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Belgian designer Raf Simons acknowledges the applause at the end of Jil Sander Spring/Summer 2011 women's collection during Milan Fashion Week September 25, 2010.
Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
Kiss off.
BURNOUT

Relentlessly chasing profits is the enemy of creative businesses

By Marc Bain

Over the past few days, the fashion media has been practically hysterical over the news that Raf Simons is stepping down as creative director of Dior. It’s another high-profile exit from a big brand, and the concern voiced again and again is that the industry—propelled by the internet and consumers demanding ever-faster fashion—is just moving too quickly.

Designers are expected to produce six collections per year, making the production cycle basically non-stop. It’s burning designers out, and as Simons lamented to fashion critic Cathy Horyn, that speed leaves no time for creative ideas to develop. In the worst cases, such as that of John Galliano, it’s causing mental breakdowns.

But underlying these burnouts is the fact that they’re mostly happening at the luxury labels owned by publicly traded mega-conglomerates, such as LVMH and Kering. That’s no coincidence. These companies, large as they are, are still beholden to shareholders and the all-powerful market, which demand sales grow each quarter. The pressure to always create more commercial products is intense, sometimes at the expense of creativity, as Nicolas Ghesquière suggested after his rancorous departure as the head of Balenciaga.

By contrast, there are plenty of examples of independent designers who continue to thrive by being willing to grow slowly—or not at all.

“I’m very happy with the size of the company as it is right now,” designer Dries Van Noten told the Wall Street Journal in a 2011 profile. ”I don’t have to grow.” The writer described Van Noten’s attitude as a form of “blasphemy” in the luxury fashion industry, but Van Noten himself believes it’s as much as he’s able to handle without sacrificing the quality of his clothes.

Other labels, including Rick Owens, Lemaire, Sacai, Comme des Garçons, and Ann Demeulemeester, as well as any number of smaller brands, have grown gradually. These names are not minor brands either—Comme des Garçons is practically a luxury conglomerate in itself, given the many lines now under its umbrella.

It would be naive to think these brands aren’t chasing profits. They absolutely are. They’re businesses, after all. But all of them certainly have the ability to create and sell more collections than they do, and don’t. Sacai, for example, only showed its first resort collection this year, after years of being singled out as a fashion-industry favorite.

To be fair, there are designers who are capable of handling the demands and producing exceptionally creative work. Simons was one. Ghesquière is another. And as Karl Lagerfeld told WWD (paywall), luxury fashion houses are set up for this new pace. ”For some people and smaller companies, it could become too much but big companies like Chanel, Dior, Vuitton, etc., are organized to face the speed,” he said.

It’s the designers of those smaller companies he refers to who are probably most at risk if they try to keep up. Earlier this year, designer Damir Doma announced (paywall) that he would merge his pre-fall collection back into the main seasonal collection. ”We are not Louis Vuitton, we cannot design a line within a month,” he said at the time. “We need to find our own way and say we are not playing this game any longer.”

It’s a smart move. Nobody is being forced to stay on the fashion merry-go-round. And if one of those smaller designers gets offered the top creative role at a luxury fashion house, they know exactly what they’re getting into.

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