A Headhunter on How a Fashion House Recruits New Talent

Maxine Martens / Getty Images

With the fashion world currently in the midst of a massive game of designer musical chairs, we asked Maxine Martens, who heads New York-based headhunting firm Martens & Heads, to give us some insights on how a fashion company searches for a new creative director. 

Martens has placed senior level executives and creative talents at luxury, fashion and beauty companies around the globe since starting her own firm in 2003. Here, she shares her thoughts on how the recession has changed the search process for brands and offered up her opinion on what might be going on within the walls of Christian Dior as the company tries to replace John Galliano. 

What is the process like when a client hires you to find them a new creative director?
The most important part of the process is sitting down with the existing creative talents or the founder who is trying to release himself of some pressure or the CEO who needs the vision of a creative director. We sit and discuss the business needs and outline the profile of the person that they are looking for. The person needs to have a point of view, but also have a strong understanding of the brand DNA, and who the customers are. The culture of the company also comes into play. Someone that would work well at a West Coast company wouldn’t necessarily do well in New York. 
What qualities stand out in the search process? 
More and more, companies are looking for someone who not only has a point of view, but someone who can manage communication with the consumer. Christopher Bailey at Burberry is an example of someone who has done that well. People also don’t want to work with prima donnas. They need someone who aligns with the commercial needs of the business, who has business acumen and who has a clear understanding of the brand's DNA. In the last few months, interestingly, people are looking for candidates with strong digital awareness. 
How many candidates do you normally propose? 
We tend to present three to five candidates -- a different range of people. The client starts seeing the candidates and narrows the list down. The remaining candidates usually do a project demonstrating their abilities -- not about where the brand is, but about where it should go.  
What is the biggest mistake that companies make when replacing their creative director? 
When a company is struggling, sometimes they think that a lightning-hot person will save them. The biggest celebrity in the world can’t save a struggling company. The person needs to have a vision. If Marc Jacobs hadn’t had vision for Louis Vuitton, it wouldn’t have worked. 
How has the recession changed the process? 
The recent recession taught me that people need talent that is well-rounded. When companies got fat and there was constant expansion going on, people had jobs that were very silo-ed. People were in a job for every function of the company. Now we are looking for people that have more than one expertise. 
What are some of the unique challenges that come with replacing a creative director? 
In the end, it comes down to the person being able to connect personally with their key partner at the company. The question you have to ask is: Will I be able to spend seven hours on a flight with this person? We spend a lot of time thinking about likeability. If the CEO is going to want to light this person’s hair on fire, it's not going to work. 
What do you think is going on at Christian Dior right now as they try to replace John Galliano?
I have no intimate knowledge of the situation, but I think they are likely trying to determine the role that the designer will fill. The greater issue is the brand, and how they will best achieve their mission without distraction. I think they are doing the right thing not having a knee-jerk reaction. 
Look at Alexander McQueen. PPR [McQueen's parent company] had great courage in promoting McQueen’s barely-known right hand [Sarah Burton], who now it has become clear had been doing much of the work. The only issue is, let’s face it, the media likes to see their idols get these positions. 
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