The Untold Stories of the Designers Working Behind the Scenes at Your Favorite Houses

For every creative director basking in the spotlight, there's a team of people toiling behind the curtain who will never get credit — and some of them like it that way.

A look from Celine's Spring 2014 collection. Photo: Imaxtree
A look from Celine's Spring 2014 collection. Photo: Imaxtree

There are two types of designers that are typically glorified in fashion conversations: The creative directors who helm legacy houses or contemporary brands, and the entrepreneurial types who start buzzy new labels. 

But the reality is that for the majority of people who work in fashion design, "making it" in the industry looks very different. Rather than being in the spotlight as an "artistic genius," a brand leader or founder, these creatives are often working behind the scenes, quietly sketching and conceptualizing pieces that will end up in collections they may never get to take public credit for. And some of them are perfectly happy with that.

Take Norman René Devera, for example. Currently a senior designer of womenswear at Calvin Klein, Devera's resumé reads like a list of fashion's greatest hits. He worked under Phoebe Philo at Celine when it was still Céline, Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton and Alber Elbaz at Lanvin before landing in his current position under Raf Simons. As far as Devera is concerned, the benefits of learning from and working with the industry's greatest talents is more valuable than seeing his name in lights.

"I don't feel like I need the whole world to be able to say, 'Oh, he did this or that.' I'm not here for the glory," Devera says when we meet up in New York. "The glory is to be able to say I worked with these directors, and these directors are some of the best of our time. That's enough."

Devera says that laboring under the vision of so many different famed designers has required that he become an aesthetic chameleon. Before he starts any new role, he obsessively studies past collections to "get inside the mind of the creative director." But he maintains that design peers who are familiar with his method — Devera prefers to start the design process by draping in the tradition of the old masters, rather than using 2D sketches like many of his contemporaries — might still be able to recognize his unique touch in what comes down the runway, even without a name attached.

Accessories designer Mariza Scotch, who's designed for Salvatore Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren, Kate Spade, Tod's, Isaac Mizrahi and Gap, has a different approach to finding her way forward each time she starts at a new brand.

"I tend to be hired by brands or by people who would like to invent a new chapter. It's a bit like renovating an old house as opposed to building a new one," Scotch says on the phone from Paris. "My through-line is: When I see a brand, I think, 'What is the essence of this brand or what should it be, and how can I express that in the smallest possible number of visual elements?'"

Designer Mariza Scotch (wearing glasses) working with handbag manufacturers in Italy. Photo: Courtesy of Mariza Scotch
Designer Mariza Scotch (wearing glasses) working with handbag manufacturers in Italy. Photo: Courtesy of Mariza Scotch

In Scotch's case, that's sometimes meant overhauling the way a team thinks about design in order to help it better get at the core of what it stands for. While working at Ralph Lauren in the '90s, for example, Scotch created new signature hardware and modified the branding and logo that she felt would be too "garish" to work harmoniously with the kinds of handbags she wanted to produce. 

Still, that didn't mean bucking the vision of Ralph Lauren himself. In order to revamp accessories in a way that would fit the visual world Lauren inhabited, Scotch paid attention to other things that she knew he liked, going beyond the obvious answers like sports cars and monograms to draw from more obscure visual references like bank vaults and safes — "because he loves money," she laughs.

"I almost thought of it as being like the interpreter at the UN who is translating speeches," she says. "I saw my role as being a really close listener and not only paying attention to visual cues and gestures, but really reading the person in as many ways as I could and then trying to feel what made him excited and happy. It was the process of turning what I felt his emotion and aspirations were into products."

Years of working at a range of brands both high-end and mass-market have helped Scotch refine her own sensibility and values to the point that she's been able to launch a successful consulting firm where brands come to seek out her perspective. The flexibility she enjoys as a free agent with no eponymous brand attached to her name is part of what appeals to other designers like Dan-Yun Huang, currently part of the design team at Phillip Lim, about their own jobs. 

Huang, who was one of Devera's colleagues at Celine, decided to make the move to Phillip Lim in part for the opportunity to get a better grip on the business side of running a brand. It's the kind of learning she says some of her former classmates from design school are gleaning from starting and running their own brands, but she feels she's getting just as good of a real-life education by moving from a big European house to a smaller American one where she can be more hands-on with numerous aspects of the business.

"It's a question of spending your own money or spending other people's money [while you learn]," she jokes when I interview her in New York. "I have lots of friends [who started their own labels], and even if they're doing quite well, their salary is not comparable to working at a big brand."

Huang says the only time it's bothered her that she can't take credit for her individual designs is when she's doing things like applying for a visa in a new country, since solid proof that the work she does is valued and unique in her industry can help on those applications. Otherwise, she says, the financial stability and chance to learn — whether that be from a creative director whose name everyone knows or an industry veteran who has decades of valuable experience behind the scenes — is gratifying enough.

Though Scotch understands the appeal of graduating from design school and trying to start a brand right off the bat — if she ever starts a brand of her own, she says, it will be because she wants to partner with her daughter on a project — she encourages any young designer to interrogate that instinct in themselves before jumping in.

"I don't think that starting a new brand necessarily equates with something interesting or valuable that is going to improve people's lives or the culture. I don't think that exponential expansion of brand upon brand upon brand is sustainable," Scotch says. "In a world where every single person needs to have or be their personal own brand at this point, it's an act of rebellion to go the other way."

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