Style Latest - - by Kemi Akilapa

What the f*** is happening to French fashion houses?

What the f*** is happening to French fashion houses?

The fashion industry is self-imploding into a state of unbridled turmoil right now; in less than four months, three of the biggest, – not to mention influential fashion labels worldwide – namely Balenciaga, Dior and Lanvin have lost/fired/parted ways with their respective creative directors. It was one thing when Alexander Wang jumped ship and abandoned Balenciaga but now that Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz are out the door it looks like haemorrhaging your main-main is the latest trend. Sacre bleu!

The announcement of Alexander Wang’s departure from Balenciaga (said to be a mutual decision)
was a surprise but not an entirely shocking one. Wang is dubbed the cool kid of New York, but when Balenciaga announced his appointment as Creative Director with them in 2012 it was a surprise to say the least. As the master of street-wear, it was questioned how he would approach a luxury label and live up to Cristobal Balenciaga’s legacy – not to mention please the French fashion crowd. While his integration of sportswear with haute couture crafting did appeal to the younger crowd (surely one of the main objectives behind his appointment), and though towards the end of his tenure, the experimentation did result in a few interesting propositions, he never quite proved to be the kind of multi-faceted genius a brand like that requires – and barely a tear was shed with his exit. Even the designer himself seemed to be happy to return to his comfort zone as the king of New York cool.

However when Raf Simons parted ways with Dior it was an abrupt, heart wrenching end to a short but fascinating journey that saw him at the beginning as the much talked about but odd choice for the famed label to a universally applauded saviour of the brand.  At the beginning the former Jil Sander employee and couture newbie had worried the industry as to whether he could successfully take over from his extravagant predecessor. He put an end to the suspicious whispers by regularly paying tribute to the namesake while bringing his own creativity to the collections with his trademark intellectual-yet-earthy femininity, best embodied by his muse and Dior face Jennifer Lawrence. All that coupled with his unassuming personal style saved the world renowned label from the distasteful publicity it had attracted and transported the house of Dior back to its glory days. Once in the shadow of another menswear-turned-womenswear designer colleague, Hedi Slimane, it was now clear who’s the real talent and who hides behind a lot of PR smoke and mirrors. But all that recognition and industry love was not enough to stop Raf from walking away for, quote ‘personal reasons.’

Two months, two exits. It might have seemed like we were done for at least a month when it comes to shocking, fashion headline-making announcement – but no. Not to be outdone, Lanvin announced (within the same week, no less) that their creative director of fourteen years Alber Elbaz, was leaving his position. Elbaz confirmed this in his statement:

“At this time of my departure from Lanvin on the decision of the company’s majority shareholder, I wish to express my gratitude and warm thoughts to all those who have worked with me passionately on the revival of Lanvin over the last 14 years; express my affection to all my wonderful colleagues in the Lanvin ateliers who accompanied me, and who enriched and supported my work,” he wrote. “Together we have met the creative challenge presented by Lanvin and have restored its radiance and have returned it to its rightful position among France’s absolute luxury fashion houses.”

In less than a week’s time Elbaz was the next to walk the plank. Alber Elbaz (who owns 10% of Lanvin – so it’s not all sorrow) was more than just a good designer. He brought Lanvin back to life; a brand he formally described as ‘sleeping beauty’, and has since been favoured by Academy Award Winners Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman and despite being on the short list of every high fashion appointment within the past five years, showed public alliance and loyalty to the brand in 2011 to the Financial Times in regards to moving to another label ‘How could I do that? The people who work there enable me to do what I do. They are my orchestra. I can’t say to them, ‘Oh, bye, mummy’s leaving now.’ ” That, coupled with brand’s good performance, was a reason for many to believe Elbaz was on the same career trajectory as Karl Lagerfeld – not pursuing his own label but becoming so intrinsically woven in to the very fabric of the brand he heads up as to be indispensable. So the whole affair was a shock to all those affected, his profession admirers as well as  his co-workers, who in complete shock over his firing chanted Alber Alber Alber (an anonymous employee revealed to French radio station RTL), which in true French fashion lead to  protesting and demanding he be reinstated as their leader, to the extend of legal action.

But all comes down to money in the end – in recent seasons Lanvin’s stock has dropped slightly. The brand is estimated to of made 250 million euros in 2014, but it is not growing as rapidly as it once was, therefore needed more financial backing, a price that majority share holder Taiwanese publishing magnate Shaw-Lan Wang is setting to high. It’s clear that Shaw-Lan and Alber have different ideas from the vision and future of Lanvin so perhaps is after some “young blood” to spruce up the label’s image and customer.

