A Fashionable Goodbye: When Fashion's Brightest Designers Take Their Final Bow

Lauren Cochrane
Photo credit: Victor VIRGILE - Getty Images

From ELLE

When Phoebe Philo took her final bow at Céline in 2018, few could understand why.

The British designer was at the peak of her career – design director at one of fashion’s most coveted brands. She was also driving every major trend to hit catwalks and the high street (fluid tailoring, the camel coat, women everywhere ditching heels for trainers), loved by press and customers alike and even name-dropped by Kanye.

At the time, there was arguably no designer more influential or admired… Then, just like that, the then-44-year-old designer walked away from it all.

While things couldn’t have been better as far as impact and sales went (she was believed to have tripled profits over her 10-year tenure), behind the scenes, a different story played out. Overseeing everything from fashion shows to store design, as well as famously travelling between London and Paris every week, while maintaining her home life with her husband and three children, many wondered if the view from the top was quite as alluring as it appeared.

With a number of high-profile departures in recent years – at all levels, from Burberry’s Christopher Bailey and Jean Paul Gaultier this spring, to J.Crew’s Jenna Lyons on the high street, it begs the question: has life in the fashion industry become untenable for the creatives who helped shape it?

In the past decade alone, along with Philo, the industry has lost Jonathan Saunders, Calvin Klein’s Francisco Costa, Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier and Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz. (Though Elbaz has made tentative moves back, but they have been slow and considered.)

Photo credit: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis - Getty Images

As brands scale, and creative roles become more corporate – with growth targets to hit, social media conversion rates to follow (that’s the rate of ‘likes’ to sales), digital campaigns to help conceive and an ever-growing list of collections and collaborations required to keep brands as culturally relevant as possible – designers are forced to become marketing machines.

So what happens when you choose to step off the machine in which you are the chief cog?

A shift in creativity

Leafy Hampstead is not exactly a fashion hotspot, but it’s where you might find the answer to this question, because it’s where French designer Nicole Farhi is now based. Once the woman behind an eponymous luxury ready-to-wear brand turning more than £11 million a year with 4,000+ employees, and shops everywhere from Tokyo to New York, she now works from a light, surrounded by striking nude sculptures.

It’s an art she has been committed to practising full-time since leaving her label in 2012 after 30 years there. Farhi enjoyed the majority of her time in fashion working with her former partner Stephen Marks to build the brand into an international powerhouse, but when Marks sold the business to a private equity firm in 2010, things changed.

‘Stephen took away the burden of the company,’ Farhi says of working with him. ‘He never bothered me with turnover and what people want. When people were doing miniskirts, and I didn’t like them, I didn’t have to do them.’

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But under a new team, the comfort of focusing on creativity while others handled commerce was gone.

‘The people who bought the company were coming with a piece of paper of demands: “We have to do so many dresses, so many coats.” It was like being in a corset. Starting in fashion in the Seventies was wonderful; everything was allowed and everything was possible. But over the years it became stressful. You had to show not two but four collections a year, and then you had to do a second line because the first one was too expensive. It was endless, endless work.’

Having been sculpting as a hobby for years, she began to feel that art was a more appropriate outlet for her creativity.

‘Now, I wake up and I’m happy because I know the studio is going to pull me,’ she says. ‘I am enjoying life much more because I am my own master; I don’t have to do anything that I don’t want to do.’

Balancing act

British designer Jonathan Saunders also sought a clean break from the fashion industry before focusing on an alternative creative pursuit. Saunders stepped away from his own brand after 12 years, in 2015, at the height of its success. With his signature sheer slips beloved by celebrities including Diane Kruger and Thandie Newton, his collections were clamoured for on Net-A-Porter and other e-commerce sites.

His workload quickly intensified as he relocated to New York to take the creative reins at Diane von Furstenberg – a brand with an estimated turnover of $500 million, nearly 150 stores in more than 50 countries and 1,500 points of sale on top of that.

Tasked with overseeing everything from shop fixtures to a new logo, designing – the part of his job that he enjoyed the most – fell by the wayside. He quit after just a year.

Photo credit: Jamie McCarthy - Getty Images

‘I became more detached from design. You have more of an overseeing role, focused on certain elements of the business that are so vital but consuming. That didn’t sit well with me.’

Saunders – like Farhi and many others – has found an outlet in a creative endeavour less predicated on sales targets and analytics.

In February 2020, after a two-year break, he launched a furniture line. His trademark unusual colour combinations and graphic elements now appear on chairs and tables rather than dresses and coats, with the slower pace of homeware design allowing him to prioritise the part of his practice he most enjoys.

‘What I realised is that I love to develop an idea and find things out,’ he says. Saunders doesn’t rule out designing clothes again, but says he ‘will certainly never become part of this traditional cycle. That, for me, doesn’t work’.

