Can Today's Creative Directors Leave A Legacy?

Christian Dior. Chanel. Louis Vuitton. Saint Laurent. All brands that are synonymous with luxury. The nostalgia, representation, and allure are all a host of reasons why each season the fashion conscious flock back for more (I say flock because the anticipation of the latest Dior handbag was just about parallel to that of the iPhone 7). This influence on luxury fashion is due to decades of carefully crafted and manicured images, and the procurement of the right leadership. Think Raf Simons at Dior. Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel and Fendi. Olivier Rousteing at Balmain. Their purpose is to take the core identity of the brand and revolutionise it. But fifty years from now, will anybody remember them? Or, will they just be one piece of an intricately laid puzzle that are overlooked for the founder of the brand, or the label in its entirety?

Having creative direction of a luxury label is an increasingly daunting task—one which has led to the quick rise and demise of their leaders. Raf Simons, despite overwhelming support throughout the industry and the loyal followers of the brand, left after just a three-and-a-half year stint.  And, one thinks back upon the tragic death of Alexander McQueen. To discuss his downfall would be to inappropriately pretend to understand the intricacies of a matter far outside our comprehension. But in the age of fast fashion, in an era where expectations are increasingly hard to meet and the consumer is always waiting for newer and better, is there room to truly make a mark and in turn, leave a legacy?

Fashion, by nature, is a capricious business. Not only sustaining the legacy of the brand, but also breathing new life into it as well, has become a monumental task not many can carry. For those who can, they are often overlooked by those outside fashion circles. Riccardo Tisci, creative director of Givenchy since 2005, has made it one of the most coveted brands. His work has certainly not gone unnoticed, but one could argue that he has. Many tenures don’t exceed just a few short years, and those that surpass a decade are still often confronted with the same struggles. The fluidity of the fashion industry and it’s consumerism often supersede the role of the artist behind the creations. Let’s say that Snapchat is the current metaphor of fashion—you can watch a video and relish in it’s content in a glimpse of 10 seconds, and then it’s gone. In some ways it feels eerily similar to the life of fashion. Everybody moves on without ever paying much heed to what preceded it.

No discussion of legacies and luxury brands is complete without mentioning the king of high-fashion and pop-culture icon, Karl Lagerfeld. His tenures at Chanel, starting in 1983, and Fendi in 1965, have far surpassed any other creative director in the industry. His ability to manage multiple labels—in addition to Chanel and Fendi, he was also in charge of the French fashion house Chloé, and his own high-fashion brands (under various names)—far surpasses any competition and has left an indelible mark. Chanel grew from struggling fashion brand to luxury powerhouse today due entirely to Lagerfeld’s undertaking. In some sense, the argument of today’s creative directors becoming legacies is argued solely by Karl himself.

Olivier Rousteing took over as creative director of the Parisian fashion house, Balmain, at just 25.  Despite his unorthodox approach to the role of creative director, and the frequent disapproval from critics (Rousteing’s approach challenges the framework of traditional luxury French fashion houses), his leadership and vision have transformed Balmain into a household name. In just two years of leadership, his reach has far surpassed many of the other fashion houses. This is largely in part to leveraging his inner circles (aka the Kardashian clan, Rihanna, and a slew of top models) to be a part of the “Balmain Army”, and has brought a fresh perspective to leadership in high fashion.  In a recent interview with The Guardian, Rousteing discussed this vision. “Some people feel luxury shouldn’t look like what the masses like. They feel it should be more elitist. But Balmain talks to young people. It’s not about selling to them, it’s about making them part of my world. And the people who can afford to buy luxury fashion, today those women want to feel young. So Balmain is pop, but it is a luxury brand as well.”

Olivier Rousteing’s approach brought life back into a struggling fashion house and brought fame and acknowledgement in a way that was previously incomprehensible. But does his approach corrupt luxury fashion, or is he an example of the future?  Regardless of which camp you fall into, Rousteing is living proof that today’s creative directors can leave a legacy. Curiously, in addition to Rousteing’s design aesthetic for Balmain and his creative leadership, a large part of his legacy will be due not only to his business acumen, but also his inherent understanding of running a luxury house in the digital age. Twenty years from now, people will undoubtedly look at his tenure as a season of dominance for Balmain due to his revival of it. Chanel and Fendi have thrived season after season under the purview of Karl Lagerfeld. Marc Jacobs was revered for his role in Louis Vuitton. Rousteing represents the new legacy, and Karl Lagerfeld represents the old.  Either way, the essence of a legacy is something that not all can obtain, but those who are capable of doing so, are the true greats of the industry.