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Authoritarian figures: How Anna Wintour and co. are cultivating power in new ways

Illustration by Benjamin MacDonald/The Globe and Mail

Authoritarian figures

Fashion's favourite mythological character is the godlike tastemaker, dictating trends via hordes of cowering underlings. The industry's hierarchy is now being shaped in different – albeit no less calculated – ways, reports Anya Georgijevic

Following the death of Coco Chanel in 1971, Kitty D'Alessio, a genius marketing executive of the Mad Men era, quickly rose through the ranks at the luxury house to become its president by developing a strategy to refocus the label for a younger customer. Coco's couture-suited loyalists were a dying breed, so D'Alessio diversified by developing Chanel's beauty business and ready-to-wear line. By 1977, it had morphed into the multi-faceted brand it is today.

In 1983, she lured the designer Karl Lagerfeld to Chanel from his post at Chloé, making one of the longest-standing and lucrative matches in the industry, consummated by an apparently lifelong contract. D'Alessio was recognized for "revitalizing Chanel's image in the United States" by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 1985.

But in 1986, she approved an advertising photograph of model Inès de la Fressange that Lagerfeld did not like and soon found herself demoted to a token position. "The good news is that Kitty D'Alessio has been made director of special projects," said the designer at the time. "The bad news is there are no special projects." With a flick of Lagerfeld's fan, D'Alessio was out.

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Such tales pervade every corner of the fashion business and help maintain the industry's ruthless reputation. While there may be some truth behind The Devil Wears Prada-esque drama, the nature of influence in the rag trade is shifting. Lagerfeld's long career allowed him to establish himself as his own brand, but a designer's tenure at a label is now more likely to be a quick fling rather than an enduring commitment. Similarly, the once-omnipotent figure of the magazine editor is being challenged by social media's nurturing of independent voices. Cultivating power in fashion today isn't so cut(throat) and dry.

"I don't know that somebody starting now could ever become a Karl Lagerfeld," says Michael Gross, a veteran fashion journalist with a knack for exposing the juicy jockeying for position that pervades style and high society, and the author of Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers. "It has to do with, first of all, a level of creativity that is way beyond the ordinary, and then a drive that is way beyond the ordinary, because most people would not want to keep working that hard, particularly if they've been successful young."

Illustration by Benjamin MacDonald/The GLobe and Mail

Today, many accomplished designers rotate through big fashion houses at an ever-increasing pace. New Yorker Alexander Wang lasted three years at Balenciaga, a similar amount of time that Belgian Raf Simons spent in the coveted creative director role at Christian Dior. Simons was recently appointed by Calvin Klein to unify the label's many sub-brands, while upping the profile of its runway collection, but such hires are rarely framed as long-term matches made in fashion heaven anymore. Instead, a designer is a good fit or a logical aesthetic choice that is worth a try. It's tricky to cultivate a sense of authority in that fickle climate.

"The marketplace is very different than what it was even five years ago," says Joe Mimran, co-founder of Club Monaco. "The industry is much more fractured; I think the advent of e-commerce has changed the dynamics pretty dramatically."

Mimran's own celebrity and standing in the industry were evident when he lent his name and persona to Loblaws's Joe Fresh line in 2006. "Credibility was really important for the Joe Fresh brand. And having design integrity helped infuse this notion that this was a real brand; not just a private-label brand, but a brand that had design chops." But Mimran's departure from Joe Fresh in 2015 – and the game of musical chairs being played by designers at more luxe labels – suggests building a brand around a powerful persona is becoming passé. As companies scramble to adapt to ever-changing technical platforms and sophisticated data drives creative decision-making, a lot of that influence has passed on to the consumer.

When it comes to the popular understanding of fashion media (a.k.a. The Devil Wears Prada and MTV's The City), power is consolidated in two camps. On one side is the deified editor who declares something in fashion one second and out the next. On the other side is the public relations maven who trades on access to creative talent and front-row seats.

One-time fine-art publicist, the late Eleanor Lambert is the most iconic example of the PR powerhouse. She established Press Week for Seventh Avenue (the biannual showcase of American fashion for domestic and international press), founded the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, launched the CFDA and, in 1973, orchestrated the legendary Battle of Versailles event, during which five American designers beat out five Parisian couturiers for style supremacy. She earned her reputation as the most powerful woman in fashion by tirelessly advocating for the industry well into her 90s, growing its cachet along with her own.

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Her contemporary counterpart is American Vogue editor Anna Wintour, who earned her clout by understanding how commerce feeds creativity. "She serves the interests of the industry and she's really good at that," says Gross. "She's a genius at business." In a role that often extends well beyond crowning cover stars and anointing handbags with It status, Wintour regularly consults with fashion executives on corporate-level moves – especially their next hires. (She is said to have had a hand in the appointments of John Galliano at Dior, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton and Wang at Balenciaga.)

Though Wintour continuously shrugs off speculation about her retirement, her influential heirs apparent include Natalie Massenet and Eva Chen. Massenet founded luxury e-commerce site Net-a-Porter and plays a similar designer-advocacy role to Wintour's by championing U.K. designers as the chairman of the British Fashion Council. Chen, who was under Wintour's tutelage as beauty editor of Teen Vogue and editor-in-chief of Lucky, has proven to be a force in the industry for her ability to develop a more approachable type of fashion authority through social media. Today, she oversees fashion partnerships at Instagram.

In the digital era, with its thirst for instant (and Insta) fame, there might be no better way to grow influence than by stroking the industry's ego. Turning the lens on tastemakers was the idea behind The Coveteur, a website launched by Stephanie Mark, Jake Rosenberg and Erin Kleinberg in Toronto in 2011. The trio featured fashion insiders in their own homes and the site quickly developed into a guide to the who's who of the industry. As their inboxes flooded with feature requests, the founders became as prominent as many of their subjects. This fall, they will release the book The Coveteur: Private Spaces, Personal Style.

Bucking the stereotype of behind-the-scenes backstabbing, Mark says the secret of their success is the approachable way they frame their subjects. "I think that is really the direction that fashion is heading in, where everyone wants to be involved and people can participate."

Adapting to the ever-changing fashion milieu is key to keeping a hold on power, perhaps more than talent. "The ability to connect with – I hate this word – the zeitgeist is something that many people have at a single point in their lives," says Gross. "Very few people have the ability to continue doing it."

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