Thierry Mugler made his mark selling modern sex appeal. The French fashion designer’s signature style — exaggerated shoulders, cinched waists, body-forming fits — left an impact through particularly spectacular runway shows in the 1980s and 1990s.
Casey Cadwallader, who joined the label as creative director in 2018 after the previous designer David Koma stepped down after four years, is now at the helm serving an updated definition of what’s sexy. Coming off of stints at Narciso Rodriguez and Acne Studios, and inheriting the brand in its post-2010 revival, Cadwallader’s work is framed by high expectations and fashion history.
“There’s a moment when you join the house, and buyers come to see you, and they’re expecting what the previous creative director did,” says Cadwallader. “When you start to present new options, there is a period of time where some people and stores might leave as clients, but other people who understand the new direction start to come in.”
Creative directors are cycled in and out at fashion houses for various reasons, but the cycle is moving faster. A new designer may be brought in to revive sales or give a historic house a fresh update. No matter the circumstances, it takes time for a new creative director’s imprint to be felt. Thanks to distribution mixes, product turnover and seasonless categories like accessories, a new designer aesthetic and approach isn’t a switch to flip overnight.
While there is no typical rule as to how quickly a brand should transform, Susanne Tide-Frater, fashion consultant and brand and strategy director at Farfetch, says it can take five to six seasons for a luxury house’s new direction to fully come together under a new creative director. That’s when the brand has fully embraced a new aesthetic vision, in terms of its marketing, social media messaging and merchandising offer.
“The first three seasons will be dedicated to reinventing the brand codes, developing and testing new hero products, and expressing a new vision on both the catwalk and across touchpoints like its visual identity and social media,” she explains. “Then, the first reliable sell-through results are known after two seasons in store, which is roughly when a designer is in their fifth season.”
Committing to change
Changing creative directors can help transform a fashion house’s image and boost business results. In the four years that Hedi Slimane was creative director at Saint Laurent, the French luxury house racked up double-digit, year-on-year growth, becoming a brand with yearly revenue of more than $1 billion. During her 10-year tenure at Céline, Phoebe Philo brought the once-dormant house back into the fashion conversation. Although LVMH does not break down sales of individual brands, some analysts estimated she grew Céline’s annual revenue to €700 to €800 million ($949 million).
Cadwallader’s collections, tapping into the provocative spirit of Mugler’s legacy and evolving it for today’s customer, have resonated with critics and celebrities including, Kim Kardashian West and Cardi B. This season, the brand was picked up by retailers like Selfridges (which dropped the brand before Cadwallader’s arrival) and Machine-A.
Mugler Autumn/Winter 2020
© Jamie Stoker
The increase in frequent, high-profile changes in recent years suggests that fashion brands are more willing to lean into change. But making these kinds of changes at a major brand is “a very risky game”, says Tide-Frater, especially if designers aren’t given enough time to express their viewpoint and have the effects on the brand truly felt, in order to deliver a return on investment.
Fashion brands have taken different approaches to designer handoffs. Dior and Céline immediately wiped the slate clean when their new creative directors joined, completely removing all old products as well as changing their messaging online and in-store. Burberry, on the other hand, has made a more gradual transition.
When former creative director Christopher Bailey joined Burberry, he gave the 164-year-old-label — then often associated with footballers and their wives — an entirely new identity, introducing more elevated styling, enlisting supermodels for campaigns and dressing the likes of Samantha Cameron and Kate Middleton. But he transformed the British luxury house financially, too. In March 2017, prior to his departure, Burberry was Britain’s largest luxury brand by sales, reporting annual revenues of £2.8 billion ($3.7 billion).
Riccardo Tisci, who succeeded Bailey in March 2018, has a different aesthetic that draws a different crowd: since his arrival, the house has worked with MIA and dressed Gen Z favourites like Ariana Grande, Rihanna and Gigi Hadid. The response to his collections has been favourable. In January 2020, just before the coronavirus slowed luxury sales, Burberry revealed that new designs by Tisci delivered double-digit growth compared to the same quarter last year. But their release has been slow. Tisci’s products currently represent 75 per cent of the mainline retail offering, up from 60-65 per cent in 2019.
According to a source close to the brand, Burberry continues to sell long-standing products by Bailey, such as backpacks in classic colours, but Tisci’s most successful designs in terms of customer reception and margins will become part of the replenishment lines going forward, as the company heads into the second year of its grand transformation plan.
