With Justin O’Shea’s shock departure after only seven months at the helm of Brioni, we ask the industry experts what makes a great creative director on the current menswear scene
Just over seven months ago, Brioni took a gamble. Faced with the departure of their creative director Brendan Mullane, CEO Gianluca Flore controversially hired Justin O’Shea to fill the role – controversial because he wasn’t a designer, historically a key quality for a creative director. Instead, as a former buyer at e-tailer mytheresa.com and a street style star in his own right, it is safe to assume that his eye, his taste was his primary indispensable quality (as opposed to design nous). And there’s no doubt he took to the role with gusto, embarking on perhaps the most astonishingly ambitious rebrand of a fashion label since Hedi Slimane’s work at Yves Saint Laurent. However, having shown just one catwalk presentation, it has been announced that O’Shea has now parted ways with the historic tailoring house – marking one of the shortest creative directorships of any brand in recent memory. The great experiment is over – or is it?
O’Shea’s hiring (and subsequent short tenure) is only one example of a wider trend within the menswear industry right now: the role of the creative director is in flux. Formerly a position with a very set criteria of skills required – chiefly, being able to spearhead the design of the collection being shown – those requirements are changing, and rapidly so.
At Calvin Klein, new creative director Raf Simons has been given unprecedented control over all aspects of the company. A man who made his name in menswear with his eponymous cult label before moving to women’s couture at Dior, Simons now has responsibility for shaping the direction of all arms of the gargantuan American retailer, not just the women’s, men’s and denim labels, but also homewear and underwear.
This prospective expansion of the traditional skill-set for a company creative head has also been flirted with at Burberry. Thirteen years after being appointed creative director at the company, Christopher Bailey’s role was expanded to also incorporate the title of chief executive officer, giving the designer more influence over the business strategy of the label.
However, this is also now in the process of re-evaluation with Marco Gobbetti recently hired to be the next CEO, with Bailey leaving the role and transitioning to be president of the company next year. Across the board, those with the power to hire within the fashion industry are re-evaluating what the role of creative director should be – but so far, as you can see, a consensus hasn’t been reached.
“Currently the fashion business is going a period of uncertainty. For example, is the future see now buy now? Or is it, as Hedi Slimane thought when at Saint Laurent, all about creating a permanent collection?” says Robert Johnston, GQ Fashion Director. “This uncertainty also surrounds the role of the creative director. Should he (or she) be an influencer with a social media following and PR potential or rather an artist who can be technically dazzling?”
All of this begs the question: what is a creative director in 2016?
“Creative directors are there to bring the magic to brands and product, and the magic to the consumer experience,” says Daniel Marks, partner and chief creative officer at The Communications Store. “They are the conjurers of that incredible feeling we get when we buy something in a store or online that we really don’t need or didn’t know we needed until we saw it.
“It’s impossible to define but it certainly isn’t defined by how big their social media following is or how many years they spent at design college. We have to all be focused on celebrating extraordinary product and understanding the person that is buying that product and what turns them on.”
“They need to have an intangible oomph – sizzle, as Natalie Massenet [chairman of the British Fashion Council] calls it,” says Luke Leitch, GQ Contributing Fashion Editor. “That can come as a result of design, social, management skills, but most of all it is about personality.”
Increasingly, personality is the quality that is becoming the hottest property in potential creative directors. And while this was nowhere more clearly seen than with the hire of O’Shea at Brioni, this says much about how brands are functioning right now and appealing to their customers. This is a blueprint for brands arguably kickstarted by the aforementioned Slimane during his tenure at Yves Saint Laurent – someone who broke completely with the historic aesthetic of the house in order to align it with his personal style, and boosted the brand to be one of Kering’s most profitable labels in the process (doubling revenue to about £770 million during his tenure).
“I think the designer who can speak the language of the house he or she is running while enunciating a complementary and exciting personal vision will succeed. Look at Hedi Slimane,” says Leitch. “[This was] someone who makes you want a biker and a jean from a brand that’s three times more expensive than something from Sandro or wherever, but which you want to have because it’s by him.”
Across the board, it seems that many larger brands are trying to capitalise on the cult of celebrity that is becoming ever-more present around designers, as well as on their talent. This has perhaps been most recently seen in the appointment of Raf Simons at Calvin Klein or, to turn the focus on womenswear, Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga – both of which have near cult-like fan followings in their own right.
And while many of the recent hires we’ve seen have a background in some aspect of the fashion industry, it appears that skill in editing and team management are beginning to trump a true design background for the boards of big labels.
“Some of the biggest names in fashion aren’t what could be described as trained designers. A creative designer should be able to surround themselves with a team of talented and technicians and use that to interpret his vision,” says Johnston. “Fashion is quite simply selling dreams and, in theory, the person who can do this is as likely to come from the buying department as from St Martin’s. In theory.”
However, hiring someone with a pure design background and little experience of other aspects of the industry is also not without its problems.
“I think a lot of fashion school trainers are cookie-cutter bland. Sure you need to know how to design something. But working out how to design something that fires desire is different,” says Leitch. “I’ve had so many designers tell me their painfully articulated collections are about Bauhaus, or Futurism, or Memphis or whatever – and that’s fine. It might be fashion but it probably won’t sell. Don’t get me wrong I love exciting fashion shows but this business is about selling mass produced functional works of art that make customers feel good about themselves.
“It’s rare – but blessedly not unheard of – that the process they teach in fashion schools produces designers who have both the skills to create and the conviction to reject the conventional mentality fashion courses foster. There are a lot of designers-by-numbers who know the process, but have very little say with that skill.”
“There is absolutely no reason why a creative director can’t come from a multitude of different backgrounds, as long as they understand and appreciate both the product and the consumer,” says Marks. “No creative director can do their job properly without a senior management team who believe in what they are doing… The most successful of brands are where creativity and commercial acumen are balanced, where commercial and creative teams work together brilliantly and believe and respect each other – it has nothing to do with whether than creative director comes from a traditional design background.”
In short, it seems that the ideal combination is frustratingly unpredictable – but when it works, boy does it work. The biggest success story in the fashion world currently arguably shows a shift back to a more traditional creative director model: Alessandro Michele at Gucci, who has reinvented the brand by taking it back to its Italian roots, mixing it up with bang on-trend gender nonconformity. Doing so boosted the brand’s revenue by 11 per cent in 2015 after two straight years of declines under former creative director Frida Giannini.
“Perhaps the most admired name in fashion right now is Alessandro Michele at Gucci who is a classic old-school creative, proving that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel,” says Johnston. “What Michele knows is that for a brand to succeed you have to start with product. That extra ingredient the modern CD needs looks very much like it could be humility.”
Which ingredient wins out remains to be seen – but, for now, the experiment continues.