In the fashion world, there are a smorgasbord of founders and designers we read and hear about. There's the celebrity designer, which could either mean a celebrity-turned-designer or a designer-turned-celebrity; the socialite designer; the influencer designer (again, that could be an influencer-turned-designer or vice versa); the millennial 'Girlboss' founder; the mythical, legendary designer whose name is everywhere but whose personal life and personality we know little about. With decreasing frequency, it seems, there's also the talented, classically trained, dues-paid, behind-the-scenes designer who wants their work to speak for itself.
Fashion brands have been harnessing the power of celebrity for over a century. But the "celebrity brand" as we know it really gained traction around the late '90s and early 2000s, thanks to stars like Jay-Z, Sean Combs, Jessica Simpson and more pushing lesser-known names off the sales floor at major retailers like Macy's and upending the entire industry in the process. And there are ways that we still feel this today.
"The biggest force in fashion of the early twenty-first century is not designers or manufacturers or retailers. It is, quite simply, fame," journalist Teri Agins wrote in her 2014 book "Hijacking the Runway," which chronicled this very phenomenon up to that point. (Prophetically, this was in response to "RevolveClothing.com" having sold $1.4 million worth of merchandise through a discount offer placed in People StyleWatch in 2009.)
Agins detailed how Combs, along with his sometimes-mentor Tommy Hilfiger, is credited with using the runway as entertainment and democratizing fashion by making once-marginalized groups feel included. Not that he likely needed it, but the irreverent business mogul also received the legitimizing approval of the CFDA, becoming the first celebrity designer ever nominated for the Perry Ellis Newcomer Award for Menswear. He even earned the praises of Anna Wintour, who told Agins: "Puffy is a superstar. I admire that drive and ambition and that belief in yourself and maybe he is over-the-top and says things [he] probably shouldn't but… these larger-than-life personalities are good for fashion. We can't all be well behaved and perfect all the time. Life would be so boring."
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In the book, Agins also wrote about how, having witnessed the smash success of other celebrity-fronted labels, Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren was looking for a famous name to attach to a suit line. "The answer was none other than Donald Trump, who immediately came to mind for a simple reason: The man was always in a suit," she explained, adding the terrifying factoid that, in 2005, his was among the country's most trusted brands.
Such is the power (and curse) of celebrity, and it wasn't long before designers themselves began chasing fame and using their personas to market their products.
For Michael Kors, going on "Project Runway" as a judge gave his namesake brand the visibility it needed to achieve massive, biggest-fashion-IPO-in-history level of success, as Agins pointed out in "Hijacking the Runway." Similarly, Christian Siriano has benefitted from his time on the show. And despite never becoming TV stars, designers like the late Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford (who did spend some time in Hollywood), Olivier Rousteing and Marc Jacobs make the list of designers-turned-celebrities, proving Agins's declaration that "designers who turn themselves into celebrities can become just as relatable to consumers as movie stars."
When I interviewed Christian Louboutin earlier this year, he credited his remarkable longevity to, well, himself — especially, he told me, "in a world that has been changing, where most brands don't have a creative director with the same name. I think there is an attachment, sometimes, to the brand and to the person."
Wintour has largely been credited with this sort of celebri-fication of fashion, from replacing models with actors on the cover of Vogue to glorifying celebrity designers. Referring to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund at the time, Wintour told Agins that "part of today's success—and this is part of what we think about when we are voting for the winners—do they have the personality?"
"Today's designers coming up…[self-promotion] comes natural to them," she continued, in "Hijacking Fashion." "We don't have to tell them they need to use their social media or they need to be comfortable with press. That's how they are. This is today's way of communicating. There are some who are better than others, and that has to do with their own personalities."
Today, social media — and particularly Instagram — has further revolutionized the fashion industry. There's now another path to fame and fortune as a designer, and it involves gaining tons of Instagram followers, becoming an influencer, and leveraging that influence into a successful fashion line, like Arielle Charnas's Something Navy, Danielle Bernstein's We Wore What or Aimee Song's Song of Style. These influencer brands have become not only a convenient way to repurpose the outdated blog names these individuals used to get their starts, but also representative of a new formula for success.
Entire companies whose business model is identifying influencers and working with them to manufacture, distribute and market clothing lines have popped up, primarily in Los Angeles. One you might know is the aforementioned Revolve; another is LA Collective, which launched in 2015 with Morgan Stewart Sport, an active-meets-leisurewear line fronted by Stewart, former star of E!'s "Rich Kids of Beverly Hills" and current television host at the celebrity-focused network with 1.4 million Instagram followers.
