We at the Fashionista offices often joke that if we were forced to take a pop quiz pairing creative directors with the houses they lead, we aren't confident that we'd pass. But it wouldn't be for a lack of trying. The last few years have seen a tidal wave of top-level change-ups, as we've documented via this years-old, now-unwieldy running list. There have been those designers who have departed after three years, those who have hopped lily pads from one prestigious brand to another and, as we've seen mostly famously with Alessandro Michele, those who have been largely under-the-radar, but have recently inherited some of the most powerful legacy houses in the world.
Chloé's Natacha Ramsay-Levi and Marni's Francesco Risso are among the creative directors in the latter camp, having spent years behind-the-scenes — Ramsay-Levi at Balenciaga, then Louis Vuitton as Nicolas Ghesquière's right-hand woman before taking over for Clare Waight Keller, and Risso at Prada before succeeding Consuelo Castiglioni. They've also been among the gaggle of designers who made debuts this year, with this pair presenting two of the most critically acclaimed collections of the Spring 2018 season.
But as commonplace as these design takeovers have been of late, Ramsay-Levi and Risso have not had it easy. There's a lot riding on their success, but in their cases, "success" isn't so easy to pin down. They have to honor the codes of their new house, sure, but they also have to design in a way that's natural for them, lest the collection feel inauthentic. They have to build a new family within an already established one and, of course, they have to move product.
At Vogue's Forces of Fashion conference on Thursday, Ramsay-Levi and Risso were on hand to discuss how, exactly, you manage getting the keys to the house. The two agreed that in the beginning, you need, need, need to be a fan of the house, first and foremost, before even taking that initial meeting; everything else can and will follow.
"Francesco was a Marni lover; I was a Chloé lover, too," Ramsey-Levi, who began her creative director role in March, told moderator Luke Leitch. "You really need to do it with the most sincerity. The only thing that can work is how much you embrace the codes of the house. You really have to love them. I would have never been able to come into a house and wanted to change everything ... It's not something that blocks you; it's something that gives you structure and within the structure, you then really expand."
After that comes the hard work. Risso, who's well-known in the Milan fashion circuit having spent 10 years under Miuccia Prada, explained that he studied Marni's archives for up to a year before even getting into the house.
"Literally, to me, it was almost like astronauts trying land on a planet," said Risso. "You first get into the atmosphere and you perceive certain things, then you get on land and when you work on the field, you will understand [what is] possible, [what is] on the ground and [what you] can grow. And in that moment, I realized I had this wonderful garden where I could plant new seeds." He paused, adding with a laugh: "It was a bit like Matt Damon in 'The Martian.'"
Risso had to get to work right away: He was appointed in late October 2016 and he debuted his first collection as creative director just four months later. Ramsay-Levi, however, had the luxury of time, a rarity in such a fast-paced, burnout-prone environment. Those six months before her first show, she said, became an enormous benefit.
"When you get called for the job, you start to study; you really start to dig," she said, recalling spending her days pouring over the Chloé archives and learning to reckon her own design tendencies with those codes of the house. "I really wanted for the first show to be an ode to what I love at Chloé... I really feel the role of a creative director is... to dig from the past and conjugate this in the present because fashion is about present. Chloé is a house that we love to be about the future."
Looking ahead, have either Ramsey-Levi or Risso found themselves able to strike that balance between the legacy of their respective houses and the sense of modernity needed to keep collections fresh? It's a work in progress, always, and it takes guts.
"In a way, you're stepping back and forth to connect to the codes of the house and the codes of what's outside in the [litmus of] fashion that we work on, but if we don't dare, we will not achieve new and we will not achieve new experiences," said Risso. "That's really fundamental for our job, to push against the limits sometimes."