Experimenting with releases
Since Tisci’s arrival, Burberry has stepped away from releasing full collections and has been experimenting with new release strategies: Tisci’s debut collection was available to purchase 30 minutes after its London Fashion Week show, for one day only. The brand has also introduced B Series, bite-sized instalments of new products by Tisci, released on the 17th day of each month. The approach is apparent in how the collections are shown on the runway. Following Burberry’s AW20 show, an editor remarked that the show appeared to be divided into drops, with the delineation between store arrivals clear.
Burberry has not been alone in experimenting with drops. Luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, Céline and Moncler have also adopted drop-style product releases.
Burberry Autumn/Winter 2020
© Jamie Stoker
“I think it’s a smart way to do it,” says Robert Burke, of New York-based fashion consultancy Robert Burke Associates. “One can do a runway show that sends a message about the vision of the brand. But it’s about more than just one runway show; it’s about resetting the long-term image of the brand. Customers don’t like being confused, and that’s why the communication of these changes is extremely important.”
For Tide-Frater, the risk of changing creative directors depends on the size of the business and the personality of the brand. She says it’s less risky for a house “with a quieter brand message, such as Bottega Veneta or Loewe” to make significant changes to its products and communications.
The buyer says that designers can move brands forward by introducing a new vision while keeping in line with the brand’s codes, such as what Bottega Veneta creative director Daniel Lee has done with its signature woven leather, reinterpreting it in new and exciting ways. Data from Lyst shows that new arrivals of Bottega Veneta’s SS19 collection by Lee, stocked across online retailers, were up 31 per cent in the US compared to SS18, while the UK saw an increase of 124 per cent. Handbags drove this growth across regions, growing 83 per cent season-on-season.
However, she adds: “It is necessary not to confuse media-induced hype and the commercial reality of a brand reinvention, which in its entirety can only be judged after about three to five seasons.”
At Mugler, which is more focused on wholesale partnerships than its own retail channels (the brand quietly shut its stores within the first year of Cadwallader’s appointment), Cadwallader says he has made it a priority to stick to and evolve with the house’s codes. “There will always be tailoring, and there will always be some sort of body-flattering sculptural dress. That’s something that people keep wanting from us.”
Accessories are long-lasting
When Alessandro Michele joined Gucci in January 2015, the Italian house underwent a complete and immediate redesign of its store network. However, it was slower to change products in store: the label sold Michele’s collections alongside older designs by former creative director Frida Giannini as well as its signature hero items, like loafers and belts. (According to Lyst, two Gucci belts were sold online every two minutes in 2019, while the Marmont bag continued to pop up outside the SS20 shows.)
“Michele reconnected the Gucci brand to the cultural zeitgeist,” says Rebecca Robins, global chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand. Today, Gucci accounts for 80 per cent of parent company Kering’s sales — and its sales are still rising, up by 10.7 per cent to €2.37 billion in the third quarter of 2019. According to Interbrand’s annual Best Global Brands study, Gucci’s brand value has doubled over the past four years.
Céline Autumn/Winter 2020
© Jamie Stoker
Meanwhile, Philo’s departure from Céline, followed by Slimane’s arrival in January 2018, saw the luxury house completely remove all old products in-store as well as changing its messaging across all brand touchpoints. Sources close to the brand say its new accessories haven’t made as much of an impact as Philo-designed bags, which continue to have longevity: According to The Real Real, Céline pieces designed by Philo are sold within 30 days of being on the platform. Céline did not respond to requests for comment.
For Burke, a strong accessories offering has the ability to live beyond a collection, which means ongoing profit for the brand. “That’s because you’re not as prone in the accessories category to throw things out quite as quickly every season as you would with ready-to-wear fashion,” he says. “If you were to look at some of the core of Gucci or Louis Vuitton, such as bags, they have ongoing lives. The brands evolve, but the [core product styles] certainly live on.”
“When Demna Gvasalia came to Balenciaga, there was a period when its leather goods offering carried very mixed messages. The Lariat bag, which had carried sales for a very long time, sat un-altered next to new, very experimental catwalk accessories. The brand vision was blurred and unclear,” says Tide-Frater. “It took several seasons for Balenciaga to develop their shoe and bag categories properly, which now carry the image as much as the clothing. In some instances, hero products can amount to 70 per cent of sales or more.”
Fashion companies, Burke advises, must find a balance between preserving its identity and communicating its new visual direction. “The one thing that a brand never wants when they’re having a transition is for someone to say, ‘I really miss the old Gucci’, for example. If someone is left longing for the old version of the brand, that’s not a positive sign.”