Charismatic Leadership in the Fashion Industry

Having a charismatic leader, usually in the form of a “master” or principal designer (often the founder of the company) or a CEO or president, is imperative in a company that creates fashion and is in the business of selling an image. A leader must not only collaborate with and direct designers and others in the firm, he or she must construct a creative culture, be capable of shaping and promoting the brand’s image, and, most importantly, inspire others. In the end he or she must produce something that will be judged favorably.

Giorgio Armani sums this up quite well, “With fashion you have to renew yourself and I’ve always said that you’re only as good as your last collection” (Thorley 2006: 10). The inspiration a charismatic leader provides unfolds in a variety of ways and occurs across various contexts. The style in which a person leads will inform the culture of the firm and will shape it into a particular type of dramatic production both within the firm and in terms of the image projected onto the brand. In the section on charismatic leadership styles we will see several examples.

The charisma of the leader, then, does not end within the fi rm. In defining the identity of the brand, and in infusing Leadership in the Fashion Industry 137 that brand with a particular aesthetic as a cultural arbiter, the brand takes on its own charisma. Accomplishing these tasks, both routine and novel, requires an individual possessing some mix of those attributes common to the charismatic leader:

Talent, vision, drive, an ability to relate to and to lead others. Lauren, Klein, and Hilfiger came from modest backgrounds. They were all able to make do with very little or no specialized training in fashion, without resources or inside connections, and in a tough environment that worked against their succeeding. Talent, intuition, interpersonal skills, and dedication to a vision helped propel the careers of these men.

Each man, if necessary, was able to reinvent himself and to change direction, thereby remaining relevant in a hostile industry. Like the men just mentioned, Armani had no formal training. Giorgio Armani came from a family of five. “My father didn’t make enough money to support us,” he states, “We didn’t even have enough to eat, just like many Italian families back then.” Armani started to work in a department store and realized he had a talent for fashion.

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