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From Zegna to Saint Laurent, Fashion’s Rumor Mill Goes Into Overdrive

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Another day, another fevered round of fashion speculation. Rumors are popping up with the blinding frequency of paillettes on an Elie Saab dress. I’ve never seen it this way. It’s corrosive. So let’s take them out of the shadows where they breed.

The news on Monday that the men’s wear brands Brioni and Berluti were both parting ways with their designers, a stunning one-day shake-up of the talent pool, immediately gave rise to rumors that Alessandro Sartori, Berluti’s designer of five years, would be headed back to Ermenegildo Zegna, which is itself rumored to be about to lose its designer, Stefano Pilati, who, according to whispers in Paris, is being considered for the designer job at Lanvin, a post left vacant when Alber Elbaz was fired in October.

Phew, got that?

Mr. Sartori had been the much-acclaimed design director of the more fashion-forward Z Zegna line before heading to Berluti, and Mr. Pilati is the former creative director of Yves Saint Laurent, so the idea makes some sense. Especially because Mr. Pilati had joined Zegna in 2013 to oversee the company’s women’s brand, Agnona, as well as the Zegna couture men’s wear, but he stepped down from his women’s wear role in July and was thought to be looking at other opportunities in that area. Like … Lanvin?

Who knows? Last week at the Paris couture shows, playing the front-row game of telephone, it was said that Haider Ackermann was being considered for the Lanvin job.

All of it pales, however, in comparison to the talk surrounding the future of Hedi Slimane, the Saint Laurent creative director who will have a mega-blowout men’s wear show on Feb. 10 in Los Angeles, after which, goes the chatter (which has been denied by YSL by the way, to no apparent avail), he may go to Christian Dior, to take the job Raf Simons left in October. Or to Chanel. Or to start his own house. Or, well, to do something else. He did it before, after all, when he left Dior Homme in 2007.

Of course, he might not go to Christian Dior, there’s some history there, not all of it good. Also, he is based in L.A., and it’s hard to imagine the petites mains of a Parisian couture atelier hopping on a plane with their sewing kits multiple times a year. So maybe Sarah Burton, the creative director of Alexander McQueen, will go to Dior — even though she is based in London, about to have her third child and is emotionally tied to the house her mentor built. Plus, McQueen has denied she is leaving.

And Mr. Slimane might not go to Chanel, because maybe Ms. Burton’s compatriot Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Céline, might take that job.

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And, of course, Chanel’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, despite being 80-something, does not appear to be going anywhere. He just produced one of the best couture shows of the week.

So where is this all coming from? It is conjured from perceived dissatisfaction (Ms. Philo musing backstage after her last show, “I’ve been longing to be more and more in nature, to get away from the city and put my toes in the sand,” though how a desire to go to the beach would make her want to lead an enormous, demanding, global brand is not entirely clear) and contract renegotiation tactics.

It also comes from sightings of designers meeting with executives from other brands (exploratory meetings and conversations being normal business practice in pretty much any other industry, and not necessarily signaling any real intent, but rather mutual interest and curiosity) and, most significant it seems to me, the current sense of instability in the industry.

There has been so much designer churn that we have been schooled to expect it, maybe even to want it — or at least the drama associated with it. And because some of the turnover has been truly surprising, it has created a situation where observers have begun to suspend disbelief about what they are hearing. And because after Mr. Simons left Dior under his own steam, and Mr. Elbaz was kicked out of Lanvin, anything is possible.

As a result, a single complaint or observation can set off a wildfire of whispers. No matter what the companies actually say.

Some of them may prove to be true. But if my years watching this business have taught me anything, it’s that a negotiation isn’t over till the fat lady signs. Or the designer and house commit. I know of multiple designer/brand pairings that were 95 percent from being finalized, and fell apart at the last minute. Poof go the rumors, up in smoke.

But meanwhile, all this talk is not good for anyone. It undermines the products themselves, because if a collection is a designer’s last, and a house will then be in flux as it develops a new creative identity, why should a consumer buy their clothes? Or a retailer commit their budget? Or a critic pay much attention? Especially if the designer hasn’t been there long enough — three years, or even five — to establish a significant aesthetic, hence turning the last collection into a collector’s item, a must-have relic of an important fashion time.

It prevents brands handing the full creative reins — ad campaign, retail, brand extensions — over to a designer, because they need to keep consistency in something (even if the overall visual messaging then gets confused). And the investment required to switch from one vision to another is enormous, and can only really pay off over time.

It creates deep insecurity on every side. It needs to stop.

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