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Two of Fashion’s Biggest Jobs Are Unfilled. Inside the Open Tryouts

PARIS—Men’s fashion week, which concluded Sunday, simmered with the speculative atmosphere of an NBA locker room just before the league’s trade deadline.

In front rows and corner brasseries, buyers and critics eagerly discussed who will fill two of the industry’s most significant open design positions: that of Louis Vuitton’s men’s creative director, previously held by Virgil Abloh, who died at 41 in November 2021, and Gucci’s creative directorship, from which eccentric Italian designer Alessandro Michele stepped down in November 2022. Beyond those vacancies, it’s an open question which current designers will renew their contracts at the major luxury houses. It’s looking to be, to borrow a sports term, a silly season ahead.

But most mid-major designers dutifully demurred to answer those stubborn questions about their future.

“I’m really focused on Wales Bonner achieving its mission. It’s got a long journey to go,” said Grace Wales Bonner, 31, a British-Jamaican fashion designer who has been a favored pick to become a creative director at one of Europe’s major fashion houses by industry prognosticators.

The rumor mill “gives us something to talk about beyond what we’re seeing on the runway,” said Jian DeLeon, Nordstrom’s men’s fashion and editorial director. “It’s clear that newness is on the horizon, I think the most exciting part is seeing who it’ll come from.”

Filling these vaunted seats matters greatly from a business perspective, with the bigger houses often setting the fashion agenda. “You need someone who’s running the show or who’s identifying the north star that everyone else is going to run towards,” said Steff Yotka, head of digital content for the large Canadian fashion retailer Ssense. “That could be a great merchandiser. That could be a great designer, that could be a philosopher that defines the spirit of the brand.”

Grace Wales Bonner, at left, has been a favored pick by industry prognosticators to become a creative director at one of Europe’s major fashion houses.


Photo:

Courtesy of Wales Bonner

Mrs. Yotka noted that in the past decade, several designers who got killed for big roles have come out of left field, giving credence to the idea that no name lobbed in this rumor-mad moment should be discounted.

After all, Mr. Michele was a relative unknown working in-house at Gucci before taking the helm. mr. Abloh had been written off by much of the industry as little more than a streetwear designer. Both ended up taking their respective labels to great heights.

“Fashion loves a surprise and it loves a success story,” said Ms. Yotka.

Several independent designers here in Paris seemed to be auditioning for one of those major posts, or at least making the case that Bernard Arnault (the CEO of Louis Vuitton parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton) or François-Henri Pinault (the CEO of Gucci parent company Kering) should be getting their number. According to representatives for Louis Vuitton and Gucci, there is no timeline for an announcement from either brand.

The chatter about Ms. Wales Bonner’s possible call-up in particular is only likely to increase after a compelling show, one reflecting both her cerebral creative streak and firm commercial grounding.

A look from Wales Bonner’s fall 2023 collection.


Photo:

Courtesy of Wales Bonner

The high notes of her collection included a 1970s-esque double-breasted suit with flared trousers, a shell-embellished cream peacoat and a belted robin’s-egg-blue trench that Dick Tracy might wear if he found a proper tailor.

There were also new items from her continuing, far-reaching collaboration with Adidas, like shell-toe sneakers and the debut of an on-field jersey she designed for Jamaica’s national soccer team in a sunny yellow.

“There’s a similar level of execution in the sportswear pieces [as the] tailoring,” she said backstage following the show, “I’m always trying to refine something.” If luxury executives are looking for someone who can bring runway intrigue and sales-floor hits, Ms. Wales Bonner may be it.

They are also likely to look at Mike Amiri, whose brand Amiri has leveled up from basic distressed jeans to polished runway collections at a startling clip—becoming a nearly $300 million business along the way.

