is this the beginning of the end for independent labels?
As more and more top design talent are forsaking their own labels to concentrate on big brand success, we ask what does this mean for both the industry and consumer?
What does it mean that designers are shuttering their own labels to focus on their big label gigs? Kris Van Assche has closed his eponymous brand to focus on Dior Homme, Sebastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant, previously of Coperni Femme have shuttered to concentrate on their buzzy debut at Courreges, and Anthony Vaccarello is rumored to be concentrating on Saint Laurent. And is this good for the fashion industry?
Those looking for meaning need look no further than the general malaise affecting designers. Being a fashion designer used to be super glamorous -- supermodels, champagne, doing a turn down the runway dressed in a spacesuit. But, alas, we all know what happened to John Galliano, and now he doesn't even take a bow at the end of a Margiela show. Essentially, designers have to do too much, and if you're doing eight collections or more a year, you probably don't have much creative juice left to squeeze -- it's only a matter of time till you burn out.
Could this dedication to big brands it be a good thing? For both designers and the consumer, perhaps. Creatives have a finite well of ideas from which to draw, one which gets replenished by things like time off, time to think and research. If shuttering their own labels gives them lives again, and the corresponding ideas that might come from having said life, that's great -- hopefully it means more brilliant, inventive, and beautiful clothes in stores, for us. It also seems more humane to the designers themselves, making it less likely that they quit after three years like Raf Simons at Dior, exhausted and morose.
It also eliminates some of the white noise -- there are simply too many brands, the majority of which we don't need. If there's a choice to buy a black jacket from Kris Van Assche, or one from Dior Homme, which he also designed, most would choose the Dior one (or one by his mentor Hedi Slimane, who pioneered the slim cut black suit).
It does seem weird however -- designers love having their own label, it's their whole reason for being. The total control, the creative freedom, all things you don't get at a big house. Raf Simons' eponymous venture can never have made him much money, but he still sustained it throughout his tenures at both Jil Sander and Christian Dior. Maybe the rub was that as menswear it was separate to his couture fantasy for women. But Marc Jacobs designed both Louis Vuitton and Marc Jacobs for over a decade, doing highly different womens' collections for both, not that everyone's as brilliant and mad as he is.
There are also brilliant designers who for time immemorial haven't had brands of their own. Nicolas Ghesquière very happily worked his way up at Balenciaga, and after his exit ignored calls for him to set up on his own, instead taking over Louis Vuitton. Karl Lagerfeld has always reveled in his status as a gun for hire, designing both Chanel and Fendi. Kim Jones always seems happy at Louis Vuitton, citing the access to craftspeople and technique he'd never have at his own label.
So what's the downside to designers closing their labels? Surely designers having more ideas, getting more sleep, and generally being happier is better for the buying public? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, big brands have even better product (at least one hopes). However, younger designers and graduates see the overwhelming evidence that setting up on your own can be really hideous, and thus much less likely to do it. Face it -- would you rather have a salary and benefits that come with designing ever more handbags for LVMH, or be in a drafty East London studio hand stitching wonky jumpers until you go bankrupt. More than ever, luxury brands have the pick of talent, and can point to designers such as Alessandro Michele and Sarah Burton, both of whom rose up through the ranks to become creative directors, as success stories.
The issue is there might one day be a world where there weren't any young designers to buy, write about, photograph, without their raw explosion of new ideas. Sure, young designers who join big design houses have lots of ideas, but by the time they make their way up the corporate hierarchy, they're diluted and formed to the creative director's vision. Nothing to compare to say, Gareth Pugh's first explosion onto the London design scene, or you know, McQueen's or Stella's, both of which are now huge Kering brands. Essentially it would be really bloody dull -- a world dominated by luxury behemoths.
Perhaps an indication of which way the industry swings comes once again in the form of Raf Simons, the eternal industry bellwether. Simons is rumored to be going to Calvin Klein to creatively direct across all product categories, replacing Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli. This comes shortly after his departure from Dior, where he allegedly left because he couldn't keep up with the punishing show schedule. If Simons really is charged with re-energising Calvin's product offering, will he still have time to work at the New York based brand and fly home to Antwerp for his own? Whatever he decides to do, others will follow.
Text Jack Sunnucks
Photography Ash Kingston