Sometimes it can seem as if the designers at the top of the industry’s best-known brands are engaged in a never-ending game of musical chairs. For every Karl Lagerfeld, presiding over the design studios at Chanel and Fendi for decades, and Giorgio Armani (ditto), a dozen more have come and gone as creative directors at luxury houses, often unceremoniously ejected from their gilded seats, sometimes in as little as 18 months.
But what happens afterward?
Just because they are no longer taking bows at the end of shows, quite a lot, as it turns out. From new professional projects to old hobbies, personal discoveries and unexpected passions, a group of fashion’s most prominent recent alumni spoke to The New York Times about their post-creative director lives.
Most notably, though they are all following different paths and have different feelings about returning (or not) to the runway, they agree on one thing: Their time away has made them happier. Interviews have been edited and condensed.
Most recently: Lanvin creative director, 2001-2015
Previously: Guy Laroche creative director, head designer at Krizia
Living in: Paris
“I think it is only normal that if one experiences massive change in their life they might want to disappear. To look and not always be looked at. You can’t always ‘enjoy the moment’ when you are at the top of a big brand. It’s always conference calls and meetings and constant work travel — you don’t have time to think and to dream.
“Since leaving Lanvin, I partnered with Sportsac on a handbag collaboration. I have also been traveling a lot on my own terms and focused on a particular question: Why are we at such a turning point in fashion? The street is now my catwalk. I have also thought a lot about how the industry works as whole: the online versus offline world, global versus local, print versus digital media and advertising. A big preoccupation has been: Does constant Googling and Instagramming make designers work differently? I think it does. I worry it makes designers lazier.
“I gave a lot of lectures, everywhere from Tsinghua University in China to master class work with students at Parsons in New York and Central Saint Martins in London. I love teaching. And I became fascinated with the technology sector. I went and met with many start-up leaders and entrepreneurs, particularly in Israel, almost entirely working on disrupting sectors outside fashion. I became almost like a researcher, interested in what creative types can learn from that space. And what they can learn from us. I have tried to take vacations. The truth is I don’t like the summer, or beaches, or boats. For me, a vacation feels like work.”
Most recently: Gucci creative director, 2006-2014
Previously: Head of accessories at Fendi
Living in: Rome
“The first year after I left Gucci felt like a type of reconstruction. I had the sensation that I’d been catapulted back to planet Earth. For 20 years I’d lived another reality: in the midst of a huge company, followed constantly by the media. It was as if I’d been in a bubble. I started to have a different perspective. I asked myself how I’d done everything and managed a million things also while having my daughter, Greta.
“I went to the Caribbean and I remember going on holiday in March, something I’d never done before. I cooked, and did a lot of horse riding. Then Greta, who was 3 at the time, caught a terrible virus that caused problems with the left side of her body. At that time I was receiving numerous offers, mainly international ones, but I put everything on hold for a year.
“Since then I’ve done some small collaborations: not just fashion but fine jewelry, too. I was a sort of ghostwriter. I didn’t want my name mentioned and made sure that was part of the agreement. Then I found a new career. I have always done charity work, and did a lot at Gucci. Save the Children called me and I became a board member in 2017. I wanted to fill my time with a different reality. Beyond board work, I have done field trips to Jordan and to Syria; hosted fund-raisers at my home. It’s now a full-time job and I get a lot of satisfaction. I don’t wish to speak badly about the fashion world. I had great experiences and met wonderful people, but it’s very different now to what it was four years ago. There are a lot of D.J.s and fewer designers. I don’t know if I could be part of that world anymore.”
Living in: Paris and Normandy
“For 25 years, I did not stop working on creating collections. In the early years, I did two collections a year. When I left Oscar de la Renta, I was doing six, always in very quick succession. I was constantly on the road for trunk shows and felt like I wasn’t really designing. I felt like I never had time to really think.
But when my time there ended and I returned home to France, it was also an enormous shock to the system. Time on my hands was a very alien thing. And yet it also proved a very positive thing. I didn’t go straight back to Paris; I actually went to Normandy, where my partner and I have a country house. New York to Normandy, can you imagine?
Together, we did something we always wanted to do: renovated our house. I went from eating my lunch at my computer every day to taking time to really enjoy life. My friends and family came to visit. I went to Tuscany and to cooking school for a while. It was great.
I would be more than happy to stay as I am, but financially it wasn’t an option. I became a contributing editor for U.S. Architectural Digest. And recently clients from my Nina and Oscar days have started reaching out, so I have been doing some commissioned work using small ateliers in Paris that can take a single project quite easily. I love doing one-on-one work like demi couture and bridal. That said, it isn’t the real world. So I do have an exciting fashion-related announcement coming later this year.”
Living in: New York
“Since leaving J. Crew I haven’t been working on anything. It really has been the best 18 months. I needed time. I love J. Crew, my time there and all the incredible people I worked with over the years. But I underestimated how much of my life they filled up. My focus has really been on my family.
“Having nothing on my calendar has been the most incredible luxury. I have taken naps. I have had ice cream for breakfast. I have had a doctor’s appointment and then been able to walk the 40 blocks home, just soaking up the city. I have caught up on reading. And I have been saying no to everything. It has been great.
