Laura Kim was a star student at Pratt Institute. “She could do no wrong,” admitted fellow Pratt classmate and designer Adam Selman to The New York Times. “Teacher’s pet in the best possible way: the perfect draper, perfect sketcher, won all the awards.” She received scholarships from Fashion Group International and the CFDA — and then went on to intern at TSE Cashmere, Donna Karan, and eventually, Oscar de la Renta, where she took on a full-time job in 2003. She rose from design assistant to associate, and became de la Renta’s number two in command until he passed away in 2014. Kim was the obvious successor — it’s reported that the first collection she stepped up to design as the brand was looking to fill the creative director position was its most profitable. But, it was not to be. Oscar de la Renta chief executive, Alex Bolen, passed over Kim for Peter Copping, an established designer with international acclaim who held a visible position at Nina Ricci. And so, Kim left and began a new label with fellow Oscar de la Renta-alum Fernando Garcia — and took on consulting work at Carolina Herrera to supplement her income.
If this was 2004 instead of 2014, the story might have ended there. But earlier that year, Alessandro Michele was announced as the new creative director at Gucci. Instead of going with the expected celebrity designer like, Riccardo Tisci or Tom Ford, Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri made a risky bet on placing unknown internal talent in the driver’s seat.
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.
Number twos — the unsung sidekicks — have always been presented in pop culture as the secret weapons behind heroes’ triumphs (what would Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, or Han Solo be without Dr. Watson, Hermione, and Chewbacca?). They are inherently primed to get shit done, so to speak, in a way that isn’t demanded of Number Ones. This is as true for fashion as fiction. “For me, it was always, ‘How do we make this work in the time and with the resources that we have?’” says designer Chris Gelinas about his tenure working under creative directors at Balenciaga and Theyskens’ Theory. “[Number twos] focus intense creative energy into action, and actually make it come together.”
While the idea of grooming a successor might not seem revolutionary, it’s actually a massive departure from how labels used to consider their creative leads. In the past, fashion houses wanted a marquee name with a built-in fanbase and an affection for Zoolander-like quotes — like Kardashian-BFF Olivier Rousteing or feud-prone Hedi Slimane. Those who indulge in excess and gravitate to the outlandish; it wasn’t unusual to see fashion designers do things like import a glacier the size of the Grand Palais in Paris for a one-hour event.
But following the 2008 recession, and the rise of internet shopping, the fashion industry never really recovered. A Business of Fashion report found that despite the fact that retail sales were up by 1.3% in April 2016 compared to the year prior, apparel brands experienced major declines in sales, and luxury brands, in particular, were hardest hit. Department stores, like Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale’s are all struggling. In a co-researched survey with McKinsey & Company, 67% of executives believed that the economic and social conditions for the fashion industry have worsened in 2016, though consumers are making more money.
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).
“Things are hard right now — it’s a different time. It’s more about which designers get it, and who’s curious enough to keep going for it,” explains fashion recruiter Karen Harvey, who has filled some of the biggest creative director roles in recent years, including Stuart Vevers at Coach and Jonathan Saunders at DVF. “Brands don’t want the high maintenance designer.” For example, consider the disastrous consequences of a bad fit, like when John Galliano spiraled into a drug-fueled anti-Semitic meltdown that he blamed on suffocating work pressures. “Certain creative directors went off the deep end in the mid-2000s, and it created such a ripple effect, press-wise. It must have influenced how brands think about hiring,” says Gelinas.
Plus, there’s less of a culture shock. “Number twos are very good at adapting,” says designer Jennifer Chun, who worked for Michael Kors, Derek, Lam, and Brian Reyes before starting her eponymous line. “Adapting is their job. You don’t come into a new design house and expect to force a point of view that won’t work — you know how to compromise and not be disruptive, but you also know the possibilities of what you could achieve, and why it would work.”
There’s also the matter of their salaries. “We are in an industry where compensation packages are very, very high for creatives, and that’s very hard for public companies,” says Harvey. When Ghesquière joined Louis Vuitton, he was compensated $51 million by the company for breaking his contract and was paid out in Balenciaga equity — all on top of his salary.
Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri was the first to realize that he didn’t need a celeb designer to create hype-making collections. “CEOs don’t get enough credit,” notes Harvey. “Marco believed in Alessandro and empowered him.” Having worked under Gucci creative directors Frida Giannini and Tom Ford since 2002, Michele intimately understood both the brand’s history and its unique potential. With more than a decade of institutional knowledge under his belt, Michele knew the alchemy to turn Gucci, a once flashy, indulgent, nostalgic brand into a newly and differently flashy, indulgent, and nostalgic brand — which requires as much an understanding of magic as it does a grasp on reality. Over the next three years, the bet paid off, and Gucci regularly reported double-digit growth in quarterly sales. “Brands are looking at Gucci as a great example on how to quickly create relevancy,” she adds.
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.
The above are not household names (yet); they do not have celebrity BFFs, and as far as we know, none of the aforementioned designers has ever done anything like market a $500 stuffed cat in the likeness of their own pet. It’s not enough to have one good, viral-making idea — that cannot sustain a production cycle that demands (at least) four lucrative collections a year. Understanding how people shop, what they expect to pay, and where they want to buy things is now as big a part of the design process as knowing what colors are “in.”
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, Pieter Mulier: “Raf is phenomenally talented, but one of his big talents is to have somebody like Pieter 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.