The original text was written in Japanese and published on FASHIONSNAP.COM on June 20, 2023. This post is translated from the original article.
Images by ©FASHIONSNAP.COM
Creative Director Vacancies, the Age of AI, and the Essence of Human Existence
In February 2023, following the unfortunate passing of Virgil Abloh, the position of Men’s Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton remained vacant until it was filled by Pharrell Williams. Despite initial speculations that the streetwear boom that emerged after Virgil’s rise would diminish, it has continued to gain momentum and evolve over the past two years.
The fashion industry worldwide suffered damage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, in 2022, there was a rapid recovery, particularly in the luxury brand sector, with a remarkable V-shaped rebound in sales. During the pandemic, individuals and companies with global bases with international networks steadily accumulated strength. As face-to-face interactions became limited, business transactions were built on trust. The V-shaped recovery of luxury brands, driven by legacy and trust, can be considered as somewhat expected.
I previously addressed these aspects in my article titled “Fashion and Pandemics – living in a world that never ends” I discussed how global capital, which initially faced significant negative impacts from the pandemic, had the potential for a significant turnaround and recovery, resulting in industry restructuring and mergers and acquisitions by major capital players.
Table of Contents:
1. Luxury Business at an Uncharted Scale
2. Virgil: Building Teams to Build Brands
3. Pharrell Williams: Being a Creator and the Strongest Consumer as the Greatest Critic
4. The Age of AI: Can Future Creative Directors Become Cats?
5. The Era of Computers: Evaluation Based on “Who” Recognized It
6. Critique: Moving Towards an Era Where the Powerful Become Even Stronger
According to the financial report released in January 2023, Louis Vuitton’s sales surpassed €20 billion (approximately ¥3 trillion), reaching an all-time high, and LVMH also achieved its highest-ever market capitalization. 1)This was announced in a news release on the financial results by LVMH.
https://www.lvmh.com/news-documents/press-releases/new-record-year-for-lvmh-in-2022/ As a result, Bernard Arnault became the world’s wealthiest individual, creating a buzz as an icon of the era alongside Elon Musk.
Figure 1: LVMH 2022 Financial Report
Around the same time as the financial report, OpenAI released ChatGPT Plus and GPT4, marking the beginning of the AI boom. This trend is now starting to indirectly impact the entire industry. During this period, it is worth recalling that Tiffany, under the umbrella of LVMH, announced a collaboration with Nike. Some may also remember that ordinary individuals were posting sneaker designs generated through A.I. on social media. As we witness the dynamic changes unfolding post-COVID, let us reflect on the flow from the absence of Virgil Abloh to the present.
1. Luxury Business at an Uncharted Scale
Over the past 15-20 years, the succession of creative directors has been one of the most significant hot topics in the fashion industry, captivating both consumers and the business side. It is the story of avant-garde independent designers rejuvenating the image of prestigious fashion houses through a single decisive appointment. At the pinnacle of this career trajectory stood Karl Lagerfeld, whose achievements were recently showcased at the MET this year. Since his successful tenure at Chloe, Fendi, and Chanel, this path has become the epitome of a designer’s career. The likes of Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Tom Ford at Gucci, John Galliano at Dior, Hedi Slimane, who revived Saint Laurent after Dior Homme, Martin Margiela at Hermes, Phoebe Philo, the upcoming revival of Celine in June, and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga—all these directors have made an impact similar to the headlines created when a star football player transfers to a top club, like Real Madrid and Manchester United F.C.
In the past, a number of brands have emerged from top international schools whose goal from the outset was to become a director of a major big Maison and to exit with it. However, I believe this atmosphere has drastically changed since Virgil Abloh was appointed as the artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear. The difficulty level of external appointments for creative directors has altered. In fact, during this period, it became increasingly common to see designers with internal promotions or prior experience within large fashion houses.
In general, corporations, when hiring for roles equivalent to department heads or CXOs, desirable candidates are those with management experience in similar or larger-scale businesses, rather than newcomers without experience. From this perspective, the selection process for experienced creative directors at top luxury brands becomes more challenging. There are three significant reasons for this: Firstly, exceptional candidates are already serving as creative directors at other group companies. Secondly, it is difficult to bring individuals who left previous positions for negative reasons. Thirdly, if a creative founder and designer are already running a business worth $100 million or more, the financial incentive for them to become a director of a major maison is questionable.
