Faceless Fashion

Quick: name the designer for Yves Saint Laurent. How about Gucci? Céline? Givenchy? Chloé? Seven or eight years ago, the answers were easy: Tom Ford, Tom Ford, Michael Kors, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, respectively. All were fashion stars who had become household names, and their stardom drew the spotlight onto their brands, increasing sales exponentially. Some of those brands grew to the point of doing more than $1 billion a year in sales. In return, the stars commanded multimillion-dollar deals, commuted on the Concorde, were ushered about town in limos and

showed up on red carpets almost as often as the celebrities they dressed. They worked large, and they lived large. They weren't just the creators of luxury fashion; they were its emblems.

But now celebrity fashion designers have gone the way of the power suit: they're so last century. Luxury brands no longer swipe stars from their competitors, as Christian Dior did in 2000 with Yves Saint Laurent's famed menswear designer Hedi Slimane. Instead, they tap young designers who have risen through the ranks of the big brands as assistants and who do their jobs quietly, well—and anonymously. "We don't have to bring in star designers because actually the stars today are the brands," says Robert Polet, who joined Gucci Group as CEO and president in 2004, after 25 years at Unilever. "This is a mind-set change we implemented. The brand is the hero, the king in all we do, and we all work for the brand."

Gucci's creative director Frida Giannini is a case in point. The 34-year-old Roman attended the city's Fashion Academy, where she won several competitions. Shortly after her graduation, she joined the Rome-based luxury brand Fendi as an assistant in the accessories department. During Giannini's tenure there, Fendi's sales exploded, thanks primarily to the wildly successful baguette bag. ("I cannot claim its maternity!" she told American Vogue, though she certainly had a hand in raising it.) After six years, Giannini moved to London to join Tom Ford's team at Gucci as handbag design director. When Ford left, Gucci promoted three in-house designers: Ford's ready-to-wear assistant Alessandra Facchinetti to do womenswear, Ford's menswear assistant John Ray to oversee that domain and Giannini to head the accessories department. After two disastrous collections, Facchinetti left. John Ray followed in January 2006, and Gucci executives asked Giannini to take over the whole shebang.

In her three seasons as Gucci's creative director, Giannini's collections of retro-glam clothes and handbags have been lauded in the press—International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes called the accessories for Fall-Winter 2007-2008 "exceptional"—and the products have sold splendidly. Giannini's Flora accessories line—built around a colorful floral print based on a 1960s Gucci scarf designed for Princess Grace that Giannini found in the archives—has been a huge success. "Since Frida took over the brand, it has had the two best years in the history of the company," Polet said. In 2006, Gucci rang up a staggering €2.1 billion in sales.

Some designers—Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Stella McCartney and John Galliano, to name a few—ambitiously started their own ready-to-wear companies right out of school before going on to work for the big labels. But Giannini says, "I never thought of having my own brand. I like working for big companies. I like all the projects that you can do and seeing my designs on people around the world." She also doesn't mind designing for a brand with a strong heritage and image, instead of exploring her own inner voice. "I like history in general—at home, in art, in life—and I have under my nose the opportunity to explore this archive. Why not?" Above all, Giannini professes to like her anonymity. "I don't want to be a star," she says. "I'm very happy to be behind the scenes, doing my job in a calm and serene way."

The rise of the anonymous designer came about for financial reasons. In the old days, designers could afford to launch their own brands. They grew slowly and remained small. In the 1980s, a new concept called the luxury group was born: entrepreneurs and industrialists, many of whom had no previous links to the fashion business, bought up these old brands and renovated them. To do this, they highlighted each company's sterling heritage and brought in bankable designers to add cachet. As the brands grew, so did the stars' reputations, salaries and demands. "Stars fly first class, they need assistants, and so on," says Jean-Jacques Picart, a Paris-based luxury consultant. "It costs a fortune. And the more the business costs, the less profitable it is."

Today, it's too expensive for a young designer to launch his or her own brand. "To commercialize your business—production, distribution, advertising—you need a lot more money than before," says Chloé CEO Ralph Toledano. So designers either need to be independently wealthy and fund the businesses themselves, like Tom Ford recently decided to do with his new menswear store, or look for financial backers. "And backers want assurance," says Toledano. "They are much more assured by a name than by a non-name who supposedly has talent."

The big brands went in the opposite direction. When the expensive star designers left—or were asked to leave—the executives decided to trim back creative director budgets and hired less demanding, less expensive, little-known talent, many of whom had been trained by the stars. The problem now, says Toledano, "is that designers are employees. And they can get fired."

