THE ART OF CRAFTSMANSHIP

Written by Ntokozo Kunene. First published in October 2012 issue of Destiny magazine

In February 2011, news of John Galliano’s suspension, then removal, as creative director of Parisian fashion house Christian Dior shook the fashion world. Soon afterwards, the media was heavy with speculation about who could succeed the limelight – loving personality whose face had become synonymous with the brand over the past 15 years.

It took Dior 13 months to replace Galliano and although profits unexpectedly grew during the time the label was without a recognised creative director, CEO Sydney Toledano insists they’d always intended to find a replacement for him. Creative directors of luxury brands like Dior are essential, he says, because ‘they and their charisma are what create breakthroughs’.

Why, then, in March this year did luxury goods company LVMH (which owns Dior) choose reclusive Belgian designer Raf Simons (who was released from Jil Sander in the same week due to the return of the eponymous designer) as Galliano’s successor?

Simons’ disposition and design aesthetic are a far cry from those of his predecessor – he established a minimal signature drawn from the linear style of fine tailoring during his tenure at Jil Sander and his own menswear label and shies away from the public, choosing to be recognized only by his work. Galliano, by contrast, not only dressed celebrities, but also relished in being one himself. Much like his contemporaries of the Nineties such as Marc Jacobs (who’s been with Louis Vuitton for the past 15 years) and Tom Ford (whose persona was inseparable from Gucci for much of the Nineties), Galliano was part of Dior’s DNA.

However, in the world of luxury today, is it necessary for the creative director’s personality to be so closely aligned with the company profile?

In the past decade some luxury brands have taken to hiring craftsman. These, writes Diana Crane in Fashion and its Social Agendas: Class, Gender and Identity (University Chicago Press), are designers who seek ‘to project a distinct image that customers understand and expect to find again each season’, which is communicated through their work, not through their personal images or celebrity status. Givenchy made Ricardo Tisci – with his distinctly Gothic, dark and romantic style – creative director in 2005. This year, Hedi Slimane – who shares Simons’ concern for fine tailoring – was appointed creative director of Saint Laurent Paris. Like Simons, neither designer is seen in the media and eschews the public sphere, yet they have found success throughout their careers, both critically and financially, at the helm of their respective labels.

Creative directors are elected as ambassadors to help consumers understand the brand. Their charisma has its advantages, but if it isn’t exercised properly, it can be counterproductive. ‘In the end’, says Toledano, ‘luxury is judged not by whether a designer’s face is on X number of posters, but by their work.’