On top of helping them create these lines, LA Collective acts as an online storefront as well, stocking Morgan Stewart Sport among other influencer-backed labels like We Wore What.
"The fall of what retail was and the rise of social media went so hand in hand that bringing those two industries together in a direct-to-consumer platform seemed like a no brainer," co-founder Karl Singer tells me over the phone. "The brands in our portfolio, having talent behind them really allows you to build into an audience that already exists. You compare it to if Joe on the street wanted to make a T-shirt line, he's going to have to spend a lot more money, do a lot more marketing, a lot more advertising [than an influencer] and he might not even, after that, sell a lot of T-shirts." Conversely, Singer says, Morgan Stewart Sport was an "immediate success."
Even after they get that leg up in the industry to break in, influencers can also be better at connecting with consumers than traditional celebrities.
"Younger generations like Millennials and Gen Z respond to more 'real' influencers over celebrities," Sarah Owen, WGSN's senior editor of digital media & marketing, told me in 2018. "Welcome to the age of 'brand-ships': the new form of relationships forming between brands and consumers where the brand acts more like a friend than a corporate entity, in which having an aspirational yet attainable face of the company helps foster a more intimate bond."
Another version of this is the fashion startup founder, who might have positioned herself as more of an entrepreneur than a designer in the quickly-disintegrating 'Girlboss' era. Examples include direct-to-consumer darlings like NastyGal's Sophia Amoruso, Reformation's Yael Aflalo and Outdoor Voices' Ty Haney — young, confident women who were often centered in press about the brands they founded, which, at least in the beginning, seemed to help the millennial women their products targeted connect with them. They had a clear image that consumers could identify with, wishing to be a part of their world. This seemed to create a new type of brand loyalty while anonymous mall brands like Gap, J.Crew, Bebe and Express were faltering.
Whether it's a celebrity, an influencer, or simply a designer or founder that made a name for themself in the press and/or social media, the benefits of giving consumers a public face to latch onto can't really be denied.
"Building brands with celebrities or personalities gives us an organic leverage point with their fan base and audience allowing us to more easily scale brand presence and sales," explains LA Collective co-founder Jaynee Singer.
"I am always on the side of there being a personal element of a brand for consumers to connect with, I think fashion is a highly emotional industry and it's driven by emotional purchases," Clara Jeon, co-founder of fashion PR agency Chapter 2, tells me over the phone. "I think it's more a question of: When was the last time you really saw a powerful brand that really meant something for the culture operate without a personality at the helm or without a person really being the face of that company?"
This hasn't necessarily always been the case, especially at the luxury level.
"A lot of brands used to feel that the designer or proprietor or founder shouldn't ever show too much about their personal life or their interests or expose themselves," luxury retail consultant Robert Burke explains. "Then it kind of became expectation that if a brand wasn't doing that, they weren't being real or being honest with the consumer. Therefore, the customer couldn’t connect to the designer."
Burke points to Marc Jacobs as someone who's very "outspoken" and open: "The consumer responds to that and responds generally positively." He also says this shows up in the way designers are hired for top roles at big brands.
"In the past, it was very important to these bigger brands to hire someone who had good press coverage and recognition and been nominated for awards," Burke explains. "Today though, they want to know how many followers that designer or person has." It's also something investors are now taking into consideration, he adds: "It's very attractive to them when it works, it's their biggest nightmare when it doesn't."
Experts are quick to point out that not every designer or founder is well suited to this kind of arrangement, however.
"It goes back to everybody's comfort level," says Jeon. "I don't think there's a blanket way to say creatives should be or do any one thing because every individual is so different."
Ariyana Smith Hernandez, co-founder of Nora Agency, an L.A.-based marketing firm with clients like J.Hannah and Shaina Mote, tells me: "The founder needs to have a clear connection to the brand and the brand's identity for it to even make sense [to put them in a public-facing role]."
"If you are a founder who wants to be public facing, we suggest building an image on what makes the most sense based on the business, its positioning, and the consumer," she continues. "Their content, while it can be personal, must support the heart and soul of the brand." When it does work, Smith Hernandez says, an active founder can make the brand "more appealing to press" in addition to fostering brand awareness.
Having a large following isn't always enough. The founders of LA Collective say they're "very selective" about choosing influencers to partner with. "Outside of just having a social media presence they need to have a career path that complements [it], that their audience can constantly engage with them, like Morgan being on TV everyday," says Singer.
