The Creative Director

...is the role of a creative director all that it's cracked up to be?

by Ellen Grace Jones
Fashion houses have had a whirlwind few years playing musical chairs with creative directors: The recent dismissal of the entire womenswear team at Bill Blass, John Galliano out, Raf Simons in. Bye bye Stefano Pilati, hello Hedi Slimane. With the seeming revolving door all-star cast, egos, misguided judgements and disclarity of vision can prove troublesome issues for a house's credibility and commerciality when transitioning from creative leader. Stay faithful to their historical aesthetic or huge cosmetic overhaul? It's the eternal dilemma.

As we know, Hedi Slimane does nothing by halves. It's too early to tell how his imprint will across the YSL brand lexicon, however the fact he's already rebranded its ready-to-wear line, Saint Laurent and relocated its Paris atelier to LA suggests he's holding no prisoners with shaking up the house's identity.

It's doubtful YSL see Slimane's appointment as a risk, given the magic he worked for Dior increasing its menswear profits. Similarly to SL, Slimane rebranded Dior Homme from 'Christian Dior Monsieur.'

But crucially, we must remember Slimane not simply changed the aesthetic of Dior Homme; he was single handedly responsible for an entire menswear paradigm shift: the beefcake macho model silhouette was replaced with waif-like, teen musicians-as-models. Aside from Karl Lagerfeld famously admitting Slimane's pipe-cleaner jeans were responsible for his dramatic weight loss, Slimane's greatest achievement was his skinny indie boy, rock n' roll aesthetic; it tapped into a cultural mood of contemporary cool, aeons away from Christian Dior Monsieur's stuffy heritage.

Slimane's is a bold appointment given his rulebook-shredding past (and let's not forget this will be his debut womenswear collection) however the exiting Stefano Pilati's collections often adhered to YSL's structural archetypes but his overall vision was often muddy.

Despite Slimane's past disregard for heritage, more often than not, retro-rebranding, which seeks to connect to a label's past whilst reenergising it, is a recipe for success. Tom Ford injected the sex back into Gucci and YSL in the early 2000's plus Stella McCartney and Phoebe Philo's playful 70's romanticism transformed Chloe from a dusty French house into every girl's go-to label.

Key retro-rebrander is Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga; a man who always looks to the future and past in equal measures whilst leaving fashion ed's retrieving their jaws from floors from season-to-season. Since his 1997 appointment at 25 Ghesquiere has deftly married Christobal Balenciaga's heritage; the cocoon shapes, bracelet sleeves with techno-fabrics and experimental technologies: who can forget those infamous 'Tron' gold leggings? Ghesquiere constantly plunders the Spanish house's rich archives yet pushes the label forward with his retro-futurism.

As much as we attribute Christopher Bailey to Burberry's revival thanks to demonstrating similar principals as Ghesquiere, it was actually Marie Rose Bravo who first dragged the brand from the ashes, albeit via a sacrilegious, lazy methodology. At the height of early naughties 'logo-monogram-mania' Bravo simply smothered Burberry's signature Nova plaid over everything. Nothing escaped being be-checked.

All this did was market Burberry to the status-driven and subsequently it trickled down the fashion food chain to the aspirational working classes - to the extent Burberry check caps became synonymous with 'chavs'. That now infamous, image of Danielle Westbrook sounded the sartorial death knell for Burberry's credibility. "The check and plaid is recognised as a symbol like the Nike swoosh," claimed Bravo. Err, bravo, indeed for killing all its integrity.

Despite profits doubling to £73 million by 2003, the British house had the creditability of its much imitated market knock-offs. Bailey worked as masterstroke, both by entirely shifting its aesthetic back to its heritage roots yet with an entirely modern injection. His remains a winning formula, one which Burberry's quintessentially English heritage peer, Aquascutum has failed to replicate. Floundering for the past decade with a constant rotation of creative directors, the down-on-its-luck brand never found its groove aesthetically and has recently been rescued from administration.

Other flops, such as McQueen for Givenchy, Hannah MacGibbon for Chloe and, ahem, everyone for Emanuel Ungaro (Giles, Estrella Archs, Lindsay Lohan) happen when the the designer's ego and vision fail to connect with the house's essence, soul and history.

This poses the question; how much creativity should head designers be allowed when representing historic brands? Full reign can either spell success or failure. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Slimane was a wildcard for Dior Homme but he won. McQueen was white hot when commissioned for Givenchy but he failed to tame his own maverick designs and translate them to Givenchy's heritage.

After the pomp and flounce of Galliano's exuberant, opulent style at Christian Dior, it was questioned whether Raf Simon's understated minimalism would translate to the Dior brand however his recent debut S/S '13 cruise collection brought the house down proving taking the chance with giving a newly appointed creative director free reign spells success.

Slimane's debut Spring/Summer '13 cruise collections were only shown to buyers meaning no snooping press or fans could catch an eyeful. Why the secrecy? Sources revealed to WWD the collection featured YSL's signature cigarette pants, tuxedo shirts, pinstripes and hotpants. The palette was apparently mostly black and white, with some pieces in red, bright pink, and animal prints. Materials included sequins, and silver and gold lamé. Sounds quite business as usual.

Ultimately, for any heritage brand, it's crucial for them to be of the now, to be culturally and artistically relevant yet there's a need to preserve and feel part of its past sartorial ancestry. As for the newly rebranded SLP, “I’m very happy" claims Pierre Bergé, the late couturier’s partner. "Anything that makes the house more Saint Laurent is welcome.”