Written by Vanessa Friedman
(New York Fashion Week)
In the fall of 2018, Jean-Philippe Hecquet, the newly installed chief executive of Lanvin, was looking for a designer to save the oldest French fashion house in continuous existence. The stakes were high. The brand’s collections had been critically savaged since parting ways with Alber Elbaz, its former creative director, in 2015.
It had quickly run through two other creative directors without success, and sales were plummeting. The house had a new owner, the Chinese group Fosun International, and it wanted a turnaround before Lanvin drifted off to the land of irrelevance. So what did Hecquet do?
Cherchez the millennial.
He hired Bruno Sailelli, age 31. Hecquet made a big bet on a very young, unproven name. And in doing so, he became the latest in a growing group of established brands to hand the keys to the creative kingdom to a new generation of designers.
Aside from Sailelli at Lanvin, in the last year alone Daniel Lee became creative director of Bottega Veneta at age 32 (he is now 33); Daniel Roseberry joined Schiaparelli, age 33; and Rushemy Botter and Lisi Herrebrugh landed at Nina Ricci, ages 36 and 29. Then Rihanna, 31, became the first creative to get a new label at LVMH since 1987.
They joined a club that includes Jonathan Anderson at Loewe (35), Francesco Risso at Marni (36), Julien Dossena at Paco Rabanne (36) and Olivier Rousteing at Balmain (33).
The buzziest names of fashion month, which begins this week in New York before rolling out to London, Milan and Paris, are all under 35: Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss (32), Telfar Clemens (34) and Brandon Maxwell (34), the Council of Fashion Designers of America Womenswear Designer of the Year 2019, in New York; Grace Wales Bonner in London (27); and Simon Porte Jacquemus (29) and Marine Serre (27) in Paris.
“The new luxury has brought a major aesthetic discontinuity, which is getting some brands and designers out of sync with the zeitgeist,” Luca Solca, a luxury analyst at Bernstein, wrote in an email. “This has been driven by younger consumers embracing a more informal definition of fashion. This is also producing a generation shift in the designer ranks.”
Fashion loves a trend, not to mention a new discovery, and it’s possible that this is simply the latest example. But the sheer number of designers of a certain age range, and the span of countries and kinds of brands they now run, suggests the change may be more systemic in nature; may, in fact, signify a meaningful shift in the demographics of fashion power.
Gen Y has reached critical mass. And that has repercussions not only for consumers and the industry, but also for the Gen X creatives who came before.
Younger, Younger, Younger
“They always want younger, younger younger,” one headhunter in Paris said of the fashion executives for whom he worked. (The New York Times agreed to grant him anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.) “We have put forth talent in their mid-50s who were exceptional, and they were summarily rejected.”
Fashion — even the most expensive, traditional kind — has long had a yen for the disruptive stylings of youth; has long been mining their wardrobe reinventions for ideas. But this development is less about aesthetics than behavior and points of view. And it is part of a historical pattern.
There have been such tectonic shifts before: times when major groupings of designers seemed to arrive en masse, as opposed to the lone breakthroughs of wunderkind outliers like Yves Saint Laurent, who took the reins at Dior at age 21.
Often they rode the wave of broader social movements: in the 1960s, the youthquake was given shape by Mary Quant, André Courrèges and Betsey Johnson; in the ’90s, the YBDs (young British designers), John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, took over the French establishment at the time of Cool Britannia.
“Fashion has its own class system, and this is what I call the fourth class: the youth,” said Colin McDowell, the author of “McDowell’s Directory of 20th Century Fashion.” “They rise up every few decades.”
The main forces driving the move this time are the rise of the millennial consumer and the technological transformation of 2007, when the smartphone — and many of the social media platforms it enabled — emerged, changing human interaction just when Gen Y was entering its majority.
Yet no executive or headhunter will acknowledge that fashion brands increasingly see age as a criterion for hiring a designer, for understandable legal reasons. Rather, they discuss the importance of “digital,” of “having a community,” of “a willingness to change,” of understanding that the world now wants not so much “beautiful products” as “beautiful products that reflect values.”
There’s no question that such qualifications can be found in designers of any age. Alessandro Michele, the creative director of Gucci, is one of the pacesetters for the industry, and he’s 47. But there is also no question that these are values most often associated with millennials.
‘You Don’t Need to Train Them or Teach Them or Force Them’
Gen Yers don’t necessarily make different clothes — or not dramatically different clothes. They aren’t the so-called streetwear generation (Gen X is actually behind a lot of that — at least the commercial exploitation of it) or the gender-fluid generation. But they do think about how those clothes reach the end user in different ways, and they do talk about them differently, and see their roles differently.
So when François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, which owns Bottega Veneta, was interviewing designers for the top job at that brand and wanted to speak to them about sustainability, he said that what struck him about Lee was that, “it is a given.”
