Confessions of a luxury designer: We don’t know how to modernize

Where luxury fashion houses were once built around exclusivity, digital and social media is forcing high-end brands from Burberry to Tommy Hilfiger to open up.

But many luxury fashion houses are still reluctant to adapt to changing consumer shopping trends and an embrace of see-now-buy-now. Compared to younger, more consumer driven and digital savvy companies, some luxury fashion houses are stuck in their ways.

In this edition of Confessions, in which we grant anonymity in exchange for honesty, an employee on the design side of an American luxury fashion house shares the frustrations of working for a brand that isn’t modernizing.

How does see-now-buy-now affect you?
It’s killing creativity and the design process because you’re forced to work so much faster. Before you had all this time to design, see-now-buy-now means you have to design, create and produce at the same time. Raf Simons was right when he said it’s destroying the creative process. But there is one upside: See-now-buy-now is closing the gap between fast fashion and luxury, and fast fashion can’t knock off our designs.

What about the brand’s in-store experience?
A colleague and I went into one of the stores the other day and it was empty. For the most part, everything is online and luxury brands are trying to keep up with how to bring people in-store and upgrade the shooting experience. Luxury doesn’t have a sense of luxury anymore, and we’re trying to keep up with fast fashion.

Explain how.
In the ’50s and ’60s “luxury” meant a consumer goes into the fashion house, someone would fit them, it was all about customizing it to the person. But millennials don’t value luxury and they don’t value really expensive things. They like buying high and low. Luxury used to mean expensive, but today it’s about having something rare. Why would someone pay $500 to buy a vintage dress when you could get one at a thrift store. That’s why luxury is struggling.

How would you describe the employees at legacy companies like yours?
In general it’s an older workforce because it’s such an old company and it’s not unusual for people to stay 10 years-plus. There’s a strong sense of hierarchy and the company’s structure is very top-heavy. There are a lot of people in management and very few people doing all the work. Those who aren’t at the top also don’t get paid a lot either. It’s just so big, with so many layers. For example there’s at least four layers of designers: There’s usually several associate designers, a couple of senior designers, and one design director, so if you’re a “designer” it doesn’t mean you’re the designer.

How are people paid?
It depends what level you come into the company on. If you’re straight out of school they’ll take advantage of that and pay you a lot less. If someone comes in from the workforce with experience they’d have to pay $20,000 more for someone to do the same job, so they like young talent who do the same job for cheaper. Some of my colleagues started designing straight out of school and were on $45,000 and moved their way up to $50,000. Someone from the industry would start between $50,000 and $60,000 and go up to $60,000 to $70,000. Senior designers at most luxury fashion houses will  be on $100,000 plus on average, but we pay less. Our senior designers are on roughly $80,000.

What about those at the top?
Senior people like directors, creative directors and those in charge of all the brands, I know several of them are at $200,000.

With an older workforce, what are some of your main frustrations?
Aesthetically the brand is very old school and it’s hard to integrate new ideas because the heads are very old. They also have this warped interpretation of modern, young, hip clothes. They’re like,”This is a downtown girl,” and we [younger employees] are like, “You haven’t been downtown in the past 20 years.” There’s a huge disconnect between what’s happening in the market and our designs.

For example, making things sexy isn’t something we do a lot. The young designers will design something cool like a low-cut top and in meetings the older designers or design director will say, “No, we have to make it higher.” They’re more concerned about what’s going to sell and who’s buying, but if we keep designing like that young people are not going to be lured in.

So the brand is stuck in old ways?
We’re so true to aesthetic and we use the same fabrics. Our design process isn’t exciting, we recreate designs off of photos and samples which results in a whole lot of non-interesting stuff that’s already out there in the market place. Today in fashion the street is the inspiration, we should be looking to the street to design. We don’t know how to modernize properly.

Is there room for younger employees to grow or make an impact?
It really depends, but in the last five years there seems to be a trend to hire creative directors because of popularity and what brands they’ve worked with in the past. They’re almost treated like a celebrity. Because of that it’s much harder for someone in the company to move up, and they’re just hiring external people.


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