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Recruiting New Designers: Talent Scouts Now Favor Milan's Seasoned Hands

The Nineties trend of hiring unproven designers to rejuvenate storied brands has given way to a new appreciation of more seasoned talents.

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PARIS — Wanted: fashion designer, preferably European. Experience — and lots of it — is essential.

That is how top European talent scouts might compose a help-wanted ad for the industry today. They say the Nineties trend of hiring young, unproven designers to rejuvenate storied brands has given way to a new appreciation of more seasoned talents — the type found mostly on the Continent.

And, according to some observers, such a profile is currently in abundance around Milan.

“I think it’s the moment of Italy,” said Concetta Lanciaux, a key adviser to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chairman Bernard Arnault, and the French luxury group’s executive vice president of synergies. “For the first time in a long time, I believe we will see some strong creative talents come out of Italy. Designers who work in the fashion industry in Italy are really substantial. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”

In the Nineties, European luxury groups went hunting for designers mostly in America and the U.K., when LVMH, for example, bagged Michael Kors for Celine, Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton, John Galliano for Christian Dior and first Alexander McQueen and later Julien Macdonald for Givenchy. But now brand owners seem to be focused on Italy.

As reported in WWD on Monday, Celine has been in advanced negotiations with Milan-based designing duo Dean and Dan Caten of DSquared to succeed Kors, whose contract at the house expires next spring. The news comes only weeks after Valentino hired Italian Damiano Biella, previously the creative director at Carolina Herrera, to become its new studio director, and LVMH named Sardinia-based Antonio Marras to spearhead the creative direction of its Kenzo fashion house. Marras, who shows his signature line today as part of Milan fashion week, is slated to show his first collection for Kenzo next March.

Interviewed Wednesday, Marras quipped that he sometimes wondered if he would have had more success if his surname started with a Mc or Mac. But he said the fact that it takes more effort for upstart Italian designers to get attention from the media and retailers only makes them work harder.

“Italy is in a very good position now,” he said. “These big groups are realizing that Italy is very good at melding creativity with commercial clout.”
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According to Lanciaux, the industry has learned the value of hiring designers who have not only a rich sense of fashion history and broad culture, but have proven their resilience in a tough industry. She said Jacobs is a perfect example, and other designers who fit the profile range from American Rick Owens to Italian Ennio Capasa, of Costume National.

“There’s much more of a focus on creativity and the right level of creativity than five years ago,” Morgan Stanley luxury analyst Claire Kent remarked at a press conference in Milan earlier this week. “Without the right creative people, even a strong brand can go down very quickly.”

Jean-Jacques Picart, an industry consultant in Paris, agreed that the brand owners are less inclined to experiment with unproven designers in a tough market. In his view, the recent appointments of Christian Lacroix at Emilio Pucci and Jean Paul Gaultier at Hermès are telling, given that the two star couturiers are in their early 50s. Nina Ricci’s appointment of Lars Nilsson, 37, who has more than 12 years’ experience under his belt, is also in tune with the new trend.

“We need much more mature designers than young designers,” he said. “It’s very secure, because it’s not easy to make it in the industry today. Designers need to have a culture of fashion and not be so egocentric.”

Picart also suggested Italy will figure prominently in the coming years, given the country’s combination of industrial know-how and creativity. In fact, he predicted more designers from France, which lacks manufacturing and distribution know-how, would gravitate to Italy in the future.

“Italians could be a good opportunity for the next five years,” he said.

Floriane de Saint Pierre, an executive recruitment specialist and industry consultant based in Paris, on Saturday fetes her new Milan office, which itself announces Italy’s importance on the global stage. “We want to be really close to one of the strongest markets in terms of candidates,” she said. “Most important talents, at some point in their career, work for an Italian company.”

De Saint Pierre stopped short of giving Italy the edge in terms of design talent, though. “I would say the talent pool is in Europe generally,” she said.
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But there are many champions for Italy. Retailer Majed Al-Sabah, owner of Villa Moda in Kuwait, was among the first to write an order for Marras’ signature collection six years ago and he’s remained a staunch champion of Italian design.

Among designers he’s keeping a close eye on are Maurizio Pecoraro, Alexsandro Palombo and Rohka, all on the Milan schedule this week. “In Italy, I think Maurizio Pecoraro is going to be the next Valentino or the future Oscar de la Renta,” he said. “He’s the only one from all the young designers who are doing clothes for chic women and ultra luxury.”

Al-Sabah noted that his customers are extremely receptive to new names in ready-to-wear, while preferring big names like Prada, Gucci, Fendi or Christian Dior for accessories. Beyond Italy, Al-Sabah cited Paris-based Andrew Gn, London’s Tata Naka, Gharani Strok and Boyd as ones to watch.

“I’m also a big fan of Australian designers who are doing amazing designs,” he said. “There’s Easton Pearson, who is to me the new Dries Van Noten.”

Although European talent scouts said America does not hold the same promise for talent it once did, others see things differently.

Robert Burke, senior vice president and fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, said he was “very encouraged” by New York fashion week, which wound up last month, listing Zac Posen, Derek Lam and Proenza Schouler among the standouts. He added that Paris “has always fostered creativity,” too.

Lanciaux also said she’s keeping a close an eye on Japan, which she described as an “incredible laboratory of design” from which is likely to emerge a few “significant talents in the next five years or so.”

But if the industry has an Achilles heel in the talent department on a global scale, it’s for designers of accessories, particularly leather goods, the cash cow of the luxury industry.

“The pool is dry,” de Saint Pierre remarked. “There is a real fight to get the best human resources.”
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