There are a number of ways that having a famous, outspoken or public-facing founder can also backfire. For instance, an influencer or celebrity could get in trouble for not promoting their brand enough; this happened in 2006 to Jessica Simpson — a benchmark for success in the celebrity brand world — who was sued by her licensing company for breaching her contract by failing to sufficiently support her now-defunct denim line. Also, when a brand puts an individual front and center, there are inherent risks based on that individual's actions. This has never been as true as it is now, with consumers demanding more transparency from the places they shop at than ever before — and being quick to "cancel" when they see something they don't like.
"The brand can be greatly judged or solely judged by the person's actions — today, even their political views," says Burke, who describes having a public-facing founder as being either "the biggest blessing or the biggest curse." He notes that industry watchdogs like Diet Prada have had a major impact with this. When someone like, say, Charnas is called out for irresponsible actions around Covid-19, it can cast a negative light on the Something Navy brand, from which she is so inextricable. Virgil Abloh, too, is frequently scrutinized on social media and in the press — perhaps more than LVMH bargained for. (Or, maybe all press is good press?)
Meanwhile, all three of the millennial fashion startup founders mentioned earlier have, to varying degrees, been the subjects of public backlash from former employees in the media, with all of them stepping back from the companies they founded in some way.
As Amanda Mull wrote in this phenomenon for The Atlantic: "The confident, hardworking, camera-ready young woman of a publicist's dreams apparently had an evil twin: a woman, pedigreed and usually white, who was not only as accomplished as her male counterparts, but just as cruel and demanding too."
This dynamic also requires a level of accountability on the part of these public-facing founders.
"Not only in fashion, but in every industry right now, you're having CEOs be taken down, editors-in-chief of magazines disappearing because of decisions that they made," notes Kenneth Loo, co-founder of Chapter 2. "That also plays into the layer of, what is that responsibility of being a public face? Companies have to be built on integrity and once that integrity is broken, you have a lot of issues with trust from a customer's perspective."
"There is always a downside," he continues, "especially when a company used their leader and put their leader in front of everybody as the perfect soul."
At the same time, fashion can be a great platform to start conversations about important social and political issues, which we've seen more and more founders and designers engaging with over the past few months.
"You have to be aware of your responsibility and using voice, using your platform and really wanting to engage with your audience in a way that goes deeper than just talking about clothes," says Jeon. "I know that's what brought us all to this industry, but I think what keeps us here are the things that are so much more human and so much deeper than that."
This can also create a strange dynamic when a founder or designer has disagreements with the company itself, like when Haney departed Outdoor Voices over reported disagreements with executives like Mickey Drexler. In a vague Instagram post announcing this, many followers and fans were quick to voice their support in the comments — for her, not OV.
"In some ways, the founders or the designers are becoming almost bigger than the brand and creating more loyalty than the brand," notes Burke. "This ultimately creates some fear in the owners of the company." It's not clear why, but Haney has since returned to the company she founded, though in a less prominent role. (A rep for the brand confirmed that Haney is "an active and engaged member" of Outdoor Voices's board and will "continue providing brand expertise, creative direction, and ongoing support for OV," though she's not currently doing interviews.)
The bottom line is that values like authenticity, personal connection and transparency are now critical for brands, and having a public face is important for achieving that. But is it absolutely necessary?
"Having a public facing founder isn't required to have a successful company. In fact, it can sometimes be a hindrance because the brand is tethered to an individual who is innately human, and makes mistakes," says Smith Hernandez. "But when there is a strong founder story, consumers have something to connect to and it can assist the brand in being viewed as authentic — specifically if the founder's background directly links to the product or service."
As many experts noted, it's also a way to stand out in a crowded space that's more competitive than ever.
"It makes it all the more important for designers to have an edge that has nothing to do with fashion, an edge that raises their premium high above the din," Agins wrote in "Hijacking Fashion." "And like it or not that edge is celebrity. It's a self-reinforcing pattern. Celebrities crowding into fashion make it harder to get noticed, and the fact that it's harder to get noticed makes using celebrities all that much more necessary."
And putting on a perfect, apolitical façade probably isn't going to work anymore either.
"The idea of playing it safe is probably, in the end, today, not attractive to the new consumer. They want authenticity; they want realness. Even if they don't agree with it, I think they want to see it," Burke says. "We're not going to go back to a time where it's less transparent. The expectation of transparency is absolutely not going to go away."