The fashion designer and creative director, in particular, feature prominently in both mainstream media and private dreamscapes, midway between reality and fiction. It makes it easy to forget that the roles are also practical positions ‒ something people are hired and paid for. As one of our followers mentioned recently: “Designers, in general, are horribly undervalued. The world seems to think all we do is doodle. It is difficult for outsiders to appreciate the work involved in making something truly beautiful.”
A lack of transparency and understanding has led to generations of young creatives dreaming of a position as a fashion designer or creative director in a big luxury house, only to have their bubble burst once they get there. Fashion education teaches its students how to do research, draw up a plan, and create a collection, but it rarely explains how those skills will be utilized and developed once you become part of a company.
“Many designers never want to be a creative director, they are happy to create for someone else and enjoy their life without the pressure that comes with the top job.”
Firstly, there is the question of visibility. Creative people are generally very attached to what they design. They see their creations as an extension of who they are, their social identity, and want to be in control of their aesthetics. That is not possible when you work as a designer for a larger house. “In many instances, a designer is more of a tool that helps communicate the message and reinterprets that through a garment. That is why a designer has a more technical understanding of fabrics, cut etc,” explains Jessica*, who is currently working as a designer for an independent label.”. This means that your skills focus more on the translation of someone else’s ideas than the conceptualising of those ideas. That doesn’t mean it is less interesting, it just means you might not find the public recognition you dreamt of as a child. “Many designers never want to be a creative director,” says Lisa*, who has multiple years of experience working as an in-house designer,. “They are happy to create for someone else and enjoy their life without the pressure that comes with the top job.”
In addition, most fashion houses are set up to increase efficiency, pushing designers to specialise in one specific category, such as outerwear for example. “A designer does more specific research into a category, and works more hands-on in illustrating a design, they are much more obsessive about detail,” says Jessica. This means that the longer you stay in a design position, the more detailed your knowledge and skills will become, making it harder to change roles at a later stage. “I have seen many designers and creative directors start off with similar experiences in entry-level roles, but later develop skills and experiences that align with a specific path,” explains Gena Smith, SVP of Human Resources and Head of Global Executive & Creative Recruiting.
How does that differ from the creative director? “A creative director has a complete vision of a brand, we often say 360 degree,” says Sophie Brocart, CEO of Patou. “They profoundly understand (sometimes even create or change) the mission of the brand and how to communicate it.” Gena agrees: “At LVMH, the creative director is tasked with honoring the heritage of one of the 75 brands, while the designer is bringing forth new, innovative ideas. We may have multiple designers proposing new ideas, the creative director ensures these concepts are leveling up to the overarching brand image.”
This leads to a completely different set of skills, focussed on communication rather than technical knowledge. “Creative Directors often have strong project management skills and help coordinate multiple aspects of a project. These are innate leaders and can effectively communicate their vision with team members to ensure a creative project is carried through,” explains Gena.
“The creative director doesn’t need to be the best designer in the room but the best one to gather and emulate a team around him and his vision.”
The biggest difference lies in the skillsets, not the experience. “The creative director doesn’t need to be the best designer in the room but the best one to gather and emulate a team around him and his vision. In a way, he is like a conductor who knows how to play but is not necessarily the best at playing a specific instrument,” Sophie states. “When Jonathan Anderson presented us his project for Loewe to get the creative director role, he didn’t show that many silhouettes but he did share a brilliant vision for the brand, telling the story of the renewed Loewe with hand-picked words and existing images that he had carefully and beautifully curated to show us where he wanted to take the brand. And his vision was so immediately compelling that he was actually the only designer we met for the role.”
Then there is the difference in personality. Not everybody can handle the specific pressures that come with a leadership position. Lisa saw first hand how important that dedication is: “The designers who want to be a creative director are really driven towards it, this is rarely a position someone arrives at by accident. There are many stories about the lengths some people have gone to to make it to the top job and the toxic environments created by directors to push their teams to achieve success. There is a myth that the creative director possesses some kind of genius but in my experience it is more ruthlessness than exceptional talent or ability.”
The biggest lesson to learn here is to be mindful of how you develop yourself for the job.
Our relationship with clothing is aspirational and image-led. Fashion has unlimited potential when it comes to creation and make-believe. This is precisely what makes working inside it both desirable and challenging to achieve. Everyone aspires to a position of influence, where we can shape narratives and have people listen, but once we get there, we become a character in that storytelling, making it even harder for outsiders to understand what it is exactly that’s being done.
Before you choose a career path, find out as much as you can about each position. Think about your skills and how you’d like them to develop, and make sure to share your knowledge with other aspiring creatives once you get there.
*The names of Jessica and Lisa have been changed to assure anonymity