Many of us saw it as nothing more than sheer luck of the draw that Wang and Simons were packing up, (coincidentally both have served three years in their positions) but Elbaz placed a long-standing and well supported commitment to his job for over a decade. In 2014, when The New York Times spotlighted his creative space at Lanvin headquarters he confessed “the minute I get out of my office, I feel like I’m worth nothing”. Elbaz gave Lanvin everything; an entirely new professional image in the narcissistic world of social media, kindness to all those he professionally crossed paths with and morale for his colleagues.

It puzzles curious minds as to why such talented, capable and beloved designers are leaving their highly sought after positions in the fashion capital of the world. It’s no secret that the fashion industry is fickle, after all you’re only as good as your last collection. One day you’re the toast of the town, and the next you’re out on your impeccably tailored derrière. But could there be more to the story than this? All three designers were talented and right for their positions in different ways, the reviews of the shows are proof of this.

The role of creative director, particularly in such high profile fashion houses, as desired as it is, is an exhausting position. In 2011, Christophe Decarnin’s exit from his appointment at Balmain was the result of a mental breakdown with Alain Hivelin, Balmain’s owner, explaining to The Telegraph that Decarnin was “tired, after working on the collection. No, he’s NOT retired. He’s just tired. He didn’t go to bed until 5 a.m. He’s not here, he’s resting”, similar to Yves Saint Laurent’s episodes. When Simons announced his exit was due to ‘personal reasons’; citing his request to find a work and home life balance it was all but an admittance that it was a case of protecting himself from a physical and creative burnout. John Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst, Marc Jacobs’ well documented struggles with drugs and alcohol – all could be traced down to crazy demands and pace of the job. Back in the day, a designer was only responsible for two, four at the most (if you were lucky enough to work for a couture house) collections a year. Now, with the resort and pre-fall seasons added to the main schedule and diffusion lines sprouting left and right, we could be talking up to 12 different collections. So no wonder Simons was under a lot of pressure, and though he didn’t crack under it, he probably felt it coming and using his common sense, escaped just in time.

But the pace is not just responsible for physical and mental exhaustion – it also doesn’t allow designers to do what they do best – design. All good design is rooted in experimentation, something you can’t afford when you have a collection to produce within weeks. That could have been Wangs downfall – as said before, in his last seasons he grew bolder and more experimental, but critics lamented it was a case of too little, too late. Did we mention he was in his position for only three years, with no previous experience of working for a couture house? Well, note it down – three years is a fashion equivalent of a decade.

Unlike Wang and Simons, Elbaz was fired from his position, after a disagreement with  Shaw-Lan Wang, a fact made explicitly clear in his official statement. Although we’d never know exactly what the essence of the argument was, to paraphrase the saying, if you don’t know what it’s about it is probably about money. Brands are greedy – it’s no good to be delivering good, commercially viable and artistically credible clothes that sell well. They have to sell extremely well – in fact they need to sell better than the season before, and so on, and so on. But fashion is not stock exchange – people only buy a limited amount of clothes each season. Regardless, stockholders and CEO’s of fashion labels are striving for ever growing shares of the market, by expanding to China and Middle East countries – and if it doesn’t work out, nobody blames the strategy or the financial officers – it’s always the designer who’s head is on the line.

It’s up in the air where each of these former creative directors will take their career to now. It seems obvious that Wang and Simons will presumably be concentrating on their namesake brands, but Elbaz’s future is less clear. Could it be that Elbaz is heading over to Dior for the prized position? Or is it most likely that with the support of his legion of followers (which now include his activist Lanvin employees), Elbaz will launch his own label? Or will he follow in the footsteps of another designer who got fired, despite unanimous respect and his own devotion to the brand, over money – we’re talking Nicolas Ghesquiere here, who took a long holiday after his Balenciaga dismissal.

Unfortunately for the impatient among us only time will tell, if the right decisions for Balenciaga, Dior and Lanvin have been made. But regardless of personal preference there is no denying the indisputable and quite frankly raw talent Elbaz, Simons and Wang possess and creative direction they took the respective brands to, and the challenge of replacing them will be no easy feat. Just like there’s no denying that we’re probably due for another round of fashion dismissals. All along now, with Sir Alan Sugar: “You’ve been fired!”.




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