Virgil Abloh was an exception. He approached the role of a designer at a French fashion house as an African American designer with a sense of mission, not only his own, but for the community, he belongs to. Another example is Simon Jacquemus, who built a business exceeding 100 million euros in less than ten years since founding his own label. Last year, Jacquemus opened a store on Paris’ prestigious Avenue Montaigne, lined with flagship stores of major fashion houses such as Dior and Louis Vuitton, and aims for business growth of €500 million by 2025. This figure is approximately twice the annual revenue of Saint Laurent in 2010 (see chart below). For accomplished independent designers, growing their own businesses presents greater incentives than becoming directors of major fashion houses.
Regarding Louis Vuitton, when Marc Jacobs was appointed as artistic director, the brand did not have a ready-to-wear (RTW) division. For both LVMH and Marc, RTW for a luggage brand was a pioneering endeavour at the time. Similarly, before Hedi Slimane took charge of Dior Homme, Dior did not have a menswear division. Each case represented an experimental new business, both for management and the creative side. Today, the luxury business has become a legacy and matured, and as seen in the table below, it has grown to approximately five times its size over 20 years ago.
Chart of luxury brand growth.2)Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurant and HermesAs LVMH does not publish its results by brand. I picked these four examples.
Currently, the scale of businesses created by founder-designers who independently direct their own brands reaches the top class of hundreds of million dollars, excluding industry giants such as Ralph Lauren (approximately $6.1 billion) and Giorgio Armani (approximately $2.7 billion). However, for those outside the big names, the majority operate on a small to medium scale, ranging from ten million dollars to less than that. Businesses exceeding several billion are still uncharted territory, and from a management perspective, entrusting the full direction of a luxury brand to a designer with only experience at a scale around 1/100-1000th of the business size is considered a kind of bold adventure.
After Virgil Abloh’s sudden passing in November 2021, numerous ideas for potential successors were proposed by fashion followers. Names like Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, and Telfar Clemens gained attention and were talked about. However, as mentioned earlier, when considering their suitability for overseeing Louis Vuitton’s menswear business, their organizations are significantly smaller. Now that the business has grown to a scale of several billion and over 10 billion, there are no individuals, including both designers and executives, who have experienced creative direction at this level, except for those currently in their positions. For luxury brands that set a baseline of 15% annual growth, finding suitable talent for appointments is not an easy task.
2. Virgil: Building Teams to Build Brands
While teamwork is often emphasized as the most essential part of creation, the traditional image of branding has focused on creating an image centred around a single strong individual who single-handedly creates. However, in the case of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division, the director position remained vacant for three collections. Although the absence of a director raised concerns among the media and fashion experts, Louis Vuitton, which was hit hard by the pandemic, experienced a V-shaped recovery and its sales reached €20 billion, showing no signs of slowing down.
Whenever visiting Louis Vuitton’s stores, the menswear section is always bustling with customers. Some may have seen the recorded footage of the team greeting, and marching runways after the show (a notable example of studio teams appearing after runway presentations was seen during the transition period after Galliano’s departure from Dior, but it had a different significance). Through strong image building and commercial drive even in the absence of a director, the moment highlighted the common knowledge that high-quality creative direction emerges from a high-quality team.
Creative direction involves not only the necessity of creative ideas but also the task of effectively communicating with multiple individuals, from the atelier staff to the management team and external collaborators and bringing the team together in a multi-layered manner.
According to those involved, Virgil had a talent for communication that boosted the morale of his staff. Perhaps this came naturally to him due to his experience in building a big business, his own label Off-White. His greatest achievement as artistic director is that he has succeeded in building a team that can function in his absence and has shaped the overall direction of the brand.
While fashion may not be directly comparable, when looking at jewelry and watch brands, I sometimes wonder if the ultimate form of a brand is one where the presence of the individual designer becomes almost imperceptible, and yet the strength of the brand is widely recognized. For example, whoever the creative director is for brands such as Patek Phillipe, Rolex, Graff or Lamborghini, these brands have enduring value. Louis Vuitton has almost reached this kind of maturity.