“I do miss parts of my old life. I miss being part of a built-in community. I miss making something you can see and hold. I will do it again. But next time, it will be different. I now feel so excited about what comes next. About the idea of change and of nothing being recognizable. For me, that feels exciting and also terrifying at the same time.”
Most recently: Schiaparelli creative director, 2013-2014
Previously: Creative director at Rochas and Halston, Versace head of women’s wear
Living in: Milan
“I’ve been in the fashion industry for almost as long as I can remember, in all of its major cities and in all points of responsibility. I fulfilled a lot of my dreams, but now that I am off the big roller coaster I have realized that there are other dreams that can be realized in very different ways. I recently collaborated with some small Milanese brands — Santoni and Aspesi — on projects and found the process really liberating. I see in those smaller businesses a freshness and energy that the mega-corporates somehow tend to lack these days, at least for me.
“After Schiaparelli, I felt like I got possession of my life back. At big brands, you never have time for yourself. I never stopped working, ever. There is a quality of life that I had forgotten you could have. I spent so long focusing on how to create the next best thing. Now I can focus on the next best thing for me. I decorated my apartment and loved every minute of the process.
“I’ve been lucky enough to receive some job offers. But now I’m actually thinking about doing a personal venture of my own. It’s in its early stages and I don’t want to rush it. But I am looking forward to all that comes next.”
Most recently: Lanvin creative director, 2016-2017
Previously: Founder of Bouchra Jarrar label, which she closed in 2016; Balenciaga studio director, and head of couture design at Christian Lacroix
Living in: Paris
“My year off allowed me to pause, something I had not done in 25 years, and take stock of what was important to me. In particular, I wanted to help those in need. Together with a close friend of mine, Laure du Pavillon, I started work on a new charitable project. Our focus has been on women between the ages of 18 and 26 who have led incredibly difficult lives and how we can expose them to the power of fashion. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs and its director, Olivier Gabet, and his team were critical in helping this idea come to life, through both creative workshops and the Dior exhibition. Many of these young women had never set foot inside a museum before. Witnessing the depth of their emotional reactions to what they saw was all the validation we needed for the project and that we were doing the right thing.
“I have always firmly believed in the power of fashion as an essential tool in helping women to build confidence, which is why it was both rewarding and challenging to work with women who had lost all self-esteem. I wanted to help them test their own creativity. To find their voices. It is clear to me that this project, in some incarnation, will be an ongoing feature of my life.
“The past year has also been full of my own creative development. For a few months now, I have been working on the art direction for an album of a beautiful artist, which will be released soon. These different projects have helped me to plan my future. The main idea now is to return to fashion. It could be at another big brand, or it could be that I work under my own name again. But either way, one of my prerequisites will be to do this in partnership with an excellent C.E.O., a partner who can competently manage all aspects of the business and has a strong global vision.”
Most recently: Diane von Furstenberg chief creative officer, 2016-2017
Previously: Founded Jonathan Saunders, which he closed in 2016
Living in: New York
“For quite a few years I had a longing to design a collection of furniture. My initial degree was product design before studying fashion. Once I felt I had done what I set out to do at DVF, I decided to finally focus on this in 2018. I decided to stay in New York, and live with my partner in a 100-year-old converted shoe polish factory that looks over the East River in Williamsburg.
“When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was study and work and get somewhere in life. I didn’t really travel, apart from work trips where you barely had time to immerse yourself in a place. I have always been inspired by both Japan and India, so after I left DVF, I traveled around both Japan and Rajasthan for two months. I was flooded with ideas for design, and also how to live. It was one of the best decisions I made.
“As well as my furniture, I’ve been mentoring a group of young designers in London who struggle with finding the finances needed to start their own brands. I believe designers should come from talent, not privilege, and in Britain it’s harder than when I was a student relying on bursaries. It’s been good to think about other people more. When designing endless collections and marketing strategies and collaborations a year, as you do at a big brand, you can become very self-orientated.
“I love fashion though. I miss the human element, and how clothes and designs change with the people who wear them. I’m exited about getting involved again, but in a way that embraces the new ways of working that are happening now, rather than being burdened by old-fashioned processes and formulas.”
Most recently: Emilio Pucci creative director, 2015-2017
Now: Creative director at MSGM, the brand he founded in 2008
Living in: Milan
“After leaving Pucci, I realized that everything had changed, including me. MSGM is still a medium-small brand, and interpersonal relationships have an importance and value that unfortunately get lost in larger companies. With my partial absence, the brand seemed to have fallen asleep. I immediately started working to give a big boost to brand growth, moving into a larger headquarters, employing a new C.E.O. and raising new investment.
“I also focused on my personal life. When I was at Pucci I divided my time between Florence and Milan: three days in one city and two in the other. It was very stressful. Everything was complicated: a dinner with friends, simply going to the movies or the gym meant having to plan ahead, and things were often canceled at the last minute. My life beyond the office seemed frozen.
“Returning to Milan I set aside more time for my interests, like sports, which I love: I do yoga, jog, work out and swim. I couldn’t do these things before. Plus, now I go to museums and exhibits and have dinner with friends. I love to cook and make cocktails: I consider myself an excellent barman. I finally bought a beautiful house by the sea, in Liguria, for vacations. Last but not least, I made the most important decision of all: In October, I will marry my partner of eight years. So, I’d say doing all this in just 12 months isn’t too bad!”
Additional reporting by Kerry Olsen
By ELIZABETH PATON