When Alexander McQueen tragically took his own life in February, 2010, fashion insiders were personally devastated and shocked. But soon after the initial sadness, the inevitable question would arise: Who would assume the mantle? Who could carry the heavy burden of shouldering the title of creative director, while still being true to the brand's creative ethic, loyal to the departed designer's vision, and then move the line forward? It's an impossible situation. No matter what the fresh talent creates, there are the inescapable comparisons to what was and what might have been.
This is always a touchy-and terrible-question to start asking. Fashionistas buzzed when Perry Ellis died in 1986, so young, and with such a promising career ahead. Today the label is part of a large conglomerate with no "star" designer, but assuredly thriving. When Gianni Versace was tragically gunned down in 1997, it did not take long for the logical succession to be put into place, with his sister Donatella assuming his slot. Of course, not every designer's departure from a well-known brand is the result of a death; a firing can be just as swift and unexpected. To wit, consider the house of Dior and the John Galliano mess. This past April, the house of Balmain summarily fired Christophe Decarnin after six years, not the result of a scandale, but simply a parting of the ways, as was the dismissal of Patrick Robinson, the design head at the Gap.
And look at the snarled disarray at the revered house of Ungaro-a personal favorite, and therefore, to me, one of the most tragic-that has yet to find its footing. (So noteworthy is the maestro's loss that The New York Times' Cathy Horyn wrote a magazine piece in August, 2010, on the house and its "issues.") When the illustrious Hubert de Givenchy retired in 1995, he was followed by a chosen successor, Dominique Sirop, but that appointment did not last long; soon John Galliano took the position, but ever so briefly, until McQueen assumed the role. Today, the head is Riccardo Tisci. And at Valentino, another house whose clothes make me swoon, there was no heir apparent; the label fired one designer after a two-year trial and now is forging ahead with a new team. At Thierry Mugler, Nicola Formichetti, who, like Mugler, had no formal training, was just the darling of Paris, after his runway debut this spring.
"It's quite hard to put myself in the shoes of an Alexander McQueen or John Galliano," commented Amy Smilovic, the designer of Tibi. "Their exits were so heartbreaking and dramatic, respectively. If I could be a fly on the wall the day after I 'hypothetically' left Tibi, I think that the people I've hired and who have worked alongside me for years now would be able to determine direction and branding that would be as cohesive and seamless as possible."
Smilovic's comments are certainly on-target for what has happened at McQueen. Sarah Burton, his assistant for some 15 years, slipped into the post, and as the world witnessed, had resounding success with Kate Middleton's bridal ensembles. Continues Smilovic: "The inspiring story of Sarah Burton attests to that. Inevitable hiccups and stress invariably accompany these changes, but [are] hopefully short-lived."
Christian Siriano, the year-four winner of Project Runway, a former design intern with McQueen (in 2007) and now a rising star in his own right, summed it up best: "It is very important to honor the vision and DNA of the brand as the original designer set forth. That said, it is also important for any new designer entering into the 'house' to move the collections forward to reflect the modern consumer. It is a delicate balance between respecting the heritage of a brand and adding modernity that you have to achieve in order to keep the brand
relevant without alienating loyal customers." - RJK