And by doing so, he triggered a switch.
By 2016, the entire fashion world had seen all that Michele achieved for Gucci: He had taken a legacy luxury brand and radically updated it — to wild financial gain — for the 21st century. That same July, Oscar de la Renta’s Bolen called Kim back in to resume talks after Copping was dismissed. She signed on as co-creative director with Garcia at Oscar de la Renta, but her break with Carolina Herrera wasn’t clean. “Nobody knows you and nobody knows that you are here,” Herrera threatened, according to an affidavit submitted over a non-compete dispute. “I am more famous than you and have more powerful friends.”
That moment — a #1 director telling an aspiring #1 that she’s not suited for the job because her fame doesn’t match her ambition — is notable not just because it reveals the typically restrained Carolina Herrera to be a secret diva, but because it succinctly captures the tension that luxury fashion houses are facing these days. The old guard believes that fashion, as an art form, should be led by visionaries with big personalities and even bigger reputations. The new guard believes that fashion, as a business, should be led by creatives with an understanding of what modern customers want from their clothes. This tension between old versus new, number ones versus number twos, gets at the heart of the industry’s most fundamental question: Is fashion mostly art? Or is it mostly a business?
Kim ultimately getting the job shouldn’t be chalked up to Oscar de la Renta copying Gucci. It’s a canary in a coal mine signaling that there is a contingent ready to grapple with a shifting fashion industry, favoring career designers who’ve risen in the ranks over celebrity ones. Over the past three years, more than half a dozen design houses have appointed unknown names as creative directors, from Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé to Francesco Risso at Marni.
In other words, luxury brands are losing customers at a time when people are primed to spend. In response, design houses are changing the ways they price, create, and market their clothes, especially for an audience that doesn't just like to read about and look at clothes online, but shop them there, too. They’re also changing the very people who design the clothes in the first place. Investing in shock and awe on its own just doesn’t cut it anymore; this new consumer market wants artful clothing, not “art” with sleeves (especially when prices can run has high as they do).
It wasn’t long before other brands followed: Raf Simons' former number two, Serge Ruffieux, is now at Carven, and Nicolas Ghesquiere’s number two Natacha Ramsay-Levi was appointed as creative director at Chloé. Marni hired Miuccia Prada’s number two Francesco Risso, Mulberry appointed Phoebe Philo’s number two Johnny Coca, and Jil Sander recently named Simons’ other former number two Lucie Meier (and her husband, Luke Meier) as head of its design team.
Even more than that, the celebrity industrial complex is a different beast these days. Getting red carpet placement and having an actress Instagram a bag won’t make a difference to consumers if the hype is manufactured in conference rooms. It takes someone with an incredible business savvy and work ethic, and who is down-to-earth enough to understand what paying customers actually want from clothing. In other words, it takes real grit — and some brands are shifting their focus to creatives who’ve got that rather than star power. And if Gucci is any indication of a promising number two’s potential, that’s the surest bet of all.
This new mindset isn’t an industry standard — it's actually far from it. This past Fashion Week, Karl Lagerfeld assembled a working rocket ship inside Paris’ Grand Palais for Chanel’s fall ‘17 collection that actually lifted off at as a grand finale. It was one of those made-for-Instagram moments, and it succeeded in turning the spectacle into the press opp of the season. The question is whether such a viral social media moment does indeed translate to sales — or does it have to?
Moreover, many luxury brands are still committed to hiring celebrity designers. Earlier last month, notable designer Claire Waight Keller left Chloé to go to Givenchy, and there’s talk that the celebrity-BFF designer Riccardo Tisci will replace Donatella Versace when she retires. There’s also the matter of Simons' appointment at Calvin Klein, probably one of the most high-profile designers these days. But, Simons doesn’t so much refute the attractiveness of number-twos as support it. Though he never finished design school, never apprenticed under another designer, and is one of the most famous names in fashion right now, his reputation is an anomaly among boldface designers. He’s notoriously shy, he avoids the press, and is a fan of collaboration. Harvey also points out that Simons comes with the benefits of a number two because of his allyship with an actual number two, his longtime business partner, Peter Mollier: “Raf is phenomenally talented, but one of his big talents is to have somebody like Peter with him,” Harvey attests.
The fashion industry, long obsessed with what’s new and next, is ironically experiencing the blowback of being hesitant to change, even though everything has changed. Is the designer’s purpose to address the basic human need to clothe ourselves, or the need to stimulate our imaginations; to prioritize a brand’s bottom line or its aspirational qualities?
If it’s the latter, as many design houses have insisted it is, then the industry needs to have a come-to-Jesus moment to recognize that providing rocketship moments can be an empty artistic gesture if it lacks tangible human truths beyond just awe. Hoping that a visionary has a knack for the business side of things hasn’t necessarily been good for the bottom line. Now, it’s about creative directors who are doers first, and showers second; designers who know the value of mastering a craft, of the feeling of a hard-won reward, and what it takes to build a livelihood based on passion, and that they understand something integral about the human experience. And if they’re about to build joy, pleasure, and beauty into those fundamentals, that is art that can really take off.