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Why Do We Treat A Fashion Designer Leaving A Brand Like Someone Dying?

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In late October 2015, Raf Simons left Dior as creative director, and the fashion world let out a collective gasp — or maybe it was a scream. Vogue.com’s chief critic wrote, “Hearing today that Raf Simons has resigned from Christian Dior stopped me in my tracks, as it did everyone else.” The Financial Times wrote that it spoke to the “creative tensions of luxury” as well as the “precarious transience of contracts.” Fans of Dior posted emotional Instagram posts, square after square of frothy floral ball gowns, playfully proportioned separates, and modern suits that became his signature during his tenure. Three years after Raf Simons had revived a historic but creatively extinct house, he was letting it die all over again.

Or so it seemed. From the hysteria and in memoriam roundups that proliferated after the news of his departure, you would think Simons himself had died. Younger fans of Dior saw this as the end of the brand they’d only recently discovered under his stewardship. But fashion is a very fancy game of musical chairs, and Simons’ departure made room for a new voice to try on the mantle. But his departure illustrated a broader, serious challenge for luxury fashion: How do historic houses stay relevant and innovative? And how have radical appointments of younger designers saved — or endangered — those legacies?

The founders of legacy labels are shrouded in myth and larger-than-life origin stories. Miuccia Prada reluctantly taking over the family business after a stint as a college socialist, Coco Chanel climbing social strata two at a time, Christian Dior’s shrewd plying of Hollywood starlets to sell his “New Look ” in 1947. Just the name Versace conjures an image of Donatella’s long blonde hair hanging down her back as she walks, laughing, very tanned arm in arm with Madonna or whoever. Design was a family business, built on heritage and luxury materials and reliability, and that’s just how it was — until 1997, when Bernard Arnault, the CEO of LVMH, appointed Marc Jacobs as the head designer of Louis Vuitton women’s ready-to-wear.

Jacobs was a critical darling at that point, staging fashion shows in the streets of Soho, winning CFDA awards for turning Perry Ellis grunge, and befriending the likes of Sofia Coppola and Kim Gordon. Like so many other decisions Arnault would make, his choice of Jacobs stunned the high fashion ranks. As Dana Thomas writes in Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Jacobs brought the brand something more valuable than sales: “Jacobs’ Vuitton ready-to-wear collections immediately became the most popular and critically lauded during Paris Fashion Week and are now seen as a style bellwether for the industry.”

It was a turning point: A young, alternative designer had revitalized a once-moribund house and brought it back into the contemporary conversation. He brought a new look, unexpected collaborations, and an enviable front row. The brand was reborn, and convention was broken. Other houses began to follow suit.

In 2001, Bottega Veneta tapped Tomas Maier, who, over the past 17 years was responsible for bringing the legacy brand into the modern age, casting Insta-girls for his runway shows and, as Business of Fashion wrote, “bringing the brand out of debt and obscurity.” When François-Henri Pinault, chief executive and chairman of Kering (which owns Bottega Veneta), announced on Wednesday that Maier would be stepping down as creative director, he credited the German designer with reviving its legacy. “It’s largely due to Tomas’s high-level creative demands that Bottega Veneta became the house it is today,” Pinault said. “He put it back on the luxury scene and made it an undisputed reference.” But his leaving didn’t just signify a change for the brand — Maier was perhaps the last of a generation of designers (save for Karl Lagerfeld) lasting in creative director roles for years — or even decades.

Phoebe Philo took over as head designer at Céline in 2007 and became the house’s spiritual leader, as well as an aesthetic guru for thousands of women — known as “Philophiles ” — enamored of her minimalist aesthetic. When she decided to leave last year after a decade at the helm, fans everywhere mourned. LVMH put out a somber press release stating that they would not immediately appoint a new head designer, that the collection’s would be designed in-house, “in keeping with the craftsmanship the house is renowned for.” When news broke in early January that Hedi Slimane, the man behind the tight leather and rock & roll fetishism of recent YSL would be taking over, I thought there might be riots.

Fashion is akin to sports in the fierce attachment it inspires in its devotees. Nothing is more personal than how you decide to present yourself to the world, and when you find a designer who allows you to do that authentically, you want to hold on tightly and never let go. Devotees seek out rare items from when a brand was under the hand of a particular designer. Minimalist, earth-toned separates from Louis Vuitton under Marc Jacobs in the ‘90s, a leopard coat from Dior’s iconic “Trapeze” by a young, impossibly talented Yves Saint Laurent, absolutely anything from Rochas Fall 2013, Olivier Theyskens’ debut collection as creative director. These pieces are like the remnants of a rare cosmic event: tangible evidence that something truly spectacular took place.

Some designers are able to so fully give themselves to a house it becomes impossible to imagine the two as separate entities. Such was the case with Nicolas Ghesquière and Balenciaga or Alber Elbaz, whose name is synonymous with Lanvin — even though it fired him in 2015. Since his departure, the label has struggled to find its financial and aesthetic footing. While Elbaz brought a diaphanous magic that revived the oldest French house still in operation, bringing in a new voice can backfire as well. Under new leadership, brands as old as Dior undergo dramatic shifts that can never entirely be undone. In my mind, Ungaro has still not entirely clawed back its dignity after allowing Lindsay Lohan to “artistic advise” its garish, widely panned spring ’10 collection.

While new, young designers constantly break out, the ranks of high fashion are historically ironclad. Entry was earned through years of apprenticeships and experience at other houses, or by quietly keeping your head down as you rose through the ranks in house. Maria Grazia Chiuri worked at Valentino from 1999 to 2016, when she was announced as Raf Simons’ successor, the first female creative director the 69-year-old brand has ever had. People were perplexed: Who? But they were also cautiously optimistic. She was an insider, unlikely to rattle the brand too much. Critics and fans were surprisingly, relatively chill.

Fashion followers decidedly did not maintain that same chill when Virgil Abloh was tapped to lead Louis Vuitton menswear as its first Black creative director in early April. Reactions were extreme and across the spectrum. Detractors who lambasted Abloh for his lack of experience were accused of enabling the racism of the luxury industry. Others saw it as a fable about hard work and hustle paying off. Others still credited the Midas touch of Kanye West. Undeniably, it is a crack in the impenetrable but crumbling defensive wall of high fashion.

Despite the clamor and keyed-up emotions that luxury engenders, the reality is it’s struggling to survive. The majority of us who belong to a generation fluent in social media and deeply, emotionally invested in fashion can rarely afford its wares. But the roar of social media builds awareness and attracts new potential acolytes. They say you die twice, once when you stop breathing and again, when your name is said for the last time. Ironically, social media and its impassioned memorials are actually keeping these old high fashion houses alive. While some are determined to simply let this world die, designers like Abloh and Chiuri are dragging it into the future; and a chance to be reborn.

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