After going the traditional route as celebrated creative directors at fashion’s biggest houses, these designers have left the system and returned with something a little more personal.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

A directorship at a heritage-steeped house used to be the holy grail of fashion, with young designers gunning for top positions at brands owned by conglomerates such as LVMH, Kering and Richemont. Scoring one meant an instant stamp of approval from the establishment, and provided a shortcut to stardom and huge paydays. Designers who made their name helming heritage houses include John Galliano and Alexander McQueen at Givenchy, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga, Christopher Bailey at Burberry and Tom Ford at Gucci.

In the past decade though, as fashion and media changed beyond recognition, cracks started showing in the system. Both Galliano and McQueen experienced falls as dramatic as their ascensions. Galliano’s successor at Dior, Raf Simons, burned out from the intensity and was later unceremoniously ousted from his next job at Calvin Klein. Alber Elbaz suffered the same fate at Lanvin, despite turning the fortunes of the French brand around. Ghesquière left Balenciaga embroiled in an ugly spat while the stint of his successor, Alexander Wang, was marked by lacklustre showings and an abrupt exit.

Perhaps burned out by the increasingly sped-up and corporatised fashion world, a whole host of star designers have left high-profile positions in recent years and have so far opted out of rejoining the industry. The most notable absence of Phoebe Philo, who left Celine after transforming the once-forgotten brand into a moneymaker and critical darling for LVMH, had Philophiles clamouring for an eponymous label. But the famously reclusive designer has so far remained mum.

Others have pivoted into charity work: Frida Giannini, ousted from Gucci in 2014, now sits on the board of Save the Children. Bouchra Jarrar, who left Lanvin after only 16 months, is currently working with the Musée des Art Décoratifs to create programmes that benefit disadvantaged young women. Some have explored different branches of design—Jonathan Saunders, who led Diane von Furstenberg for 18 months, is now designing furniture while Alessandra Facchinetti, who was last at Tod’s, most recently designed costumes for the Don Carlo opera at Switzerland’s Theater St. Gallen.

While the industry waits with bated breath to see how Elbaz’s joint venture with Richemont would take shape, a small group of designers are rethinking the way they want to play the fashion game. Having clocked in time at the most hallowed houses in Paris and Milan, from Schiaparelli to Saint Laurent and Sonia Rykiel, they realise that the old way of doing things is no longer feasible in a rapidly changing landscape. As the world literally burns around us, these visionary minds are finding new paths forward by promoting thoughtful consumption and smaller-scale productions, rejecting excessive consumerism, instant gratification and throwaway culture.


by Stefano Pilati

From the tulip skirt to the Tribute heels, Stefano Pilati’s eight-year tenure at Yves Saint Laurent yielded plenty of commercial hits and an alluring take on French chic. He followed that up with three years at Ermenegildo Zegna, bringing a softer, more languid elegance to the Italian menswear giant. Disillusioned with the corporate fashion system, Pilati retreated from the public eye in 2016; he finally resurfaced in late 2018 with the launch of Random Identities—a label inspired by the energetic club culture of his new home city, Berlin.

“Being out of the fashion mainland is a conscious decision,” said Pilati to Angelo Flaccavento for Business of Fashion in April last year of his new label. “Berlin is a city with a modern mentality—a free place for free thinking, where I can operate in my own bubble and do my own thing the way I want to do it, at my own pace.”

From the get-go, Random Identities stood out for how different it was from the old luxury model in which Pilati used to operate. During his hiatus, the designer has come to see luxury as something defined not by pricing, but by quality, scarcity and its value to its intended audience. As such, the brand does not play by conventional fashion rules. Prices hover around the relatively attainable $100 to $800 mark and there are no seasonal collections, lavish runway shows, splashy campaigns, flagship store, e-commerce or even delineation between the sexes.

Instead, Random Identities pieces are genderless and released in thematic drops—way before Rihanna adopted the model for her LVMH-backed Fenty label—with distribution limited to SSENSE online, and the Dover Street Market network offline. What connects each capsule is a distinct mix of the utilitarian and militaristic undercut with a touch of subversion and kink—clothes that would fit right in at Berlin’s iconic techno club Berghain. What you won’t find are clichéd streetwear tropes, Insta-baiting graphics and brash logos; it speaks volumes that the brand’s logo is a plain blacked-out bar.

In a sign that Pilati’s game-changing gambit has caught on with the industry at large, Random Identities was invited by the world’s largest menswear trade show, Pitti Uomo, to show as a special guest at its recent January edition—giving the designer a larger platform to broadcast his radical message and proving that one doesn’t have to conform in order to win.

