Raf Simons’s last collection for Christian Dior, SS16 collection. Photo: Getty Images
Fashion is undergoing a seismic shift. Two weeks ago, Raf Simons announced he was leaving Dior; last week, Lanvin parted ways with beloved long-time designer Alber Elbaz, and earlier this season Balenciaga swapped Alexander Wang for Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia. Any editor will tell you that three makes a trend. Unfortunately, in this case, the trend isn’t very flattering to the fashion industry.
There’s been a lot of talk about burnout; that fashion’s ever-increasing pace is becoming unsustainable and designers, over-worked and under-supported, are paying the price. Questions—and hackles—have been raised: Can luxury fashion support the kind of growth it’s seen in the past decade? And if not, as the answer increasingly appears to be, what will happen next? A slow-down—or a crash? While burnout has certainly played a part in recent developments, the sheer amount of upheavals suggests there may be larger issues at play, including consumers and designers’ shifting attitudes towards big-name luxury houses.
Landing at the helm of a storied French label, like Dior or Balenciaga, used to represent the pinnacle of success within the fashion industry; today, more designers are gravitating towards working independently, preferring to build the brands that bear their names. Both Wang and Simons cited their own namesake labels as reasons to leave their prestigious posts. When Marc Jacobs announced he would be leaving Louis Vuitton at the end of 2013, it was so he could refocus on his own, already-successful, brand. (Although there has been some chatter of late about the uncertainty of Jacobs’ namesake label.)
In a sense, the luxury fashion industry is just playing catchup: the trend toward start-up entrepreneurialism is already well-established elsewhere, particularly in tech and media. According to the Kaufman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, more people than ever before are starting their own companies. At the same time, a 2012 MetLife study found that employee loyalty is at an all-time low and that, according to a report from Accenture, the younger generation of workers has little to no interest in working for corporations. It’s no surprise, then, that in our startup landscape—where the entrepreneur is king—building one’s own namesake brand may be the ultimate cache for a designer, more prestigious, even, than helming a mega-label.
It also might fit into consumers’ shifting priorities.
“Previously, a luxury brand was more about being creative,” explained Bernadette Kissane, an apparel analyst at Euromonitor. “Now, it’s more about business. It’s a lot more corporate.” And, as we’ve already touched upon, there’s nothing so deeply uncool these days as being corporate, particularly to Millennial consumers who, Kissane points out, prize authenticity above all else.
“I think there is [more interest in off-the-beaten path luxury labels,” said Godfrey Deeny, editor-at-large at Le Figaro. “If you look at My Theresa, or Moda Operandi, or Yoox’s Avenue, there’s a whole series of websites that cater to that interest. It’s a slight reaction against what is perceived to be corporate fashion.”
A runway look from Vetements’ SS16 collection, which set its runway show in a Chinese restaurant.. Photo: Getty Images
Part of the appeal of an under-the-radar label like Vetements is that it recaptures some of the exclusivity of luxury fashion. “A huge part of luxury’s appeal used to be this idea of exclusivity,” said Kissane. “That’s been diluted a bit because of diffusion lines, and fast-fashion.”
“I think everything else is so readily available,” said Roberta Benteler, founder of Avenue32, an e-commerce store that specializes in hard-to-find brands. “Under the radar labels offer something much less accessible and potentially collectable.” And less likely to wind up as a knockoff in Zara. For the discerning fashion consumer, a smaller brand like Raf Simons may confer more status than Dior, since it implies a certain savviness and not just a large discretionary budget.
The shift in consumer’s tastes also comes at a time when designers have more power than ever to control their own narrative via social media and e-commerce. According to ABC News, customers are less brand-loyal than ever; at the same time, thanks to social media, they have more knowledge of–and allegiance to—individual designers.
“Social Media and particularly Instagram certainly has a massive influence on the entire fashion industry,” said Benteler. “Olivier Rousteing is a good example in my opinion. Although he is the creative designer for Balmain, he has [his own presence] on Instagram and is establishing a base of loyal followers through cleverly marketing himself with the help of Kim Kardashian, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, among others.” Designers like Jacobs, Simons, and Wang no longer need the PR powerhouse that comes with big-name brands in order to stay relevant.
Balmain designer Olivier Rousteing’s Instagram post of himself with model Kendall Jenner. Photo: Instagram/olivier_rousteing
But, the question remains: How will luxury fashion grapple with this new landscape?
The answer may lie in looking back at the changes that fashion media underwent in the past decade. Five years ago, as print circulation numbers continued to slide, it became readily apparent that the industry’s best and brightest writers, editors and stylists were all too content to create their own opportunities, starting their own blogs and websites, or freelancing for non traditional outlets. Back then, there was a sense that there was a limit on how many blogs, social media accounts and websites would be able to thrive. Today, we know that media consumers’ appetites are far more insatiable then we could have ever thought. What’s changed, isn’t how much but where: Today, we may choose to pick up Vogue to discover fashion’s latest trends and designers, but we no longer have to. It’s just as likely that we’ll find what we’re looking for on Instagram or our favorite blog. We have more choices than ever. If fashion media is any indication, luxury fashion isn’t headed for a slow-down so much as a dispersion.
Just as old-guard media titles had to relinquish authority—and market share—to upstart media companies, big-name luxury labels may also be facing a diminished monopoly on forward-thinking design. Independent designers and young labels are more than equipped to fill the void.
“The digital era has completely changed rules of the game in that the whole new gang of young designers have now become global brands,” said Deeney. “But the idea that [fashion’s pace] has peaked is completely untrue.”