05/04/2016
There’s something in the water.

Words by

Amy Campbell

There’s something in the water at the luxury fashion houses. Or perhaps it’s in those dainty bottles of Parisian eau de parfum. 

First it was Alexander Wang flying the Balenciaga coop in July last year. In October 2015 it was Raf Simons leaving Dior, and six days later Alber Elbaz announced he would be cutting ties with Lanvin. On Friday April 1, a mere five months later, we found out the legendary Hedi Slimane would exit Saint Laurent

Sure, it's not exactly uncommon for CEOs or directors in high profile positions to come and go; to experience promotions (or demotions). These could be the result of a multitude of factors, like job satisfaction, salary requirements or work/life balance. 

But the fact the fashion industry has witnessed four of its finest depart from prestigious posts in the past 12 months can’t be overlooked. It seems as if creative directors are being disposed of quicker than the seasonal collections they’re being squeezed to produce.  

Wang – along with steering his own eponymous label – was at Balenciaga for only three years. Simons was at Dior for three, and Slimane at Saint Laurent for four. And although Elbaz is the exception here (he was Creative Director at Lanvin for 14 years), each designer was headhunted by his respective house for very similar reasons: to revive and breathe contemporary life into a traditional luxury label.  

And they all succeeded in this mission. They raised revenues and diligently remoulded each historic brand into the contemporary lifestyle powerhouses we know them as today.

And then they left. 

Whether it was a product of personal choice (Simons); the result of unsuccessful or un-renewed contract negotiations (Wang and apparently Slimane); or a good ol’ fashioned ousting (Elbaz), the churning turnover of designers at luxury labels has left us, and most of the fashion-media circus, scratching our heads.

Sure, not all of us are are out there buying Saint Laurent leather and Dior Haute Couture. But is the disposable way in which we consume fashion today having a greater ripple effect than we think? Surely society’s unsustainable fashion-diet is reflected in decisions like the one recently made by Kering (the French luxury group which owns Saint Laurent). 

Suddenly, whether it’s a T-shirt in our wardrobe or a designer in a luxury portfolio, it seems as if everyone’s chanting the mantra: out with the old, in with the new. But when the new becomes the old, we’re left wondering who could possibly fill the requirements of the new new? 

So tears, confusion and shock aside (or perhaps, in Slimane’s case, an unsurprising end to months of speculation), what do these high-profile design departures say about the fashion system today? 

1. The industry is treating designers like the fast fashion they’re creating

Today, the average lifespan of a piece of clothing in a Western wardrobe is five weeks. And according to the Ethical Fashion Forum, UK and US consumers send on average 30kg of fashion waste (per capita) to landfill each year. Sure, Simons and Slimane were at the helm of Dior and Saint Laurent for longer than five weeks. And despite being miniscule in size, Wang weighs more than 30kg. But it’s time to admit the correlation between the lifespan of contemporary clothing and the lifespan of the contemporary designer is real. 

“The people who suffer most from high-speed fashion are undoubtedly the creatives, who are the heart and soul of the industry,” writes veteran fashion journalist and editor of Vogue International, Suzy Menkes

The average length of a creative director contract is currently three years. When you consider the amount of time previous designers spent at the helm of their houses (Valentino Garavani designed his namesake for 48 years) these modern-day relationships between brand and designer seem trivial. 

But as we continue to consume at high speed and in high volume, CEOs of fashion labels from Zara to Balmain continue to demand more from their idea generators and creators. After all, with increased profit comes increased pressure to keep producing more. 

2. The luxury market is changing

“People talk of ‘fast fashion’ as if it is applied only to H&M or Uniqlo,” continues Menkes, in her gloomy evaluation of today’s luxury market. “In fact, it is equally present in stores from New York’s Bergdorf Goodman to Paris’ Bon Marché.” 

It’s quite plausible that luxury fashion, once a world of timelessness and everlasting relevance, is also falling victim to the pressures of this ‘fast-fashion’ infection. Sure, Slimane wasn’t asked to produce collections at the break-neck speed of the regular fast-fash suspects, (it’s rumoured H&M produces new collections every two weeks), but luxury labels have stepped onto their very own version of what Menkes calls “the fashion treadmill.”

The days of producing two collections per year are so far gone they’ve been forgotten. Two ready-to-wear, two couture, a ‘pre’ season and resort show and two menswear collections form the modern luxury calendar. Perhaps this is why Slimane’s fleeting four years at Saint Laurent felt more like fifteen.  

3. Fashion companies aren’t very nice places to work 

Last week, Business of Fashion reported that in Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For, only one fashion company made the cut. It was Nordstrom Inc., the American department store, and it ranked at number 92. 

This is really sad.

But consider for a moment the fact that at least two recent designer dismissals reportedly stem from contract disagreements or unsatisfiable demands (usually profit, not performance focused). Suddenly it’s not the least bit surprising. 

Both Simons and Elbaz’s relationships with their respective houses ended respectfully. But both have also spoken out about the shackling expectations placed on designers in big fashion houses today.

"My opinion is that being a creative director in a huge institution is... you enter, and you’re going to go out,” said Simons in a recent interview with journalist Alexander Fury. Perhaps fostering an environment in which the designer is nurtured, rather than sucked dry before departing, could lead to a more desirable job description.  

Yes, we can’t ignore the idea that designers are also becoming a more difficult breed to please. In a recent piece titled Hedi Slimane’s Dangerous Legacy’, New York Times Fashion Editor, Vanessa Friedman, argues the brand-designer breakdown is two-fold, suggesting “when a designer’s work increases sales at a global mega-brand to a meaningful level, they want their salaries to reflect the success.”

But when being pushed to revive a luxury legacy (often in conjunction with commandeering their own labels), such demands from designers can only be expected. According to BOF, if fashion companies want to compete on the culture front with top-ten firms like Google, they have significant work to do. And emotional culture could be a good place to start.

4. The way we consume fashion has more of an impact than we think 

Apart from being unethical, replacing last week’s new shirt with this week’s even newer shirt has repercussions beyond the sustainable. It doesn’t matter who we buy from or how much we spend, every time we purchase a new item we are feeding the insatiable beast the fashion consumer chain has become. 

We mightn’t be directly altering sales figures at Lanvin or Saint Laurent (*sigh, one day…), but the hungry way in which we consume fashion isn’t just shortening the life cycle of our clothes. It’s also impacting the wellbeing of the people who create them, whether it’s Elbaz in his Parisian atelier, or workers in a Bangladeshi production line with aching fingers and empty pockets.

Where there is demand, there must be supply. So next time you’re replacing the new with the newer, consider the domino effects your purchase could procure, before you buy. 

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