3. Pharrell Williams: Being a Creator and Strongest Consumer as the Greatest Critic
When the news of Pharrell Williams’ appointment broke, it sparked both praise and criticism worldwide. However, in the current landscape where designers not only direct the overall creative vision of clothing, products, and advertising campaigns but also serve as brand symbols and communicators, many people might have found the choice understandable in retrospect.
Luxury brands, which have grown and expanded due to the increasing fanbase in emerging markets, have become massive entities of unknown scale. They are supported by consumers worldwide who pursue the brand symbol rather than just fashion enthusiasts who closely watch the direction of creativity and memorize specific names. In such a context, it was almost inevitable that one of the most well-known celebrity characters would fill the void within these expanding brand entities.
Since Instagram became a fashion infrastructure, it has become a familiar sight in the fashion world for individuals as consumers to hold influence and start businesses as influencers. What sets Pharrell Williams apart is not only his background in music but also his dual role as a creator and a celebrity, as well as his self-proclaimed status as one of the “strongest luxury consumers.” He engages with a wide range of categories, including clothing, watches, jewelry, furniture, cars, and art, experiencing, possessing, and proudly displaying numerous products without hesitation.
When Pharrell Williams was appointed as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, it made me wonder what kind of image and products would be created by someone who is a top-tier, the strongest luxury consumer and also a creator. This is because the consumption activities of influential individuals themselves are an act of critique.
The catalyst for Pharrell’s full involvement in the fashion industry was indeed “luxury consumption.” Through an introduction by Jacob Arabo, the owner of the New York custom super luxury jewelry store Jacob & Co, whom Pharrell was a customer of, he met NIGO and began his genuine involvement in fashion. The two of them co-founded Billionaire Boys Club in 2003, then Pharrell started collaborations with Louis Vuitton in 2004, and with his friend Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, and launched various projects, including creating fragrances with Comme des Garçons, which attracted considerable attention. Pharrell Williams, who has experienced and created luxury products firsthand, can also be seen as someone who greedily absorbs numerous data sets and undergoes reinforcement learning, akin to an A.I. (Artistic Intelligence). 3)Pharrell Williams founded Billionaire Boys Club in 2003, and Kanye West launched his first fashion brand Pastelle in 2004. During this period, many celebrities launched brands, but few have left a lasting impact. In Japan, although numerous entertainers have launched fashion and lifestyle brands in the past, the only one that has remained is “Her lip to” by Haruna Kojima, which has experienced rapid growth in recent years. The sustainability-focused brand EDUN, founded by U2’s Bono and his partner Ali Hewson in 2005, also garnered attention but went on hiatus in 2018 (Note: EDUN received investment from LVMH and was 49% owned by the company in 2009, but it was sold in 2018). Some may remember actor John Malkovich launching his brand Technobohemian (2011), which is currently on hiatus. Victoria Beckham, who started her brand in 2008, continues to attract attention with sharp presentations but remains investment-driven without strong profit. FENTY, born out of Rihanna’s collaboration with LVMH, closed its fashion division. The Row, founded by former child actors Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in 2006, has steadily expanded. SKIMS by Kim Kardashian became a hit, and Kanye West’s YEEZY maintained its popularity. Pharrell Williams and NIGO’s Billionaire Boys Club are also successful examples.
4. The Age of AI: Can Future Creative Directors Become Cats?
Mascot-like figures provide creative direction – now, will this job be replaced by AI? “In Capitalism in the 22nd Century”, Yale economist Yusuke Narita states that “politicians will eventually be replaced by cats and cockroaches”. This is based on the suggestion that politicians have two roles.
With the development of AI, the policy review and implementation part will be replaced by algorithms, and politicians will be asked to play the mascot role. The ironic prediction is that, with the development of AI, the policy review and implementation part will be replaced by algorithms, and politicians will only be required to play the role of mascot or sandbag.
How about this in fashion: since the AI boom that accelerated around February, numerous images of AI-based fashion have been posted on social media. In architecture, Zaha Hadid Architects has already announced that it is using DALL E-2 and Midjourney, which generate images from text 4)Article by DeZeen; the use of AI was publicised by Patrik Schumacher of the studio. https://www.dezeen.com/2023/04/26/zaha-hadid-architects-patrik-schumacher-ai-dalle-midjourney/. In the fashion field, G-STAR ROW’s presentation of AI-generated images as couture is still fresh in the mind.
