The runners in this race have included Galliano’s former team leader, Bill Gaytten and Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci. Marc Jacobs has been a late entry, but it turns out that he be the odds-on favourite.
Jacobs’ fashion pedigree is without question. Along with his own labels (Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs), he also oversees Parisian fashion house, Louis Vuitton. On this point, Marc seems a perfect choice: seasoned, bold and highly creative. In taking on the name of Vuitton, he not only kept fashion’s money-maker going but made the label the new must-have, seeing off competition from up-and-coming designers.
Making clothes that were both sexy and playful, Marc’s revival of the brand meant that LV wasn’t just about the bags anymore. He took Louis Vuitton’s considerable heritage, and made it modern and covetable. The graffiti-strewn ‘Speedy’ bag was a perfect example of Marc taking the best of Vuitton and aiming it squarely at a new generation of high-fashion consumers. This fearless approach could well prove to be the clincher in deciding whether Marc will be Galliano’s successor.
But Marc’s astonishing list of achievements, while bolstering his case for the Dior job, also becomes the sticking point. With everything that’s already on his plate, does Marc Jacobs really have the time or energy to devote himself not just to another project but the biggest job in fashion? It’s more than cut and paste PR – reconstructing Dior will mean the wholesale seduction of the fashion press, its buyers and fans. No-one can be left wanting, or worse still, unconvinced.
Marc Jacobs undoubtedly has the strength of vision needed to take a label forward, but taking on Dior might be at the expense of something else. Rumours have abounded that the price Jacobs will pay is letting go of Vuitton, with creative control reportedly being offered to Phoebe Philo. Whether this happens all depends on what Jacobs is prepared to forfeit. Will Dior be enough?
If he decides to sign on the dotted line, the task ahead of Jacobs seems almost insurmountable. The most recent Dior Couture show, spear-headed by Bill Gaytten, was met with lukewarm reviews from the press. The show was loaded with references to Dior’s better days, but without Galliano at the helm, the look was confused and unfocused. In fashion, if you don’t keep looking ahead, it is remarkably easy to lose your way.
Galliano’s main strength as a designer was his ability to zero in on an idea and explore it fully. Whether it was equestrian chic, 18th century painters or tropical flowers, Galliano took the guesswork out of couture, at once making it easier to understand and therefore easier to appreciate. His affinity for couture is what will make replacing Galliano especially difficult.
With only commercial experience of producing ready-to-wear, the point on which Marc Jacobs will be tested is in how he chooses to handle the world of haute couture. He not only has competition from his Dior running mate, Riccardo Tisci who has transformed Givenchy Couture into a byword for postmodern elegance, but also from the Italians: Valentino, Armani and Versace are cornering the market for Hollywood’s need for glamour. It may not be its highest-spending customer base, but Hollywood is very much couture’s ace up the sleeve. Couture doesn’t need a fat advertising budget when it has the red-carpet to give it millions of dollars in marketing kudos. Armani Prive in particular has been a huge success on the red-carpet, and Cate Blanchett’s appearance at the Oscars in a lavender Givenchy Couture gown brought Tisci’s work to a whole new audience. It may have divided opinion on the night, but great fashion is rarely fail-safe.
Couture has been a surprisingly resilient part of the fashion industry, surviving the recession almost unscathed. With its growing base of new customers from Russia, China and the Middle East, Dior cannot afford to not have a slice of the action. Where Galliano excelled is in creating haute couture that was both fantasy and pace-setter. His penchant for creating moments of sheer beauty has been well documented, but Galliano’s genius was in making fashion that went the distance. He was shrewd enough to know that couture cannot be self-indulgent: it must be satisfying and meaningful. If it does not work out those big ideas, couture risks becoming fashion without roots.
Every couture collection under Galliano’s direction earned its keep by influencing mainstream fashion, whether it was in the shape of a skirt or a shade of blue. It may have been fashion for the few, but in setting trends, Galliano made sure that one way or another, everyone got a piece of Dior. It is this balancing act between being exclusive and being popular that has ensured Dior’s survival.
With Jacobs’ appointment looking more and more like a done deal, the next question is not who will save Dior, but how? An entirely fresh perspective will be needed for Jacobs to separate himself from both Galliano and his work. Dior and Galliano have become so intertwined that creating a new identity for this iconic label may well prove to be an uphill struggle, even for a designer as experienced as Jacobs.
The question is whether Marc is a talent too big to fail; coming up with a rescue package for Dior could well be the greatest challenge of his career. If he accepts these terms, Jacobs will find himself joining the list of names – Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferre and John Galliano - that have globally translated Dior into the very last word in glamour and sophistication.HELEN TOPE