The resurrection and rapid rise of arguably the most famous Italian fashion brand is a remarkable tale of change and fearlessness.
Anyone worth their weight in fashion cannot claim to be oblivious to how pervasive Gucci is on the current fashion landscape. Its popularity has been gaining momentum since Alessandro Michele came on board as creative director of the storied Italian house in early 2015. The -stratospheric heights to which he has led Gucci after a 180° turn in aesthetics is a truly remarkable success story.
Kering, the global luxury group that owns Gucci as part of its stable of brands that include Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney, has just announced a 26.4% increase in revenue for the first three quarters of 2017 over 2016, according to Forbes.com. The stellar performance is largely attributed to Gucci’s 44.5% surge for the first nine months of the year, contributing 39% to Kering’s corporate revenue.
Founded by Guccio Gucci in 1921, the Florentine house has enjoyed waves of success — favoured by the jet set in the 1960s and 1970s and, again, by the upwardly mobile in the 1990s under the reign of the Tom Ford — but also saw downturns and scandals, particularly in the 1980s. Currently, the house is recording its fastest pace in sales growth in 20 years, its star power rivalling — or even exceeding — the Tom Ford boom years, thus propelling Kering’s shares to a record high, backed by first-half consolidated revenue of over €7 billion.
Where Ford was hawking sleek and sexy glamour, Michele’s aesthetic veers towards an iteration of nerdy-cum-thrift-shop, granny chic imbued with clashing colours, whimsical prints, sequins and other embellishments. Incidentally, Michele was hired by Ford in 2002 and remained behind the scenes as an associate designer, quietly assisting Ford and later, Frida Giannini, his successor.
Michele was certainly destined for the top spot. New CEO Marco Bizzarri was looking for a staff member to brief him on design after the ousting of ex-CEO Patrizio di Marco and creative director Giannini, a husband-and-wife-team. Dismal sales had plagued Gucci for many seasons, following Giannini’s predictable modern-glamazon formula that was fast losing favour with the fashion crowd. As fate would have it, it was Michele who debriefed Bizzarri and a quick bond formed between the two.
At the recent WWD Summit, Bizzarri said his choice of Michele was based purely on intuition and instinct as they developed a close rapport over a shared vision and mutual understanding of Gucci, with Bizzarri’s business standpoint and Michele’s perspective in creative design, according to Forbes.com. Furthermore, it is reported that Bizzarri leaves matters of design completely to Michele, saying, “You cannot put limits or constraints on creativity.” The Gucci CEO backs that up with corporate values that foster creativity, including “respect, happiness, passion, empowerment and inclusivity”.
Fashion moves in cycles and as clichéd as she sounds, Heidi Klum of Project Runway uttered a fashion truth with her tagline: “One day you’re in, the next day you’re out.” So, what has caused Gucci’s meteoric rise under Michele’s new sartorial direction?
Pamela N Danziger, on Forbes.com, narrows it down to a trio of reasons. First, Gucci has succeeded in capturing the attention (and wallets) of millennial consumers. Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault reveals that this 35-year-old-and-below segment — that has until now proved elusive for luxury brands to lure into their fold — contributes 50% of Gucci’s sales. Secondly, Gucci’s stickiness with millennials is the result of the hot Italian brand’s triumph in orchestrating a digital strategy — encompassing website and e-commerce, digital marketing, social media and mobile apps — that integrates online with the in-store experience to create a “true omnichannel, or channel agnostic, customer experience”. Lastly, Danziger surmises that Gucci’s success results from the perfect synergy created by the Bizzarri-Michele dream team, more so than the brand’s industry-leading digital performance.
According to Bloomberg.com, Gucci has posted an 86% increase in online sales in the first quarter, giving e-commerce revenue for Kering’s luxury division a 60% boost. Adding to the brand’s e-commerce prowess are partnerships with online wholesalers such as Net-a-Porter, where exclusive specially designed capsule collections are offered, while a 90-minute rapid delivery was introduced on another online partner, Farfetch.
Product-wise, in Michele’s Gucci era, the iconic GG logo was retrieved from the archives and featured prominently on the accessories line. To inject a slightly subversive flavour into the brand’s classic logo, graffiti artist Trevor Andrew, aka GucciGhost, was invited by Michele to collaborate on one of Gucci’s collections. Other archival elements, such as the Dionysus buckle, have been successfully introduced into Gucci’s new repertoire of handbags and shoes, with the Dionysus structured, squarish shoulder bag on the radar screen as a current It-bag. Possibly, the most defining items synonymous with Michele’s Gucci reign are the more price-friendly and accessible Princetown mule loafers and Ace sneakers, both now ubiquitously worn by hordes of the fashion-conscious.
The Bizzarri-Michele duo, in their reinvention of Gucci, have taken steps to de-emphasise faces of the brand from its past, such as Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, instead, putting into the spotlight a new generation of youthful and contemporary celebrities and style icons.
Perhaps a shift in the brand’s era of creative design is best heralded with the widespread boutique makeover under its “New Store Concept”. The previous Giannini-led black-and-gold aesthetic has given way to Michele’s eclectic vision of colours (pale pink, peacock blue and cherry red) and textures (stark display units contrast with rich, plush fabric), marrying the traditional and modern, industrial and romantic. So far, 25% of its 550 stores have been remodelled, with 30 more to be transformed by year-end, according to Kering chief financial officer Jean-Marc Duplaix.
Michele burst onto the scene following the musical-chair drama of creative designers leaving and being replaced at fashion houses and at a time when fashion had grown lethargic with insipid normcore style and run-of-the-mill, derivative collections. His candy-shop assortment of apparel and gender-fluid proposition captured the imagination of the fashion world, powering his unstoppable ascent to the top of the style league.
The question now remains: How long will Michele’s popularity last? A recent indicator by fashion search platform Lyst, in conjunction with Business of Fashion, has released statistics proclaiming “Balenciaga has now overtaken Gucci as the hottest fashion label in the industry”, according to Highsnobiety.com. While Gucci was in first place in the second quarter, with Balenciaga following in second, the tide turned in the next quarter, with the two Kering-owned brands swapping positions.
What is most interesting from the rapid rise of Gucci since Michele’s debut menswear fall 2015 collection is that holding group Kering is riding the crest of profitability not only with Gucci, but also with Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, demonstrating that it has hit the jackpot with its group-wide strategy. Balenciaga is headed by Demna Gvasalia, who is rewriting style codes with his guerilla-style, ingenious send-up of conventional fashion, while Hedi Slimane, when he took the helm at Yves Saint Laurent (since renamed Saint Laurent by the -renegade Slimane) caused an uproar when he revolutionised the French house by infusing it with a youth-oriented and rock-tinged charisma.
One thing that can be learnt from all this is that fashion and its consumers are intrinsically ephemeral, and to stay on top of the game, change and newness are inevitable and will always be the true elements of style.
Tan Siok Hoon is an assistant editor with the Options desk at The Edge Malaysia
This article appeared in Issue 815 (Jan 29) of The Edge Singapore.