— Dezeen (@dezeen) April 26, 2023
Designed with AI. Made with Raw Denim. Produced at our in-house atelier in Amsterdam.
The AI Denim Cape. A one-off denim couture piece, created from just one reference image designed with Midjourney.
Starting with innovation. Ending with craftsmanship. pic.twitter.com/8WzzgzgqpD
— G-StarRAW (@GStarRAW) March 31, 2023
By Marco Simonetti, the following AI-created collaboration between Jacquemus and Nike, announced in December 2022, was the talked-about topic in various fashion media.
AI generated images of the Tiffany x Nike collaboration prediction also went viral.
ai generated designs for nike x tiffany VS what we *actually* got pic.twitter.com/ks3eFmsChZ
— andriana シ (@BOTTEGAHOENETA) January 31, 2023
In fashion brand studios, the use of AI is probably still limited to individual staff members, not entire house. However, it is undeniable that many designers , stylists, graphic designers and modelists have already embraced AI. While there are concerns about “singularity” making headlines, the focus of the buzz surrounding AI is not so much about AI itself but rather about using software, referred to as AI, to substitute tasks such as vast information processing, creating prototypes, image processing, and brainstorming, thereby amplifying human intelligence through “IA (Intelligent Amplifying)” use This IA concept is mentioned by William Ross Ashby (1903-1973) in his book “Introduction to Cybernetics (1958)”..
5. The Era of Computers: Evaluation Based on “Who” acknowledged It
|↑1||This was announced in a news release on the financial results by LVMH.|
|↑2||Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurant and HermesAs LVMH does not publish its results by brand. I picked these four examples.|
|↑3||Pharrell Williams founded Billionaire Boys Club in 2003, and Kanye West launched his first fashion brand Pastelle in 2004. During this period, many celebrities launched brands, but few have left a lasting impact. In Japan, although numerous entertainers have launched fashion and lifestyle brands in the past, the only one that has remained is “Her lip to” by Haruna Kojima, which has experienced rapid growth in recent years. The sustainability-focused brand EDUN, founded by U2’s Bono and his partner Ali Hewson in 2005, also garnered attention but went on hiatus in 2018 (Note: EDUN received investment from LVMH and was 49% owned by the company in 2009, but it was sold in 2018). Some may remember actor John Malkovich launching his brand Technobohemian (2011), which is currently on hiatus. Victoria Beckham, who started her brand in 2008, continues to attract attention with sharp presentations but remains investment-driven without strong profit. FENTY, born out of Rihanna’s collaboration with LVMH, closed its fashion division. The Row, founded by former child actors Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen in 2006, has steadily expanded. SKIMS by Kim Kardashian became a hit, and Kanye West’s YEEZY maintained its popularity. Pharrell Williams and NIGO’s Billionaire Boys Club are also successful examples.|
|↑4||Article by DeZeen; the use of AI was publicised by Patrik Schumacher of the studio. https://www.dezeen.com/2023/04/26/zaha-hadid-architects-patrik-schumacher-ai-dalle-midjourney/|
|↑5||The discussion of whether machines will replace humans is a common topic in the AI boom. However, it is important to remember that when we look back at the history of computers, the term “computer” originally referred to the human occupation of calculation. This profession, which emerged in the early 20th century, became predominantly female during World War II when there was a shortage of male laborers. With the advent of electronic computers, this occupation was replaced by machines. Some people may be familiar with the relationship between fashion and computers that dates back to the 19th century with the Jacquard loom and its punch cards. Charles Babbage (1791-1871), a British mathematician, utilized the mechanism of punch cards from the Jacquard loom to simplify calculations performed by human computers and invented the prototype of the computing machine called the “Analytical Engine.” These stories are detailed in “Calculating Life” by Masao Morita (2021), which offer many insights that are relevant to fashion.|
|↑6||Please refer our previous article “FASHION, DISCRETIZED HUMAN AND ITS MODALITY #1 – FASHION TO CREATE “NEW HUMAN BEINGS” regarding this perspective.|
|↑7||Salma Hayek is the partner of François Pinault, owner of Kering.|