The Genteel
March 7, 2021


Alexander Wang after his S/S 2013 show. Source:
Raf Simons. Source:

In 2004, before the bright lights of Dior called upon his talents, Raf Simons gave an interview to Paper Coffin's Craig Garrett. Enthusiastic and unguarded, Simons expounded on his unlikely journey into the fashion realm, his thoughts on the industry and the hopes he harboured for his career. It was during the course of this conversation that Simons poignantly surmised, "I just want to keep it [his label] away from this typical structured fashion world, which is very defined."

Less than a decade on, Simons has ascended to the inner sanctum of the fashion world, assimilating his creativity into the sartorial powerhouse of the Dior brand. But with so much pressure to perform, an ever-increasing demand for output and nearly insurmountable expectations, does Simons, and his other high-profile, designing peers, still possess the freedom and space necessary to create art?

Famed fashion commentator, Suzy Menkes recently discussed the apparent culture of designer disposability for the New York Times, noting, "...the overall message for this new millennium is: The creator is for now, the brand is forever." Menkes portrayed an industry that has departed from its origins as a personalised, artist-driven enterprise that valued slow, quality-based creation. Instead, the fashion fraternity, she observed, has evolved into a transient, insatiable set of demands ranging from finance to digital communication. 

With few exceptions, Menkes elucidated that fashion is primarily a business pursuit; a continual search for the most efficient and dynamic synthesis of branding, financing and creativity that simultaneously inspires sales, yet, does not vandalise a label's heritage. With creative directors increasingly forced to accommodate their position within the trifecta of variables, and appeal to the masses with diffusion lines and ubiquitous marketing, it seems the true notion of haute couture - as an exclusive, tailor-made clothing creation - has become buried within the storied histories of fashion's biggest labels.

Hedi Slimane. Source:

2012 has seen the fashion terrain change immensely. A number of high profile designers defected from their fashion homesteads, whilst others ascended into fashion's elite - with varied results.

The year's biggest showdown was reserved for duelling prodigies, Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane. Simons was lauded for his perfect debut at Dior, whilst Slimane was forced to defend what many - including the influential and outspoken Cathy Horyn - saw as a disappointing arrival at Saint Laurent Paris.

Balenciaga farewelled an era of unprecedented success and influence championed by Nicolas Ghesquière, before introducing commercial and digital fashion savant, Alexander Wang (reportedly chosen for his ability to broaden the brand's audience). While Balenciaga began a new chapter after fifteen years, Ungaro embarked on its latest in a stream of new directions since 2005, this time waging its chances on Fausto Puglisi.

Ungaro's failure to stabilise creatively since the departure of its namesake in 2005, demonstrates the importance of cementing a strategic trifecta that works in unison, or risk diminishing the brand in the eyes of the public. In an era where seasonal turnover is now a brutal regime of endless collections - Alexander Wang will now be expected to deliver 32 collections this year (six for Balenciaga, twelve under his existing labels and 14 niche offerings) - surely such pressures mean a quicker burn on the creativity of those at the centre of the bonfire.

Ironically, the exclusivity and luxurious mystique haute couture once depended on, has now been replaced by the necessity to communicate with potential customers via an active online presence and attractive, engaging content and channels for conversation. Despite a slow start, as Forbes noted in June 2012, Hugo Boss, Prada, Jimmy Choo and Marc Jacobs only established online stores in 2010; for luxury brands, curating an online image has now become a primary concern. This new attention to transparency and openness has been a path to success for some who have leveraged niche audiences into a global reach however, for others, such as Ghesquière (a notoriously private personality, reluctant to commercialise his ventures), it may have proven disadvantageous.

His [Alexander Wang's] fashion is easier, his personality is more open to the world and he has very good contacts.

Many have speculated the designer and Balenciaga parted ways over a failure to reconcile their priorities with regards to the brand's audience and reach, a fact Karl Lagerfeld seemed to allude to when he recently opined, "His [Alexander Wang's] fashion is easier, his personality is more open to the world and he has very good contacts." 

With all the external pressures placed on creative directors to ensure a brand's financial success through a unique and continually evolving aesthetic, as well as an appreciation for the legacy they represent, it is not hard to see why some become proponents of the very structures they originally fought against. In 2011, having spent seven years working under the Jil Sander banner, Simons had altered more than just his sartorial aesthetic. He had developed an appreciation for the structures he had previously railed against, telling Fantastic Man's Gert Jonkers, "What I've learned about working with a big company like Jil Sander is how important the structure is. You can have ideas and you can have money, but if the structure isn't right, if everybody at design and management and marketing and sales isn't in the same key, it's not going to work." No doubt central to such structure, is a strong foundation in the form of an unburdened creative director, afforded the time and space to flourish.



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