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The Cult of The Designer Who Transcends The Brand

By Jackie Mallon

Jul 26, 2017


Upon hearing the news that Bouchra Jarrar was out at Lanvin, and Olivier Lapidus had been signed, many in the fashion world sighed at the reopening of an old wound. The widespread feeling that the company is flogging a dead horse and hoping it will still pull the weight of management’s series of tone-deaf, misguided decisions can be felt in articles such as “Can Anyone Save Lanvin now?” recently published in The Business of Fashion. Popular opinion is there can be no replacement for Alber Elbaz, the beloved creative director who, after fourteen years, was ignominiously fired in 2015. It was the fashion equivalent of the Brangelina divorce, and in the aftermath of ugly accusations, court cases, and crying atelier staff, property was divided. Lanvin naturally got to keep the house and its contents. Elbaz got us.

Gone but not forgotten

What is it that makes some designers worm their way deep into our hearts while others, who look equally good on paper, don’t even remain in our memories after one season? When Meryl Streep presented Elbaz with the Superstar Award on behalf of Fashion Group International just three weeks before his termination, she gushed, “If what you’ve made me feel over the years is multiplied by all the other women whose lives you’ve enhanced, I think you should get this every year.” That’s it; some designers give us the feels, and others don’t.

Helmut Lang hasn’t had a hand in making clothes for over a decade, but the reverence with which his name is spoken, the obsessive search for original pieces still in circulation, demonstrates his continued influence. It’s important to add that we’re not referring to the NYC contemporary label that now bears his name owned by Link Theory holdings. The admiration I refer to is usually prefaced with old Helmut Lang, or 90s Helmut Lang, or when he was doing it. Lang traded design for art in 2005 and donated or shredded his archive, only adding to the desirability of his clothes, and making a career for David Casavant, an avid collector since the age of 14, who now rents pieces to celebrities like Kanye West and Rihanna.

Interestingly the only other designer Casavant collects in similar quantity to Lang is Raf Simons, another designer who reaches beyond the houses he works for, in his case, Jil Sander, Christian Dior, and now Calvin Klein. When Simons was confirmed last year as the American megabrand’s chief creative officer, the news was received by American press with a certain amount of caution. The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Simons, though by no means unknown, is not Calvin. His name, Raf (rhymes with “laugh,” with a rolled Flemish R), is invoked with adoration in high-fashion circles. But…he has arrived in New York with less name recognition among the public.” But post-show, reviews were glowing, and The New York Times conceded, “it took a Belgian to do it.”

Leaving the establishment reeling

Hedi Slimane wielded such influence that he could convince the powers-that-be at Yves Saint Laurent to let him move the Parisian atelier to Los Angeles in 2012 and change the name of the company while he was at it. It’s worth remembering that Lang similarly upended the establishment in 1999 when he moved his New York show forward to precede Europe, thus altering the fashion calendar permanently. Stefano Pilati, Slimane’s predecessor, didn’t hold such sway. Tom Ford, like a pied piper, had us trotting after him from Gucci to Yves Saint Laurent at the turn of the millennium, then when he decided to transition into directing Hollywood features, we shifted our faithful gaze from runway to silver screen. Alessandro Facchinetti and Frida Giannini who both followed his tenure at Gucci didn’t hypnotize us in quite the same way, although the house’s current resident, Alessandro Michele has us in a Gucci thrall all over again.

The female of the species

One might be tempted then to question if male designers are simply better at seducing us than female. But Phoebe Philo, whether going girly and coquettish at Chloe, or offering elegant ease at Celine, has kept us worshipping. And Donatella Versace, whose career helming her deceased brother’s business has weathered many storms, inspires a unique empathy, even goodnatured ridicule but above all devotion. The over-the-top spectacles of her runways spill over into her personality making her a pop culture figure who has been parodied on S.N.L., appeared in a competing house’s ad campaign, with Riccardo Tisci describing her as the “ultimate icon.” Equally successful figureheads like Giorgio Armani or Burberry’s Christopher Bailey arguably do not inspire the same level of infatuation.

Those who rise above

Designers who transcend the identity of the houses that employ them tap into something intimate but urgent in us: a shared appreciation of art or music, maybe a connection to our youth, or past, or family, and can reflect not only our most glamorous selves but help us work through our hidden insecurities. An energy travels from the runway to consumer that is little powered by logo or brand but by the humanity behind the creativity. It’s as if Celine or Raf see us how we really are and we want to dress for them in a reciprocal ritual of respect.

Creating the perfect environment

Many of today’s conglomerate-owned brands may be so preoccupied with projections and quarterly gains that a new designer is pressurized to move the needle immediately. But a gentle hand is needed to allow these fragile mediums to begin to establish communication between brand and customer. They must settle into the role, feel things out, maybe infuse the air with smoking sage. Donatella was granted this as a birthright and made some stumbles, but the new guy at Lanvin? Although his father, Ted Lapidus, was a legend in French fashion, his name carries little weight internationally and, unlike Simons who was entering a receptive and willing Calvin Klein, one fears that Lanvin’s new designer is walking into chaos, a doomed solitary figure, soon to be cowering under a hail of criticism. Jarrar said four months before her termination, “I have pressure…I need the whole house’s support; alone it’s impossible.”

Ushering one designer in on the heels of another without considering the new appointee’s individual needs is like whipping a band aid off and replacing it with a fresh one, even if it is crafted of blush colored grosgrain ribbon; it does not treat the wound, only disguises it. Lanvin’s shoddy treatment of Elbaz left a bad smell about the house that all its Arpege couldn’t erase, and which Jarrar no doubt had to hold her nose against daily. Lapidus will live with it also. As brands become less trusted, and product generic, consumers are cautious of who they give their support to. C.E.O.’s can wrap themselves up in strategies and bottom lines but we the consumers want to be enraptured by a lively vision that soars beyond checks and balances; we want artistry and romance and emotion. We want to feel something, not respond to the mechanisms of stimulation that are ad campaigns and celebrity endorsements. We expect charisma, and if a creative director’s methods are unconventional, even esoteric, we assume flexibility will be introduced to allow them to thrive. We don’t want to possess slavishly; we want to be possessed spiritually. Our religious devotion must be earned, but the reward is that we will fetishize your leather goods and costume jewelry and fragrances like the true cult objects they can be.

A fuchsia feathered old Helmut Lang purse hangs on my wall. It’s too small to carry even an iPhone. But it’s a reminder that when fashion offers up something to believe in, that faith can overcome any limitations.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos: homepage courtesy Pitti Immagine. Credit: Vanni Bassetti, Givenchy Fall campaign 2015 and David Casavant Facebook