Without A Creative Director, Does A Fashion House Become A Mess?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about the need for a creative director at a design house; whether it's imperative to have a big name in order to succeed; whether the legacy of a label can be upheld without a singular source at the helm of its direction; whether the clothing can still have a point of view when there are multiple vantage points going into it.
Photo: Victor Virgile/Getty Images.
Lanvin fall/winter 2016.
In October of last year, two of the biggest labels in fashion — Dior and Lanvin — saw the departure of their creative directors, Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz, respectively, on two very different grounds. Simons cited personal reasons, explaining his decision to leave was "based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside my work,” he said in a statement. It was a surprise, given his stint was just three-and-a-half years long — which was, if you ask fans of the label, far too short, given the more modern, avant-garde vision he brought to the 70-year-old house.

Elbaz's exit, however, was a bit more difficult for people to accept, given the fact that it was "on the decision of the company's majority shareholder," he explained, and not of his own will. He had been at Lanvin for nearly 15 years, he was beloved by consumers, editors, and employees for not just his talent, but his kindness and generosity — two traits that can feel rare in the ever-exclusive, sometimes alienating fashion sphere.

It was these two moments, which happened within days of each other, that brought the concept of fashion creative directors (and the need for one) into question. (Elbaz also brought the demands of producing so many collections per year, the inevitable exhaustion, and the datedness of the fashion calendar to the forefront.) And when both houses announced that, rather than appointing someone new immediately, they would be leaving the next season's collection in the hands of their design teams, many in the industry wondered: Can this really work?

For Dior, "No. 2's" (as The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman referred to them), Lucie Meier and Serge Ruffieux, proved capable. Their debut at couture was met with applause, as it mimicked Simons' aesthetic to a T. The same can be said for the fall/winter 2016 selection, which was shown in Paris on Friday. Maybe it was safer than what Simons himself would have done, but the vibrant colors, interesting cuts, and statement accessories were all still present. And though the house announced that, by the time its resort 2017 collection is shown in May, a new creative director will have been named, it was clear that, even in limbo, Meier and Ruffieux could hold their own, presenting something good (though it may not be altogether new).
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Photo: MCV Photo.
Dior fall/winter 2016.
Unfortunately for Lanvin, the house was not so lucky. Perhaps its team was still reeling from their loss, but its fall 2016 collection was a label's worst nightmare. The problem with the offering shown Thursday wasn't that it steered too far from the expected aesthetic: The ruffles and jacquards were an obvious nod to the legacy Elbaz left behind, and some of the colors — a burnt orange-red, a shiny peach — were in fact pretty. It was the construction of the clothing, the styling, and the fact that the pieces, while in fabric and hue were cohesive, looked liked they were thrown together last minute and forced to work.
Photo: Victor Virgile/Getty Images.
Lanvin fall/winter 2016.
The response from critics across the board was that the collection was, for lack of a better word, a mess. The Washington Post's Robin Givhan, who tweeted immediately after the show, "You do not want to see [Lanvin]. I saw it so you don't have to," referred to the offering as "tacky, drab, badly fitted clothes"; The Cut's Cathy Horyn simply tweeted, "Don't look back, Alber." Christina Binkley of The Wall Street Journal expressed her dismay with a Parent Trap GIF, commenting: "Me. At Lanvin. And no fair blaming the design team. That came from the top."

Though Binkley is right that the decision for Elbaz and Lanvin to split came from Shaw-Lan Wang, the company's majority share holder (a.k.a. "the top"), doesn't negate the fact that the design team seemed it was not ready to be tasked with something so big, almost proving the notion that, without a creative director who doubles as a cult of personality, it seems nearly impossible to make an impactful selection of clothing. For Dior, while the collection was good, it wasn't forward-moving or boundary-pushing — something the house needs in order to avoid the stagnant state of clothing that occurred in the mid-2000s. But for Lanvin, the idea of the house lasting another season without a major creative director seems impossible. This show put the focus on its future. And now that we're looking: How long will it take to bring someone on to create and maintain a cohesive vision? More importantly, how long will it take for the brand to redeem itself from this mess?
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