The Fashion Edit: The success of designers in the fashion business

It is a said that artists become rich after they are dead and gone. This is probably true for many fashion designers too. I wonder, what makes their creations not good enough when they were around? Is it the impending scarcity of more creations from that artistic source that gives it its value?

It always made me think; is creativity not meant to sell and just to be appreciated? Or is the creator confused between a hobby and a commercial transaction? Or is it the constant fluctuation between two poles that blunts the edge of creative design that should be commercially successful?

The creative business

Why do creative people, (though my focus is fashion design, but let me include creative professionals or individuals in general), struggle to be successful in a commercial environment? Why there is no ownership to succeed commercially and why is it not included in their creative pursuits? Why is “business-is-not-for-me” an average response or almost a remark of pride followed by “I am not good at business”? This approach screams nothing but ‘crime’, as the designers do not realise that they are eroding the commercial success of an industry which needs to survive globally as an industry; an industry that has successful creative businesses and which is a requirement to inspire new talent pool to join every year, so that the best creative expressions find a resting place in people’s wardrobes.

It is almost a responsibility of the current generation of creative people to inspire the next generation and they will fail to do so if they have not been successful themselves. I have also heard the arguments that: “Constant pursuit of business makes them less sensitive to their art or to stay creative, hence they don’t want to do that in the interest of maintaining creative integrity.” I have also heard that being creative-minded makes them very busy-minded and almost gives them a license to ignore the business aspect; and their commercial success.

I don’t subscribe to any of the above arguments, and would rather encourage all designers to immerse themselves in the thought process that has led to the creative success of Tom Ford, Renzo Rosso and Paul Smith. To me, their success and their approach to creative business is the very foundation that aspiring designers should stand on. That basis or that foundation includes business at the base of their creativity. Business or a commercial transaction has to be treated as a presentation of their creative products. Giorgio Armani, in his 80s, still drives his business from the front, and so does Ralph Lauren. Their business empires have successfully captured their creativity in a strong emotional frame, which constantly engages their patrons.

Ford and what we can learn from him

Tom Ford is the shining example of strong creative sensibility with astute business acumen; maybe it was nurtured in the 90s when he single-handedly restored Gucci to former glory, the results of that we see even now. He was instrumental in saving the global fashion house from the brink of bankruptcy. He didn’t compromise creativity in fact he pushed the creative boundary to make Gucci relevant, and then got involved in every aspect of marketing and business, to see how the products were emotionally and physically being packaged. He directed everything from the advertising photo-shoots to the marketing campaign. And the Gucci turn-around started. For him, creative business is exactly what it is ‘a creative business’. They exist seamlessly and work together and the only barrier could be in your mind.

He brought in the above instinct of creative business into his own business start-up in 2004; instead of starting with fashion collections, he started with licensing sunglasses and frames, and a few years later, he followed it up with licensing of cosmetics. Then, a few years down the line, he introduced fashion garments. If your name is strong or recognised, then licensing could be a good start business-wise, this sense probably held Tom Ford back as he gave up the lure to jump into clothes straight away, and that too when he was recognised and saddled with the success of Gucci, this was an enviable position for any designer wanting to start their own business, but not for Tom Ford. For him it was simple – if it doesn’t make business sense, it does not make creative sense. Hence this seamless integrated focus has made his empire one of the most successful ones globally. He has expanded strategically and creatively, he is now also considered an influential film director and producer in Hollywood, as he further expands his creative expression beyond clothes.

Does it make you wonder ‘why films’? A point to ponder – a lot of Hollywood celebrities wear his clothes, it is also his growing business market. An interesting effort as he pushes creative boundaries while making business sense. It is the contemporary mould for any creative designer to put on. After all, they are in the creative business in every way.


By Ajai Vir Singh

Founder and President, Colombo Fashion Week and winner of the Global Effie, Ajai Vir Singh is a visionary who has fathered the fashion movement in Sri Lanka.