Amiri’s latest show here in Paris, drawing on ’80s B-boy influences (DJ Premier provided the soundtrack) ran through shimmery leather suits, hulking cargo pants and regal camel topcoats. It was a tad reminiscent of Dior under current creative director Kim Jones, showing that Mr. Amiri has acclimated well to the world of true luxury apparel—and is successfully bringing his private-jet-hopping clients along with him. The ample array of rappers in the front row also showed that Mr. Amiri has inroads with celebrities, an all-too-important factor for luxury brands today.

“You never want to just pander to your audience—you want them to come with you on your evolution,” the designer said after the show. “The idea is really to open up that consumer base to welcome more people into the world of Amiri.” mr. Amiri had no comment on the speculation about his future.

Mike Amiri’s eponymous brand has rapidly leveled up from basic distressed jeans to polished runway collections.


Photo:

Richard Bord/Getty Images

One of the less convincing efforts by an independent designer trying to prove they were ready for the big league came during the Louis Vuitton show itself. The house’s collection was designed in part by Colm Dillane, a 31-year-old New Yorker who runs the brand KidSuper.

The results were muddled. At KidSuper, Mr. Dillane often turns paintings into wearable works of art. He replicated the process here, but the pieces, including a weekender bag and leather blouson, were flat, resembling contorted camo. It may be tough to justify the lofty price of his Vuitton upgrades when similar pieces can be had from his far more affordable brand.

The collection (designed by Louis Vuitton’s studio) largely spun its wheels in territory that Mr. Abloh had explored during his all-too-short tenure at the brand. To keep consumers interested, the brand will need to try something new.

But for designers themselves, there may be a case for not answering the phone when a big conglomerate calls.

“There are so many independent brands that have healthy businesses,” said Ms. Yotka of Ssense, which has championed burgeoning labels like Chopova Lowena and Kiko Kostadinov. “Some of these independent designers don’t want these jobs anymore. Maybe being knighted is not that appealing anymore.” Scrutiny from the press, the number-minded meddling of board members and the increasingly extravagant shows are only some of the pressures that come along with these colossal creative jobs.

This week, strong showings from stalwart largely independent labels proved that another way is indeed possible. Rick Owens, an American designer long working in Paris, orchestrated a masterful collection of hourglass-waist suit coats, hulking puffers and commanding glam-rock boots. Japanese label Sacai trotted out its strongest show in years, with kicky black overcoats, striated mohair sweaters and commercially shrewd collaborations with Moncler and Carhartt (a nod to a jacket worn by Matthew McConaughey in “Interstellar,” which the designer said inspired the collection) . Lemaire, a 33-year-old French brand, put on a serene show at the Sorbonne with easy-to-toss-on pieces like ’80s-type worn-in leather coats, deconstructed suiting, voluminous pleated trousers and plenty of its well -selling “Croissant” handbags.

One young designer building an empire all their own is Emily Adams Bode Aujla. The American designer brought her brand Bode back to Paris this season and introduced womenswear—an occasion that brought Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour to the front row for the first time during this Paris fashion week.

New York brand Bode introduced womenswear this season. Photos: Gorunway/Courtesy of Bode

At Paris’s famed Théâtre du Châtelet, models walked out of a recreated clapboard house and across the pebble-filled stage in her folksy brand signatures like crafty hand embroidered sweaters, brocade-edged jackets and hulking patchwork coats (Pusha T was in the front row wearing a different patchworked piece). Yet, this time, reflecting Bode’s maturity seven years into its existence, there were also elegantly simple corduroy suits, swoopy topcoats and a dignified black women’s tuxedo.

“It’s definitely the first time we’re truly showing a camel-hair overcoat or some of our really strong canvas outerwear,” said Ms. Bode Aujla just after the show. “Our fabrications have definitely gotten stronger.”

In the lobby immediately after the show, chattering crowds observed that Ms. Bode Aujla’s transportative effort put her in line with another American who brought his brand to Paris many decades ago: Ralph Lauren.

Write to Jacob Gallagher at [email protected]

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