INTO THE LOOKING GLASS
There has, however, been a positive outcome from this situation in that a deep introspection of the fashion industry unto itself has occurred. It is not a secret that fashion is a stressful business. The great Yves Saint Laurent famously battled demons throughout his career, and Christopher Decarnin, Balmain’s former designer, parted ways with the house due to overwhelming pressure. And tragically, editor Isabella Blow and designer Alexander McQueen both took their lives seemingly due to the high-stakes world in which they worked. After this latest incident with Mr. Galliano, everything in the way that fashion functions, from the rate at which designers are expected to produce in order to meet higher and higher profit goals, to the practice of placing singular value on a figurehead designer, has come under scrutiny.
Increasing production demands on designers has become a large part of this broader conversation. Anja Vang Kragh, a designer who worked closely with Galliano both at Dior and his eponymous label, describes her time working for him as some of the best years of her life. Though in regard to the workload, she says, “To me it was quite strange that when a collection didn’t do well at Dior, the big bosses would come and say, ‘Well now we do a cruise collection or kid’s collection or menswear,’ in order to make up for it. What surprised me was that they just didn’t ask for better clothes.” Vang Kragh went on to say, “I think now they are doing 16 collections, and no matter how genius you are, no one can work this much all the time.”
Especially for Mr. Galliano, who by all accounts looked over every one of those 16 lines personally as well as his own line. “He would never let things go, there was not one thing that was not supervised by him,” says Elisa Palomino, a designer based in London. Palomino was one of the first people to join the team at Galliano as his studio manager and remains in Galliano’s close stable of consorts. “He was so right and when you would see it you would know,” she says. “He has had a wonderful team over the years, but the talent is his.”
Recently, LVMH has made a move showing heightened consideration of their designers. The brand Céline, another strong label in the French conglomerate’s stable, recently cancelled its Paris runway show and instead opted for a presentation because its designer, Phoebe Philo, was eight months pregnant.
And maybe Galliano isn’t really all that valuable? Not having a designer for Dior as the “official face,” as fashion writer Vanessa Friedman calls it, has not hurt sales a bit. Dior’s retail sales were up 27 percent in the first three quarters of 2011, and general turnover went up 21 percent compared to the same period in 2010. Ms. Friedman adds, “Maybe they don’t need a high-cost, high-maintenance, high-salary star at the helm?”
“You take a company like Nike, whose numbers are so tremendous, that no one can touch them. And what does Nike do? They put a team of innovators, as opposed to an individual behind their products, which is better strategically,” says David Gensler, the CEO and founder of the Keystone Design Union which consults for brands like Nike on corporate strategy. “Don’t put all the attention on the quarterback, focus on the team as a whole. The fashion industry often makes the mistake of putting all the attention on the figure head, instead of saying, ‘here is the team.’”
There are fashion brands that have utilized this method successfully, most famously, Maison Martin Margiela. One of the more experimental and revered houses in fashion, the Margiela brand is built on anonymity. The designer and founder, Martin Margiela, has never so much as been photographed, bar one picture, which ran in The New York Times in 2008, taking complete attention away from himself as a figurehead. As a result, public focus is kept on the clothes and the collaborative effort it takes towards their creation. Clearly there are other successful models than “designer as figurehead,” so perhaps it can even work for Dior. Is John Galliano needed to lead a label, much less, wanted?