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When New York Fashion Week comes to town in the first week of September, a cadre of young designers will host exclusive catwalk shows all over Manhattan, generating a buzz for nascent brands as well as their seasonal offerings of exquisite studio creations.
Yet for many, the whole game has also changed. Today few fledgling visionaries are ever judged purely on artistic ingenuity. To secure a coveted spot at this year’s show calendar – and thereby catch the eye of those at the top – twenty-something talents need to show not just a brilliance for producing creative collections but also a commercially sharpened brain for the business that will foster their survival in this tough climate for the industry.
In less than three years, up-and-coming talent Wes Gordon, a 27-year old Georgia native, has charmed many in the sector with his uptown couturier meets rock and roll aesthetic. Retailers such as Harrods and Bergdorf Goodman are snapping up pieces worth thousands of dollars and a resort line – once-tiny mid-season collections that are now hugely important – plus footwear were rolled out earlier this year.
Yet, despite his taste of early success, privately backed Mr Gordon is at pains to stress how the constraints of launching a business weigh on his mind during the development process of each collection. “Every idea I have has to be contextualised in terms of cost. We are still a tiny business with just six employees – every cent counts,” he says.
“I make decisions daily on the cost of materials or the rate of a freelance pattern cutter; whether we can afford a particularly intricate print or embroidery technique and if a piece will suffer without it. People love my clothes because they are often so lavish and fantastical. As a designer, that can be highly liberating, but investment-wise it’s also extremely high risk.”
Gone are the days when a designer was insulated from the business side of a brand. Partnerships such as that of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, or Valentino and Giancarlo Giammetti, where the duty of the latter was to facilitate the vision of the former, are almost extinct. Today, many chief executives are brought into a business primarily to oversee profit growth for a brand’s owners – be they private backers, venture capitalists or even another design house – and designers are expected to toe the line.
A general industry consensus has gradually but surely emerged: in order to keep labels expanding – or simply afloat – the 21st-century designer, at whatever stage of his or her career, must be more commercially savvy than ever before.
Leading the changes are luminaries such as Christopher Bailey at Burberry. Appointed chief creative officer in 2009 – a hybrid title reflecting the dualistic nature of his role at the company, which currently has a market capitalisation of about £6.85bn – Mr Bailey is a visionary who blurred the lines between trade and entertainment. By recognising the explosive growth that would be possible through expansion into the digital realm in terms of both marketing and selling, he became an architect of the luxury lifestyle label, all while overseeing the design of dozens of collections a year.
Tom Ford, the designer and film director behind the dazzling revival of Gucci in the late 1990s, is often credited as the first truly commercially conscious designer in the fashion sector. He pioneered a highly sellable sexuality in his catwalk offerings that appeals to the luxury mass consumer without compromising the authentic credibility necessary to placate high-minded editorial commentators. Domenico De Sole, his business partner of 20 years, once said of Mr Ford that “creativity is creativity, and talent can be found in any country, but it’s not easy to find a creative mind and a businessman in one person”.
Mr Ford himself is adamant that his business acumen has played a critical part in his elevation in a multibillion-dollar industry. “I have always been a commercial designer,” he says. “Fashion is an artistic endeavour, but I realised very early on in my career that the industry is really about selling something.” He adds that a good creative must always be involved in all aspects of the business, be it stores, packaging or advertising campaigns: “At the end of the day it is always a commercial enterprise.”
Today he is both chief executive and president of his eponymous brand; it is owned privately, rather than by a holding group, giving a greater degree of independence and flexibility for the business. “Pure creativity, without the thought of commercial viability, is disappearing. There are many very creative designers, but the process is now vetted by what will actually sell. That is what is necessary to stay competitive in the market,” says Mr Ford.
Many institutions and initiatives now offer mentoring programmes to help young creatives understand trademarks, sales analysis, tax law and other commercial foundation stones of the fashion business. But some feel the only way to learn properly is to break out on your own.
“When I first dropped out of fashion school to set up my business, it was simply a case of sink or swim,” says Alexander Wang, the 29-year-old darling of the international front row, who oversees his own highly successful eponymous label as well as being creative director at Parisian design house Balenciaga, a position he took on at the end of 2012.
He had learnt technical skills at Parsons, the New York design school, but “had next to no business experience. The idea of a show was comical at the time – we had just six samples, which we knew we had to sell no matter what if there was going to be another collection.” Three internships – at Marc Jacobs, Barneys and Teen Vogue – gave him an on-the-ground reality check, as well as exposure to every facet of the industry, he adds.
“We design around 180 items per collection and I oversee 32 collections between the two brands. With every piece we sketch, I think about its destination – is it an item with mass customer appeal for the buyers, or a unique one-off unlikely to go beyond the pages of Vogue?”
Mr Wang spends one week a month in Paris overseeing Balenciaga for parent company Kering, which means he is maintaining a creative vision while dealing with the commercial demands of two different brands, both with distinctive business models.
Overall, he says the key to a thriving fashion brand is having a president who truly understands the business, not just its balance sheets. Mr Wang hired Rodrigo Bazan from Marc Jacobs for his wealth of experience, including in retail expansion, back in 2010. They talk several times every day. “It’s so important for a designer to be humble and recognise that nothing can ever be a one-man show . . . When we hired Rodrigo, it wasn’t about me doing less, but making our business more,” says Mr Wang.
For Mr Gordon, as a designer still in the early stages of developing a business, the onus lies squarely on him to ensure his creative success translates into commercial potency. If he can hold his audience at the front of his mind while keeping his costs down, just as others have done before him, then his star will continue to rise.
“Know your customer inside out and pieces will sell,” says Mr Gordon. “Design is an art form but clothing is not – clothes need to have life, spirit and wearability.”
He adds: “The days of being purely a creative are dead, but fashion as a business is bigger than ever. I am determined not to become a casualty.”