who passed on his love of the 90s New York hip-hop scene and basketball culture to the growing brand Aimé Leon Dore, and Tremaine Emory, who is beloved for his storytelling and who traversed several industries before founding Denim Tears and taking on a creative role at Supreme.
De Saint Pierre calls them all “catalysts of an ambitious company” and leaders of inspiring brands whose customers “feel part of a community of values to which they want to belong”.
“Needless to say, the product should represent such values, and as soon as it becomes too obvious or too commonplace, the influential community turns to other brands,” she added.
Certainly, many acclaimed and famous fashion designers over the past 50 years have been largely self-taught, including Karl Lagerfeld, Miuccia Prada, Vivienne Westwood and Manolo Blahnik, or have come from other fields such as architecture, studied by people like Pierre Cardin and Gianfranco Ferré.
But the advent of social media has changed the dynamics of the industry, allowing creatives to interact directly with their audiences, rather than through gatekeepers such as publishers and retailers. At the same time, brand purpose, values and messages have become important qualities alongside aesthetics and design.
Abloh also has a background as a famous architect, and Off-White has chosen designer and editor Ibrahim Kamara as his de facto successor.
Editor-in-chief of Dazed magazine, Kamara has been part of the Off-White family for years, styling the brand’s runways. Prior to taking the executive role at Dazed, he produced editorials for magazines like iD, System, Vogue Italia and Another, drawing attention to rich visual storytelling that weaves high fashion with diverse cultural references and questions. on gender and identity.
Kamara has 246,000 followers on Instagram.
Celebrity entourages can’t be ignored either.
Nigo’s debut show for Kenzo last January helped the brand earn $6.6 million in media impact value and rank among the top three most impactful shows of Paris Fashion Week, after Louis Vuitton in first place and Dior second, according to Launchmetrics charts. “The show’s star-studded front row generated immense media buzz, with various hip-hop artists such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams and Tyler the Creator being mentioned in over 50% of brand-related placements,” said the data and information society. Noted.
Emma Davidson, chief executive of London-based search firm Denza Limited, said her clients demand influence – even influencers – for creative research.
“I got this specifically from a big Italian luxury house: ‘We want someone like Olivier Rousteing. Not his job, but his profile – on Instagram, photos with all the hot girls, always buzzing, at the right parties. We want hype. That was about eight years ago,” Davidson shared, referring to the creative director of Balmain, who has 8.3 million followers on Instagram and 737,000 on TikTok. “Since then, it has only intensified with the prevalence of various apps that have become connectors between brand and audience.”
Davidson cited a host of ancillary considerations that have made creative hires increasingly complicated.
“There’s so much – minority representations in the industry, sustainability, designer brand/DNA, designer background including bad press issues, available budget, ‘the story works she’, what friendships with celebrities are advantageous, fashion- group politics, ”she listed.
She noted that candidates with a “strong creative network ripe for collaborations” are also attractive.
Davidson also advocated for internal promotion, applauding Blazy’s at Bottega Veneta as an example. Virginie Viard’s rise to Chanel after the death of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019 would be another landmark, as would Alessandro Michele’s rise to prominence within Gucci’s design studios.
“This is called sustainable recruitment. There should be more in business planning,” she said. “Companies invest so much time and money in people. Payroll is a huge expense and should be treated like gold. These people have specialized knowledge, the understanding of a DNA. They need to be hired wisely, trained within a company, built into staff retention planning,” she said. “I’m very, very pro about investing in people.”
De Saint Pierre argued that there is no single recipe for success in fashion today.
“To become – or remain – influential, we are probably seeing two parallel models. On the one hand, there are regular, long-term burners with extremely loyal customers to the brand and the product itself,” she said, citing Hermès and The Row as two examples. “And on the other hand, there are brands that need to reposition themselves as influential brands. In this case, creative directors, whether known or unknown, are the catalyst and the voice of today’s society… Their role is to visually express the brand at the heart of today’s society. and its values.
Fashion schools have evolved their curriculum to reflect the changing profile of creative directors, with influence and sharp communication skills among the new elements. For example, at Istituto Marangoni in Paris, second-year students are responsible for creating and uploading a professional Instagram profile.
“They need to learn how to present and communicate their concept and their creation, and how to grab attention with their collection,” Berdah-Levy explained. “They can experience the communication potential of the metaverse, the game, and we try to get them to work with students from other programs, like business and fashion style, so they develop additional skills.
“We’re pushing these cross-disciplinary projects so they’re not just design-centric,” she added.
Berdah-Levy stressed that design skills remain paramount and that clothes should be “exciting and desirable” enough to excite celebrities and influencers while remaining “customer-centric”.
Yet today’s creative directors cannot operate in an ivory tower. “The designer must be visible, present, accessible, have a global vision and know all the success factors of a collection. But the creator is also an influencer,” she said.
Namely: Istituto Marangoni invited Louise Parent; Geraldine Boublil aka Erin Off-Duty; Loulou De Saison and Léna Mahfouf, better known as Léna Situations, to explain how they built a clientele and a business in the field of fashion. “I like that they tell students at the start that it’s real work, that they’re working hard to get that level of recognition and authority,” Berdah-Levy said.
Besides Abloh and Nigo, Marine Serre, Rousteing de Balmain and Simon Porte Jacquemus – the latter with 4.9 million Instagram followers – are also well-liked by students, with Rick Owens a dark horse favorite, seen as an underdog with a strong fashion identity.
“They like the idea that a fashion designer can have different passions and be creative in areas other than fashion,” she said. “And they like to project themselves onto those kinds of personalities and people.”