The news last week that the designer Raf Simons was leaving Christian Dior, the house he helped revitalize after the John Galliano implosion, for “personal reasons” took the fashion world by surprise, setting off a storm of existential self-questioning.
Once again, it focused on “the system,” and whether the constant cycle of collection after collection, far-flung store opening after far-flung store opening, Instagram after YouTube, demands too much of its creative talent. It seemed the only possible explanation.
After all, there hadn’t been any speculative leaks beforehand about disagreements between Mr. Simons and his corporate bosses. By all accounts they had a mutually respectful and amicable relationship. Like Hercules washing out the Augean Stables, Mr. Simons had effectively reinvented the brand’s aesthetic, cleaning it of Mr. Galliano’s baroque and increasingly stale visions and replacing them with a cleaner, more streamlined style that merged classic Diorisms with futuristic materials.
If occasionally his clothes seemed more like intellectual exercises in how you update a heritage house than garments a woman might want viscerally to wear well, that didn’t make them any less interesting.
But Mr. Simons had privately mused to many (including me) that time was an issue — time to think about what he was doing, to experiment and make mistakes, and he was not alone.
Last week, at the Fashion Group International Night of Stars event, Alber Elbaz, the creative director of Lanvin, said, “Everyone in fashion just needs a little more time.” Speaking in a New York Times video over the summer, Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, likewise said: “Time is against me. I need more time to work in every single project.”
But having had some time to consider this, I think it’s actually time to look a little harder at what is going on. Because, while “the system” is a disembodied, nonspecific entity that may be the most obvious culprit for our dissatisfaction, it seems to me that Mr. Simons’s departure is rather the latest example of an insidious, but potentially more destructive, fashion 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.
While on the one hand this makes for a cleaner and more professional pairing, one less fraught with the highs and lows (and mood-altering drugs and rehab stints) of the generation before, like Mr. Galliano and Alexander McQueen, one where expectations are theoretically aligned, it also means that creative directors are more willing to weigh the costs and benefits of an employment situation and make a conscious judgment that it may no longer be working for them.
Put another way: They can leave. And, increasingly it seems, they do.
Fashion is now on a slippery slope of its own making that began with Tom Ford’s departure from Gucci Group in 2003. It was a rupture caused by disagreements over the scope of his power that was first seen as a dire event (How would Gucci survive without its superstar designer?) and latterly introduced the era of the ascension of the brand: the idea that it was the house that mattered, and the designer served that master.
Gucci tested the theory by hiring three unknown creative directors after Mr. Ford (for women’s wear, men’s wear and accessories), a situation that lasted only until 2006, when one of them, Frida Giannini, became the sole creative director. Ms. Giannini remained at her post for 12 years, before being replaced earlier this year by Alessandro Michele, also an unknown.
Meanwhile, other brands began to go through creative directors at a notable rate, for a variety of different reasons. Alessandra Facchinetti, Gucci’s head of women’s wear post-Ford, was let go from the brand in 2005, and joined Moncler Gamme Rouge, before jumping to Valentino, only to be replaced after two collections and hop to Pinko, where she introduced a new collection called Uniqueness in 2011, leaving in 2013 to become creative director of Tod’s following the American designer Derek Lam, who had been there for six years. (Phew.)
At Nina Ricci, Lars Nilsson was creative director from 2003 to 2006 before being replaced by Olivier Theyskens (2006 to 2009), who in turn was replaced by Peter Copping (2009 to 2014), who was replaced by Guillaume Henry. Mr. Theyskens resurfaced at Theory in New York in 2011, where he lasted for just over three years.
(In case you were wondering, the standard term for most creative director contracts is at least three years.)
At Céline, Michael Kors left in 2004, and was replaced by Roberto Menichetti, who after two seasons was replaced by Ivana Omazic, who in 2008 was replaced by Phoebe Philo, who famously insisted (after leading Chloé from 2001 to 2006, when she resigned — shades of Mr. Simons — for personal reasons) that she be allowed to stay in London with her family, and work from there.
It’s a decision that has been cited often in the last week as an example of the way the current generation of designers has made an effort to prioritize their own needs along with their brands’ needs for better balance, as was Alexander Wang’s decision, made mutually with the brand, not to renew his contract with Balenciaga after three years, in part to concentrate on his own company.
Whether or not Balenciaga actually wanted him to stay (as Dior did with Mr. Simons), or they already thought it wasn’t working out — and they have since appointed Demna Gvasalia of the French label Vetements to the post — Mr. Wang didn’t go quietly into that good night. He went running and jumping and practically celebrating, as all of us who were at his final Balenciaga show could see, suggesting that he was more than happy to be free of the grind.
We have reached the point where designers feel as justified in leaving a brand as the brand does in leaving them — and after it has happened once, for whatever reason (as it did when Mr. Simons left Jil Sander in 2012 under cloudy circumstances), it gets easier to do.
Indeed, Ms. Philo has publicly mused about her desire to spend more time in nature, and that, combined with the fact she left Chloé at the height of her success, has made rumors of a potential departure from Céline almost impossible to squash. It’s simply too believable that she could just walk away, not because she had a different job offer or a falling out with management, but because she simply wanted a different life. Like Mr. Simons.
The problem is, if we divorce emotion from the creative process, if designers don’t care as much about their brand, and brands are not as wed to their designer as they were when the same name shaped a sartorial identity over decades, then the risk is that consumers will feel the same way. The value proposition becomes broken. No one needs a new bag, or a fancy dress; they desire them. Without the seduction and the sentiment, the promise of transformation, it’s just stuff. And really, who wants that?