Fashion: Towering egos could be on the wya out

IN THE good old, high-spending days, venerable design houses looked to big fashion names to create a buzz and shake up the system: the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, who was appointed designer at Chanel in 1983, and John Galliano, who has been rocking Dior's world since 1996.

But in post-recession Paris, luxury brands are redefining their priorities in dramatic fashion. And the message is as clear as the champagne glasses being brought out in celebration now that sales figures and profits are rising again: the era of the star designer is over.

As brand managers struggle to wrest control in the world of online sales and blog, Twitter and Facebook commentaries, creativity is still cherished. But extravagance in either style or financial largesse is seriously out of fashion.

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So, instead of the Lagerfelds and Gallianos of ten years ago, it is the multitasking Christopher Bailey at Burberry who is making waves. Last year he was given the title of "chief creative officer" to encompass his overall role as merchandiser, brand manager, information technology innovator, advertising inspiration and e-commerce controller – all alongside his main day job as design director.

And the move seems to be paying dividends, as Burberry announced last week a net profit of 81 million pounds, in contrast to a loss of 6 million in the previous financial year, and a 6.6 per cent growth in sales to 1.8 billion. But perhaps the more significant figure the label's chief executive Angela Ahrendts produced was the rise in accessories to 36 per cent of overall sales, making not the iconic Burberry trench coat but other ancillary products the best sellers.

The rise of interseason sales and of product diversity is calling into question the role of the designer superstar taking their bow at the end of a twice-yearly catwalk fashion show. Instead, the luxury industry wants to turn down the volume on big names, use a designer as global ambassador and focus on overall brand development.

Significantly, in two recent appointments – of Frida Giannini at Gucci and of the design duo Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pier Paolo Piccioli at Valentino – the designers were plucked from the accessory creative teams, not from among graduates of the Central Saint Martins fashion and design school.

Hermes has just announced the departure of Jean Paul Gaultier after seven years as creative director of the women's line. The madcap-turned-classic French designer will concentrate on his own label, in which Hermes holds a 45 per cent stake. He is being succeeded by Christophe Lemaire, the low-key designer of Lacoste, famous for its crocodile logo on streamlined sportswear, rather than for rarefied haute luxury. And at Alexander McQueen, bereft since the suicide of the designer in February, the parent company Gucci Group announced his successor as Sarah Burton, his loyal deputy since 1996. She is also the woman who turned McQueen's hyper-inspiration into sales-floor reality. The blogosphere had proposed Gareth Pugh, a feisty young British designer, as McQueen's successor, but the signal from the Gucci management was quite different.

Even when Ungaro picked the British designer Giles Deacon, the choice was for a safe pair of hands. Since its founder announced his retirement in 2005, the Paris house has had a revolving door of designers, culminating in a disastrous debut last season of the young Hollywood celebrity Lindsay Lohan. By contrast, Deacon is a 40-year-old designer with a couture sensibility who has developed his own house and could make a serious job of resuscitating the Emanuel Ungaro heritage.

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At Louis Vuitton, where a decade of Marc Jacobs was celebrated last week with a small retrospective display of clothes at the new Louis Vuitton megastore in London, the message was also clear. Jacobs plays a crucial creative role, yet the main floor of this 16,000-square-foot Bond Street emporium does not contain a single garment. Instead, it is dedicated to upscale accessories, from the famous LV bags through its travel trunks, fine and costume jewellery or scarves to luxurious gifts such as picnic hampers and poker sets.

Vuitton of France was in the news for a less desirable reason: a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority that its images, resembling Dutch Old Masters with a soft-focus seamstress plying needle and thread, were "misleading" in claiming that "infinite patience protects each overstitch." In fact, the bags are almost entirely factory-made.

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That is the story of today's luxury brands: money-making machines in which a strong designer, leading a team, is crucial for the initial inspiration, originality and imagination. But the creative force is now found in a wired office, not in an ivory tower.

New York TIMES 2010

• This article was published in Scotland on Sunday, June 6, 2010