OPPOSITE: Propositions for a modern, genderless wardrobe by Stefano Pilati for Random Identities 
My Reading Room
"Romantic silhouettes cut with a sense of contemporary ease by Marco Zanini for Zanini Collection"
My Reading Room

by Marco Zanini

Marco Zanini’s claim to fame was resurrecting the dusty Rochas brand in 2009 after Olivier Theyskens’s departure in 2006 left the label adrift and drowned out by bigger competitors. Staying on for five years, Zanini led Rochas from strength to strength before he was poached by Diego Della Valle of Tod’s Group to head the revival of the long-dormant Schiaparelli name. His vision for the iconic Parisian house was delightfully madcap and utterly glamorous, but Zanini found himself let go after only a year.

“It became increasingly difficult to work with big brands, and I realised it didn’t represent a creative challenge anymore. We were all experiencing this fashion fatigue. Everything feels so corporate,” Zanini said to Dana Thomas of The New York Times in September last year. Zanini stayed away from the industry until early last year, when the designer heard the call of fashion once more. With the launch of Zanini Collection, he was determined to do things differently. For one, the landscape is now vastly altered—everyone having woken up to the harmfulness of the excess and disposability that runs rampant through fashion today. Zanini’s response to that is to place thoughtfulness at the heart of his new brand, deliberately keeping every aspect small and highly personal.

Operations at Zanini Collection are practically a one-man show. For his debut fall/winter 2019 collection, Zanini shot the lookbook, presented the collection in his own Milan apartment, invited buyers, and fielded orders all by himself. In the spirit of keeping things small, the designer will only be releasing two collections a year, with each clocking in at less than 30 looks. The pieces themselves are made in limited quantities—to preserve a sense of specialness, but also because the designer works with fabrics produced in small-batch runs.

Instead of trendy, throwaway pieces, Zanini designs with an eye towards timelessness, resulting in pieces that feel like modern heirlooms—precious things to love, keep and pass down. He achieves this with his uniquely romantic yet contemporary take on historicism—a poet sleeve referencing 17 -century dresses, jet beading that nods to the flapper era, duchess satin that evokes mid-century couture, and lustrous kimono silks that bring to mind ’40s boudoir dressing. Tailoring has also emerged as a strong suit; his stands out for their powerful proportions given hourglass shapes via silk ribbons that tie at the back.

Furthering the aura of exclusivity, Zanini is keeping distribution tight. For now, the designer is bypassing e-commerce—preferring the clothes to be discovered in stores and for clients to fall in love with the way they feel—and partnering with only 10 retailers worldwide, which includes esteemed names such as Dover Street Market, Club 21 and Ikram; a convincing argument for thinking small but aiming high.

My Reading Room
"Julie de Libran elevates straightforward shapes with textural details and intricate embroideries, crafting precious keepers"
My Reading Room

by Julie de Libran

Julie de Libran’s CV is chock-full of the most illustrious names in fashion. She first cut her teeth at Giorgio Armani, then headed up the celebrity-dressing division at Prada, eventually ending up as Marc Jacobs’s right-hand woman at Louis Vuitton, directing his womenswear studio. When Jacobs left Vuitton, de Libran was recruited for the top job at Sonia Rykiel. In her five years at the brand, she brought the one-time beacon of liberated Left Bank cool back into the thick of the fashion conversation.

De Libran added a contemporary edge to the Sonia Rykiel signatures of striped knits, exposed seaming and easy ’70s silhouettes. However, there was a tension between heritage, creative energy and commercial viability that proved tricky to resolve; the business side never seemed completely aligned with her vision. Sales suffered, de Libran left, and soon after, the much-loved brand filed for bankruptcy and liquidated its US business.

In a conversation with Dana Thomas of The New YorkTimes in September 2019, de Libran said of her time at big brands: “I think of Louis Vuitton, where I was for six years, and then Rykiel; it’s about quantity and selling, and you lose the knowledge and appreciation. I learned so much, but I’ve done that school. I can do it on my own now, properly.”

And what de Libran wants to do on her own is quietly radical in its way. Towards the end of her Rykiel tenure, she introduced an haute couture collection and started nudging the brand towards sustainable materials. It is these two tenets that form the core of the eponymous brand she launched last summer. Presented during haute couture fashion week in a highly intimate showcase at her own home, de Libran looked to the couture model by selling her pieces made-to-order only to avoid overproduction and wastage.

On the sustainability side, she committed to using deadstock fabrics. Due to the limited nature of her raw materials, the resulting products are similarly exclusive, with some pieces existing only as one-offs and others produced in extremely small runs. The designer has also adopted the practice of doing one thing and doing it well. Her collections consist only of dresses, a garment she says “has a strong personality” and “reflects how a woman feels and sees herself ”. Hers range from streamlined sheaths and billowy babydolls to fringed party numbers and pailletteencrusted goddess gowns— giving new meaning to the adage “dress for success”.