What’s Behind Fashion’s Game Of Musical Chairs?

Why designers aren't staying with labels as long as they used to

Everyone's strolling down the same catwalks. — (Reuters)
Jan 20, 2016 at 1:00 PM ET

2015 was a big year for dramatic exits in the fashion world. Raf Simons left Christian Dior, Alexander Wang departed from Balenciaga, and Alber Elbaz was pushed out at Lanvin. And that’s just the last year; in the past few years there have been a number of high profile designers who’ve left their labels, and it feels a bit like a game of musical chairs. It also may be a part of a trend.

There’s Dior, for example, which employed John Galliano as its chief from 1996 to 2011, when he was fired as a result of a drunken anti-semitic rant. Dior hired Raf Simons as his replacement, but Simons left the brand in 2015, after only three years. Meanwhile, Galliano popped back up at Maison Margiela in 2014. The big question here is where will Simons end up? The Cut speculated in October that he may stay with his own menswear brand, or he could be hired by Jil Sander, the label who just lost its namesake designer last year. Fashion is a small community, and the coming and going has made for somewhat of a revolving door. Sander, for example, has done three separate stints at the label that bears her name.

Is this just coincidental, or are major labels increasingly treating designers like they’re disposable? Simons may have left Dior on good terms, but there are others who weren’t so lucky. Alber Elbaz is said to have been forced out at Lanvin, the brand he’s largely credited with reviving and where he’d been design head since 2001. After 10 years, Gucci ousted Frida Giannini at the end of 2014, only to replace her with Gucci accessories designer Alessandro Michele. Linda Fargo, director of women’s fashion at Bergdorf Goodman told the New York Times last fall that it “feels like the fashion industry is shedding its skin right now.” And maybe it is.

There’s more pressure than ever on designers, and the pace at which trends and styles change is faster than ever. There’s certainly an internet component to that, for which we can thank social media. Now a label has to create buzz, season after season, line after line, and that can’t possibly be sustainable for more than just a few years. Vanessa Friedman reflected on the situation in the that same Times piece, writing:

…[It] seems to me that all these departures are also a very powerful reflection of an insidious, and potentially more destructive, trend. That is, the current situation in which brands treat designers as “work for hire” — stewards that set a course for a style ship for a time, but who can be replaced as necessary while the ship itself sails on — and its inevitable corollary: that designers start to see themselves the same way. The result transforms the relationship from that of a marriage, where you pledge to love and care for each other through sickness and in health, into a dispassionate contract-to-contract arrangement.

Come to a label, serve a purpose for a time, and once you’re not serving that purpose anymore, you’re done. Jeremy Scott has been at Moschino since October of 2013, but prior to that, he was mostly known as the guy who put teddy bears on Adidas shoes. He’s brought that same sensibility to Moschino, where his spring 2015 collection was all about Barbie. The collection before that was McDonald’s-themed. You can make inferences about his taking the lowbrow and making it high fashion, but regardless, he creates a lot of buzz and makes people pay attention. And the internet—not to mention buzz-reliant stars like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry—loves it. But if the current climate is any indication, Scott’s splashy style may run its course at Moschino one day.

It’s also worth mentioning Balmain head Olivier Rousteing, who has helped the brand become even more recognizable via two very important mediums: Instagram and the Kardashians. Balmain has become extremely popular since Rousteing took over in 2009, so much so that its 2015 H&M collection sold out in just minutes. And what creates more buzz for a label beloved by the rich and famous than a line for the rest of us that sells out immediately? But, given the current climate in the business of high fashion, Routeing’s version of Balmain, too, might have an expiration date.

It also works the other way. Designers can use famous fashion labels to make themselves into household names too. It started with Tom Ford, who first made his mark at Gucci. He left in 2004, moving on to make his own label. Maybe Raf Simons is doing something similar. Maybe he doesn’t really need Dior anymore. He may have helped raise the label’s sales by 60 percent since 2011, but during that time he also raised his own profile, enough that he could feasibly launch his own brand. And Dior, lacking a design leader, may look to someone just as high profile or buzzy to fill in where Simons left off. But regardless of the underlying reasons for its recent slew of high-profile departures, fashion is clearly in the midst of a sea change.

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