“He didn’t even understand why we were asking him about it,” Pinault said. He also said that when they first spoke, Lee didn’t even talk about products — just the abstract meaning of the brand.
Similarly, Hecquet of Lanvin noted that designers who grew up in the social media age are “digitally savvy.”
“The way they think, the way they operate in their personal lives, there is less resistance to the way of communicating on social networks,” he said. “You don’t need to train them or teach them or force them — it’s natural, and customers can feel that.”
It’s no accident that Olivier Rousteing of Balmain was among the first major designers to have a public personal Instagram profile, or that Daniel Roseberry staged his first show for Schiaparelli by plunking himself down in the middle of his runway, sketching, instead of hiding mysteriously backstage. People were wondering who the new guy they had never heard of was? Well, there he was! Check him out.
“For many candidates, the number of followers is a key part of their résumé,” said Michael Boroian, the founder of the executive search firm Sterling International, which specializes in the luxury industry.
Also, of course, relatively young, untested designers tend to be cheaper, at a time when geopolitics and the possibility of a recession are sending tremors through the industry.
“The existing creative directors have been making a ton of money,” Boroian said. “One of the people I know was on an 8-million-euro package. The new crew tends to go from 500,000 euros to 2 million, though the latter would have to have a following, so from the very beginning their name would be a mover of product. But the compensation structure is less onerous for the brand. And in return, they get loyalty.”
In fact, a brand gets more than that: It also gets a name that will not overshadow the brand name, because most of these designers were second in command, working behind the scenes before being elevated. And, said Hecquet: “They don’t have any bad or comfortable habits. They are not used to having a huge team.”
They are not committed to a two-season cycle, private planes and yachts, sable and vicuña. They are relaxed about the idea of change. Disruption for them is business as usual.
Follow the Money
In addition, as Achim Berg, the head of McKinsey & Co.’s apparel, fashion and luxury group, noted, “younger designers are closer to the consumer.” This may seem obvious, but given the potential pitfalls involved in opting for an unknown, it’s also risky.
That is why big brands like Dior and Givenchy often stick to big names like Maria Grazia Chiuri and Clare Waight Keller, both of whom are Gen X designers and had proven track records at the top of other brands (Chiuri at Valentino and Keller at Chloé).
Choosing to turn the generation wheel adds a dimension of “is he up to the job?” scrutiny to the work of designers who are already under significant pressure to reinvent an aesthetic, not to mention lead groups of people who may often be older than them.
Still, the millennial consumer has become the market every brand wants to own, and it is possible that the millennial designer is the fastest, most effective way into their mindset and wallet.
“Millennials are a key audience for today and tomorrow,” Hecquet said. “Not the only one, but for sure it helps to have a young designer because the way he does things will naturally attract the younger consumer.”
“They don’t just buy products, they are buying a message,” Hecquet continued. “That’s what you need to build a movement.” (This is especially important if a brand has lost much of its identity.) “The new generation wants to see the back story, they want to know who a designer is. He is the face of a brand, so, of course, having a 31-year-old brings a new audience.”
This is even more crucial when it comes to China, which despite trade wars and political tension, is for many brands still the promised land of future growth, and where millennials are the highest-spending age group. According to McKinsey’s 2019 China Luxury Report, the approximately 10.2 million Chinese millennial luxury consumers are the “driving force of the country’s luxury appetite,” accounting for more than half the total spending on luxury in 2018 — which is to say, more than half of the $115 billion spent at home and abroad.
By 2025, Chinese consumers are expected to account for 40% of worldwide luxury spending. In the United States, millennials accounted for approximately $200 billion in consumer spending in 2018, according to McKinsey. Ka-ching.
The Gen X Puzzle
Combined with fashion’s own desire for change and freshness, be it in garments, retail strategy or actual employees, this has created an environment increasingly receptive to the idea of looking past the usual names — those that have been, for the last few years, on the short list for every job that opened up at a big brand.
It also explains why they may have been bypassed in the end. Gen X designers, after all, were forged in a time when luxury had a different understanding of its own identity.
“For years the sense of purpose of a brand could be implicit in exquisite bags and clothes, but today, because of the global challenges, companies need to be very explicit about their sense of purpose,” Pinault said. “And I think this means more and more young designers will appear. They get that.” (That said, it is worth pointing out that the corporate side of things is still dominated by Gen Xers and boomers).
McDowell believes the momentum may be irrevocable, and that while designers in their late 40s and 50s are no longer the names of first resort, they will still be in demand for the one-off collaboration and guest star role. But “are they going to get another big job?” he said. “No. I don’t think so.”
There will be exceptions, of course, but the physics of fashion are working against them, as is the industry’s deep-seated and defining desire for newness. It’s part of the myth that fashion tells itself about itself. And now it’s reality.
“I don’t regret for a minute taking this risk,” Hecquet said.