Fashion Designers and their Ambassadors (and What the Hell that Really Means)

Fri, 18 September 2015
karl lagerfeld vanessa paradis

Olivier Rousting calls them his “Balmain army”, Riccardo Tisci has a G­Gang and Karl Lagerfeld has a rotation of evident favourites. A new and voraciously documented phenomena, observable and even, ­dare I say it­, made ‘real’ through the prolific output of social media, is that of designers marketing their brands with their gangs and fashion BFFs. With every snap, tweet and gram, they strongly and clearly affiliate themselves with chosen celebrities, who in turn help define the audience and customer. These carefully anointed few are given the honour of being their brand ambassador.

From the mainstream Kardashians at Balmain, to the comparatively eccentric Grimes at Dior, Charlotte Gainsbourg at Louis Vuitton and Kim Gordon at Saint Laurent, this slew of assumed talent and looks are out in force – as essential to Fashion Week as fake tan is to Simon Cowell. Pert and appropriately dressed bums seated smugly front row, in ideal view for the photographic lens, they waft around doing their thing as Brand Ambassadors. But what exactly their ‘thing’ is remains vague.

What they do and what is in it for them varies extensively. Essentially these women are chosen because the designer feels that in some way they exude the ‘aura’ of the brand. Designers talk a lot about who ‘their woman’ is – their muse or inspiration. There has always been the LouLou de la Falaise or Betty Catroux figures, inspirations to their beloved Yves (Saint Laurent), sometimes collaborators and above all close friends. However, for the contemporary ambassador, these bestowed honours are often strategic. Take Cara Delevingne, always visible on the front row at the Burberry shows. Her presence there is part of an agreement – if she does not go to the show, she is in breach of contract.

Essentially these women are chosen because the designer feel that in some way they exude the ‘aura’ of the brand.

There are attempts to downplay the business aspect of it. Often it’s the freebies and sense of importance rather than monetary compensation which is enough to rope the ambassador in. But sometimes the role can be more evidently a business move, as is the case with model Edie Campbell, a brand ambassador for YSL beauty. She is the face of their current campaign, and so ambassadorship – understanding and endorsing their products – is merely an extension of her modelling contract.

Placing garments on the right person is not a new way of selling clothes. In the 1950s all catwalk models were high ­society girls, chosen for their poise and family connections, and meant to display the clothes at their best. Advertising campaigns have since become the most powerful way of broadcasting a designer’s attitude.

Nobody has pushed the campaign-girl-slash-modern-day-muse more prominently than Karl Lagerfeld, ever since he took the reigns at Chanel in the 80s. The French fashion house has become known for its celebrity spokesmodels, devotees, and of late ambassadors, who play a role in the brand almost as fundamental as the clothes. Ines de la Fressange, Vanessa Paradis, Audrey Tatou and more recently Keira Knightley and Lily Allen have all starred in Chanel campaigns. Others simply show their loyalty in the form of attendance at a party or on the FROW. Poppy Delevingne, Alexa Chung and French model Caroline de Maigret are first and foremost ambassadors. There’s a whiff of Louis XIV’s court about it all – these women are Karl’s courtiers, and with or without a retainer, there is surely an element of mutual back scratching.

Nobody has pushed the campaign-girl-slash-modern-day-muse more prominently than Karl Lagerfeld

The idea of a selective ad campaign with your brand ambassador du jour adds emphasis to the theatre and art direction of the fashion shows. Historically an exclusive affair, the shows are now accessible via online streaming, social media and all manner of documentation by models, celebrities, bloggers and press who are invited to make sure that it is shared with the world at large.

Yet a brand like Céline, despite its minimalistic approach to social media, always has a glittering front row. Kanye West, who seems to like brands very much in spite of claiming in his recent VMA speech on running for president that “we will not control our kids with brands”, was placed in prime position surrounded by the Kates and Carines.

Therefore it seems that whether you are too cool to care à la Celine and JW Anderson at Loueve, or conversely if you play the game of social media, getting the right ambassadors sets the tone of a brand.

Balmain’s Olivier Rousting says: “I think what is modern about fashion today is that everyone is creating their own identity.” He has chosen to align the identity of his brand with the Kardashian women who have monetised global fame better than any other family in the 21st century.

So perhaps the concept of the ambassador is at best the women who inspire the clothes, the contemporary take on the age-­old tradition of the adulated muse. And at its worst, it is simply the ruthless and mercenary harnessing of a cash cow.

Words by Christabel MacGreevy

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