the rise of the celebrity creative director

As more and more celebrities sign on to creative director positions at fashion brands, smartphone manufacturers, drink companies, and elsewhere, i-D asks whether these appointments are ways to inject brands with new creative energies and wider...

by Emily Manning
14 January 2015, 5:45pm

Last month, singer/actress/part time Ninja Turtle Rihanna added creative director at Puma to her ever-growing list of job titles, an occasion she celebrated by flooding Instagram with selfies snapped at the sportswear giant's German head office. Clad in white fur, pearls, and a matching pair of Pumas, Rihanna even posted a shot of herself inking the deal, captioned with "on the dotted line #PUMA." Following Justin Timberlake's takeover of Bud Light Platinum or Alicia Keys' short-lived stint at the helm of Blackberry, Rihanna's appointment is just the latest example in the growing shift from celebrities building brand partnerships as "ambassadors" to assuming actual creative director positions. But why?

The needs of celebrities, companies, and consumers have changed drastically in the internet age. Social networks and new media allow us to be constantly clued in to the celebrities we don't want to tell anyone we obsess over; with Google alerts, you can track Taylor Swift down to which flavour frappuccino she ordered at Starbucks this morning. Not only does tech provide us with a constant barrage of information about influencers' lives, they're also platforms of direct dialogue between celebrity and fan. Whether it's reddit AMAs with Tilda Swinton or #nomakeupselfies, we're closer to celebrities than we've ever been before.

Creepiness aside, this all-access culture has had a measurable impact on consumer psychology. In the past, endorsements were speedy, effective ways for a brand to generate awareness and drum up press, not to mention an even faster way for celebrities to make a quick buck flashing a smile in a pristine pair of whatevers.But when it comes to today's celebrity-brand partnerships, we're in the market for what feels real. We no longer want to buy things just because a celebrity appeared in a 15-second commercial for them, we want to buy things that we feel are actual expressions of her interests, her taste.

Given consumers' newfound thirst for authenticity, the shift from poster boy to shot caller is a logical one. But as more and more celebrities sign on to top fashion industry positions, the question arises: are these appointments ways to inject brands with new creative energies and more multifaceted perspectives, or are they simply dressed up marketing schemes that bank on celebrities' followers following them all the way to the bank?

Although the latter perspective certainly bears truth, positioning a celebrity as creative director can be beneficial for reasons other than a quick fix for a brand's bottom line. As Denise Lee Yohn argues in the Harvard Business Review, because celebrities are often the figures setting or popularising trends, it's easy to see why companies would want to directly tap into their ideas and interests to help anticipate these cultural movements and better understand target markets. Since the origins of her collaborative collections for Opening Ceremony (five years and counting), Chloe Sevigny has often steered clear of calling herself a "designer" in terms of the role's actual design component. Rather, her partnership with the brand has allowed her the forum and resources to channel her creative energies without having to sit through Patternmaking 101 at Parsons. Whether exploring the excitement and creativity of teenage years for spring/summer 15 or even resurrecting the long-lost Vision Street Wear back in 2011, Sevigny's aesthetic perspectives, personal interests, and creative choices have resulted in some serious home runs for OC, all marks of a strong creative director.

Although it can be hard to remember when the Kim Kardashians of the world are steady fixtures on the sidebar of the Daily Mail, some celebrities are actually interesting people with great taste. If appointed to actual leadership positions, celebrities can easily draw emerging talent to build collaborative partnerships with their brand. When Solange assumed a role as creative consultant for PUMA's women's lifestyle category last year, her first initiative brought together three of her favorite New York designers (Gerlan Jeans, William Okpo, and Hisham Bharoocha) to design their own versions of PUMA's Disc model. The series not only sold incredibly well, but injected a massive sportswear company with some fresh, innovative design perspectives that may never have combined forces otherwise.

In an age where an iPhone video of your wife singing Salt-N-Pepa in the car can get over 16 million views on YouTube and land her a guest spot on Ellen, well, basically anyone can become famous. Creative director positions are not only beneficial for brands looking to tap into celebrities' cultural capital, but vice-versa. By aligning with highly coveted brands in top-tier positions, celebrities seeking to establish themselves as legitimate creative forces drive up their own cultural stock.

Creative director positions can also help celebrities develop the skills to assume top titles at more established luxury brands or even embark on their own ventures the right way. Rihanna went from a multi-season collaborative position at River Island to (perhaps) an even longer lasting role with PUMA. Who's to say she isn't actually building a competitive resume? Even if Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen weren't overseeing the tech packs of every tankini produced for their Walmart junior's line back in 2001, the mini-moguls certainly honed their creative leadership abilities along the way. After ten years of complete autonomy and ownership of The Row, a bona-fide luxury brand, would you still stake their success as designers on their celebrity? After a CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year in 2012 and Accessories Designer of the Year honour this past year, I wouldn't.

Unlike most endorsements, celebrity creative directors aren't fail-safe. Look at Lindsay Lohan's long-lambasted stint at Ungaro: after signing a multi-year (and multi-million dollar) contract with the French house, LiLo showed a collection the fashion world unanimously deemed a disaster. Moreover, she was treated the way anyone similarly guilty of first degree rhinestone homicide would be: she was promptly sacked. While some celebrities are best kept far from the runway, others like Solange and Sevigny should be welcomed in positions that highly value their creative perspectives. 


Text Emily Manning
Photography courtesy Opening Ceremony

Emily Manning
creative directors