This has created a revolving-door syndrome in luxury fashion. No matter how well their collections sell, anonymous designers tend to remain just that, allowing luxury executives to hire—and fire—them with hardly a mention in the press. Since Alexander McQueen left Givenchy in 2001, there have been two designers: British-born Julien MacDonald, who specialized in knitwear and lasted four years, and now an Italian named Riccardo Tischi, who is a complete unknown outside of fashion's inner sanctum. After Michael Kors left Céline in 2004, the house quickly burned through one designer; the studio is now run by a Croatian named Ivana Omazic who has previously worked for Romeo Gigli, Prada and Jil Sander. Since Emmanuel Ungaro stopped designing his own ready-to-wear line in 2001, the company has run through two ready-to-wear designers and is now on No. 3: a Norwegian-American named Peter Dundas. Chloé is on its second since Stella McCartney left to launch her own brand with Gucci Group in 2001; its current designer is a British-educated Scandinavian named Paulo Memim Andersson who formerly worked anonymously at Marni in Milan. And at Gucci, Giannini is all that remains of the original triumvirate that took over from Ford a mere three years ago. "All these big companies don't care about you as a person," McQueen has said. "You're only a commodity and a product to them and only as good as your last collection."

The revolving door of anonymous designers doesn't seem to hurt the brand's image in the short term. According to Claudia D'Aprizio, a partner at Italy's Bain & Co, a management consultancy, "The average luxury-brand customer doesn't know the name of the real designer of Yves Saint Laurent, and many think it's still Yves himself"— even though the couturier stopped ready-to-wear duties in 1998, and retired from the business completely when he sold his house to Gucci Group in 2000. Today, YSL is designed by the little-known Stefano Pilati, a 40-year-old Italian who rose through the ranks of big brands—first at Prada and later as Tom Ford's assistant at Saint Laurent.

Pilati's first two years at Saint Laurent were commercial and critical flops. His debut collection was filled with awkward tulip skirts and unflattering wide belts; the second a grim study of ecclesiastic wear in black and brown, with high frilly collars and cardinal capes. The third, as Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan put it, was "immolation by flounces," followed by a suite of dresses and coats in an oversize black-and-white picnic check and trousers with crotches dangling unattractively near the ankle. For this fall, Pilati has taken the safe route: reinterpreting classic Saint Laurent suits in shades of gray—clothes that might actually sell. "I think [Stephano's] trying to find his way," Susan Rolontz, executive vice president of the Tobe Robert, said recently. "I don't think he has a signature or a grip on what the collection should really be."

It is this constant shift in design voice that may ultimately have a devastating impact on luxury fashion. When a company changes designers every two or three years, there is no consistency in product or advertising. "And once you become inconsistent, the customer says 'Thank you very much,' and goes to another brand," says Polet.

The Jil Sander brand is a perfect example. In 1999 the German designer, known for her austere suits, sold her then thriving 25-year-old company to Prada. Six months later, Sander had a falling out with Prada Group head Patrizio Bertelli and quit. She was replaced by an unknown, untested designer named Milan Vukmirovic, whose designs were more ' 60s futuristic than ' 90s minimalist, and sales stagnated. Sander returned in 2003, and produced a carefree feminine look—including dresses for a change—and left again 18 months later. She was replaced by Raf Simons, a highly regarded Belgian menswear designer who reinterpreted Sander's original lean, tailored suits beautifully. But by then, there weren't many Jil Sander customers left. Last year, Prada sold the brand to a London-based private-equity firm for approximately $120 million—an estimate of its now meager sales turnover, according to press reports.

The lack of stars also diminishes the quality of the in-house stable. Fashion-school graduates dream of working as apprentices or assistants to the top stars in the business—not for unknowns. "The engine will eventually run out of gas without a star who will attract young and brilliant support talent," says Rita Clifton, chairman of Interbrand, a global brand consultancy in London. "[Stars] bring energy and attention to the brand. They are the most sustainable assets."

Tom Ford agrees. "I mourn [the loss of the star system] a little bit," Ford says (interview). "One of the reasons we were successful at Gucci was because the brand had a point of view and an identity. If the designer is a star and is tied to your brand so that is financially worth his or her while to stay, you're set. Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel is the most successful, long-running collaboration like that. Yes, the legacy is Coco Chanel, but those clothes are Karl's and his personality permeates that brand, and I think that is one of the reasons that brand is so successful. There's a point of view and you know what it is." And, just as important, you know whose it is.