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Apr 10, 2024

Do fashion brands still need creative directors?

Fashion’s never-ending game of Musical Chairs continues unabated. Yet, amidst the constant shuffling, perhaps we should think about not only who will take the coveted creative director’s seat next but also what the evolving landscape requires from these designers. Do they still hold the same relevance in today’s fashion houses? If not, what roles are they now expected to fulfil, and why?


The Unrelenting Wave of Departures

In recent times, there have been many changes in the world of fashion’s creative directors. The steady stream of exits shows no signs of slowing down. Almost every week, there is breaking news in the fashion industry announcing the departure of another creative director from their position.

Since Alessandro Michele’s departure from Gucci in November 2022—a role he held since 2015—the revolving door of creative directors has been spinning faster than ever before.


The Trend of Brief Tenures

It appears that the tenure of fashion designers at the helm of a fashion house has drastically shortened.

Let’s rewind to March 2023, a pivotal moment marked by significant departures in the fashion world. Jeremy Scott bid farewell to Moschino after a decade at the helm, and other notable creative directors saw relatively short tenures. Serhat Işık and Benjamin A. Huseby, the design duo behind the GmbH label, parted ways with Trussardi in Milan after nearly two years. Shortly after that, Bruno Sialelli also exited Lanvin, marking the end of his four-year tenure. In May, Ludovic de Saint Sernin departed from Ann Demeulemeester after just one season, adding to the roster of exits. The reasons behind these departures varied, ranging from creative differences to managerial challenges.


Exceptional Longevity Amidst the Flux

In the midst of rapid change, there are exceptions—long-standing tenures that unexpectedly come to an end. For instance, Sarah Burton departed from the Alexander McQueen fashion house after two decades in September 2023.

This is particularly evident when considering the recent departures that continue to shake up the fashion industry’s game of musical chairs. Pierpaolo Piccioli announced his departure from Valentino after 25 years with the Roman house on March 22. The brand promptly confirmed rumours of his successor, Alessandro Michele, by March 28, adding to this narrative.

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A post shared by Valentino (@maisonvalentino)

Another notable exit is that of Dries Van Noten, announced on March 19. The acclaimed Belgian designer is stepping down in June after nearly four decades in the fashion industry, handing over the reins to the design studio for subsequent seasons before the appointment of a new creative director.


Rethinking the Role of Creative Directors

The fashion world, as we know it, is constantly changing, and we often find ourselves asking the repetitive question: “Who will take which chair?”

Instead of fixating on this inquiry, we want to explore what hasn’t quite clicked and whether this ongoing trend hints at a transformative shift in the industry—one that could make the traditional role of creative directors obsolete.

Let’s pause and reflect: does this traditional figure still hold relevance in today’s fashion landscape?


Navigating Expectations: The New and the Eternal Pursuit of Profit

When a fashion brand appoints a new creative director, it takes on the task of revitalising its rich heritage to resonate with a younger audience and new generations.

Is working for a brand about prioritising experience as a mediator over creative expression itself? It seems likely, as preserving the heritage of a fashion house while injecting innovation limits creative freedom compared to crafting personal collections driven by passion and curiosity—unhindered by constraints and liberated from the burden of meeting the revenue targets set by corporate conglomerates.


The Pitfalls of Influencer Designers

Undoubtedly, the phenomenon of the “cool kids on the block” hasn’t produced the expected results. Some companies mistakenly believed that having a strong presence on social media would automatically revive their brand due to the extensive followings of these influencers.


The Rise of Second-in-Command Talents

Some brands are choosing to promote internal talents to top creative roles instead of relying on celebrity designers. Additionally, emerging young creatives are being given opportunities to make their mark, indicating a potential shift away from the era of established designers.

Gucci stands out as a pioneer in promoting second-in-command talents to top creative positions. This trend began with the appointment of Alessandro Michele as creative director in 2015, after he served as the associate director under his predecessor, Frida Giannini. Gucci continued this pattern by selecting Sabato De Sarno in January 2023, leveraging his extensive fourteen-year career at Valentino, where he held various positions and ultimately became the fashion director of men’s and women’s ready-to-wear. 

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Un post condiviso da Sabato De Sarno (@sabatods)

Another successful example is Bottega Veneta, where Matthieu Blazy transitioned from RTW design director under former creative director Daniel Lee to the top post.

Additionally, Chemena Kamali deserves mention for assuming leadership at Chloé after Gabriela Hearst. Kamali’s debut collection, presented at the recent Paris Fashion Week Women’s Fall-Winter 2024/25, garnered industry-wide acclaim.

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Un post condiviso da Chemena Kamali (@chemena)

As previously mentioned, the fashion industry is experiencing a wave of fresh talent, with individuals like Stefano Gallici, born in 1996, taking on the role of creative director at Ann Demeulemeester and Seán McGirr assuming the position of creative director at Alexander McQueen. It will take time for them to showcase their talent and navigate the fast-paced, challenging fashion industry. Hopefully, fashion houses will provide them with the necessary support to succeed.

With this scenario in mind, we must consider the trend of more and more brands opting for lesser-known individuals or collaborative design teams instead of relying on a single visionary leader. Has the era of superstar designers truly come to an end? One thing is clear: if things haven’t worked out in recent years, we shouldn’t solely blame creative directors. Instead, we need to examine whether there’s a lack of long-term vision at the top management of fashion houses and conglomerates, which have often prioritised immediate success.


Beyond the Creative Director: What’s Next?

As previously discussed, the fashion industry operates within a demanding landscape where profitability often takes precedence over creative endeavours. In this environment, the creative director plays a multifaceted role, serving as both a revenue driver and a bridge between tradition and innovation.

Today, fashion houses expect a more understated and ‘low-profile’ approach, urging creative directors to balance aesthetics, financial viability, and marketing strategies. 

While some appointments involve renowned figures, others bring lesser-known names to the spotlight. Moreover, certain brands have opted to forgo a creative director altogether or are still seeking the right fit, relying on design studios for collections.

Predicting the future is an exercise in futility. It’s often wiser to approach each day as it comes, especially in the volatile world of fashion. However, could some fashion houses benefit from a pause in the constant rotation of creative directors? Perhaps they could refocus internally, rediscover their roots, and solidify their identity before entrusting creative leadership to a new individual. And when the right leader emerges, allowing them the time to align with the brand’s values without overwhelming expectations may not be a far-fetched idea but rather a pragmatic and sustainable approach.



Agnese Pasquinelli
Fashion Business, Digital Communication & Media student, 3rd year, Milan