A nuanced understanding of commerce and creativity, hand-in-hand rather than siloed, has always been key to success in the fashion industry. However the burden of that wasn’t always placed on the designer.

Look at Yves Saint Laurent, who credited his success to the support of business partner Pierre Berge, or Valentino and his partner Giancarlo Giammetti. Today, arguably the most forward-thinking, creatively innovative and trend-making designers are those with trusted businesspeople at their side: Miuccia Prada with husband Patrizio Bertelli, Marc Jacobs with Robert Duffy and Balenciaga’s Demna Gvasalia with brother Guram.

Luxury fashion headhunter Floriane de Saint Pierre, who is called upon to place designers at major fashion houses (most notably in recent years Alessandro Michele at Gucci), says fashion’s relationship with creativity has changed, and designers are now expected to understand more than just how to design clothes.

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‘Creative content makes the difference now,’ de Saint Pierre says, referring to the increasing emphasis on creative marketing. ‘Brands have become massive content factories that stage brand values, products and entertain an audience, hence fashion is now open to talent from other creative fields in sync with today’s society. It is about the creative talent who can achieve that, whether they come from fashion or not.’

(Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer Virgil Abloh is a prime example, better known as an entrepreneur before joining the house.)

So what happens to those creatively inclined, without the desire to manage marketing and social media, PR strategies and balance sheets? What happens to designers when they opt out?

The 'final' goodbye

While those like Saunders and Farhi commit to other creative pursuits – Helmut Lang, who quit fashion in 2005, is now an artist, Calvin Klein works largely in interior design and Ann Demeulemeester creates ceramic art – there’s a growing number of designers taking a different approach to make the industry work for them.

‘Everyone has to evolve, change and find new ways,’ says Christian Lacroix, the French couturier whose unapologetic, extravagant style ruled the runways in the Eighties and Nineties. Like Farhi, Sanders, Klein and others before him, Lacroix sold his name to a luxury group, acquired by LVMH in 1987 and the Falic Fashion Group in 2005. He left the brand he’d built for good in 2009.

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‘They wanted to make my name a global brand. I never agreed with that. For me, fashion was a way of being unique, different.’

So, following his departure, Lacroix channelled his energies into theatre, creating fantastical scenes and costumes for ballet and opera productions, working under the name XCLX.

‘My true vocation as a child was stage design, but theatre was difficult to reach in the mid-Seventies. I was given a break in fashion, which was so cool and innovative then.’ But Lacroix returned to fashion this season – just not in the way you might think.

At SS20 Paris Fashion Week, a surprise announcement was made on the morning of the Dries van Noten show. The Belgian designer had invited Lacroix to collaborate on his collection – ‘the most surprising collaboration of the season,’ according to fashion website The Business of Fashion.

While it received much fanfare (Florence Pugh and Margot Robbie have both worn extravagant ruffled styles from the collaboration on the red carpet), and Lacroix ‘adored’ it: ‘I was not so sad about having left this world. It was wonderful, but this is my last day in fashion.’

For Lacroix, this was simply an opportunity to exercise choice, opting in to offer his creativity without the burden of ‘managing both commercial bottom lines – a collection for runway and store windows, with a sellable collection hanging in the back.

Jean Paul Gaultier, too, revealed a similar model after ‘leaving’ fashion with an epic celebrity-packed finale during Couture Fashion Week, announcing that he’d instead invite new designers to create a collection under the Jean Paul Gaultier name, starting with Japanese designer Chitose Abe of Sacai.

‘I’m glad to give her complete freedom,’ he said.

This freedom appears to be the secret to thriving as a creative in the fashion industry today. Marco Zanini, a designer who spent almost 20 years working at brands including Rochas and Schiaparelli, believes he has gained independence by taking back control, operating independently by launching his own brand.

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He left the politics and pressure of working for a large group when he stepped away from Schiaparelli in 2014 but returned to fashion in 2019 with his self-financed Zanini label, because ‘my creative urge imposed itself on me’.

The label – a tightly edited collection with the opulence and richness he brought to previous roles – is stocked by Matchesfashion.com and Dover Street Market.

‘Joining another brand is not on my top 10 list,’ he says. ‘When people ask me how I am now, I say “better than I ever have been”.’

Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matchesfashion.com, says: ‘There’s a shift happening. Creative directors are exploring different ways to work rather than taking the traditional route.’

She points to collaborations such as Dries Van Noten and Lacroix, as well as Zanini’s independence.

‘Innovation [like this] is key to moving forward,’ she says.

Designers like Lacroix, Zanini, Saunders and even Elbaz are launching independent brands; in different ways and in contrasting mediums. Perhaps Phoebe Philo is, too, with rumours abound that she’ll be returning to fashion with a ‘slow’ independent brand focused on sustainability. Philo has left fashion twice before, after all – from Chloé in 2006, then Céline.

And, you know what they say: third time’s a charm.

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