The Gucci turnaround


The Gucci turnaround

Patterns is a word used as much in descriptions of fashion as those of life. All lives, upon reflection, fall into certain patterns—their inexplicable recurrence begins to form a life story, an identity. Gucci, the Florentine brand launched as a store of fine leather goods in 1921 by Guccio Gucci, has had a century-old pattern of enviable success followed by crisis after crisis. Infamy due to family disputes in the 1980s and early 1990s, a sell-out to non-family owners, followed by blazing fame during designer Tom Ford’s reign as creative director from 1994-2004, then the high-profile exits of its top brass, followed by creative and commercial resurrections. There have been typical patterns of falling sales followed by booms and, again, dips.

That a brand can continue to survive these spikes and yet find meaning again and again makes for a case study.

For this destined pattern is creating a never-before texture for Gucci in the hands of its current president and chief executive officer, Marco Bizzarri, 53, and the Rome born and bred creative director Alessandro Michele, 44. The latter has been hailed as the most “directional” artistic director of recent times.

The word “reinvention”, coined by a global fashion media that is watching intently, has been snapping obsessively at Gucci’s heels. “The biggest challenge, and at the same time the biggest opportunity, was to create a new image of Gucci through the definition of a more appealing, engaging and contemporary reality,” says Bizzarri, in an email interview from Milan, Italy.

Let’s go back to June. For the Spring 2016 menswear show, guests had to troop to the outskirts of Milan, to a ramshackle train depot that was once the Farini railway station. The rail tracks still running out of the shed and the straight-backed red chairs for guests created an environment that was both industrial and romantic. I was there to meet Bizzarri. The tall, imposing and sharp-suited Gucci CEO had been driven to the venue in a sleek luxury car right into the lenses of a few dozen animated cameramen and fashion bloggers. Rapid introductions, a wide smile, a quick handshake, a fond recollection of his last trip to India, as the CEO of Bottega Veneta, and he ended our chat, saying, “Enjoy the show”.

The trains may have deserted the depot, but someone clearly wanted to embark upon an adventurous journey. The ready-to-wear men’s collection for Spring/Summer 2016, titled Détournement—Michele’s first menswear line since his appointment as Gucci’s creative director early last year—had eyelet lace, crochet, satin-stitch embroidery on pastel suits, sexy satin, brocade-like silk jacquard, metallic mesh and appliqué. Embroidered roses on the clothes of scraggly thin bespectacled boys, large grandma bows on shirts, flared pants, suede coats over chequered pants. Seated amid the surprised audience, I gulped. Was this Gucci? Menswear? Satiny materials, flowers, fluid shapes, willowy male bodies…had gender just been re-politicized? By the time Michele came out for a quick bow, the “change” at Gucci had got a visual language.

The media stories that followed Détournement called it the menswear show of the season, with descriptors such as “The New Punk” or “a new idea of beauty” deconstructing its insouciance. For Mint Lounge, I wrote about the arrival of the Male Twiggy. But you couldn’t just shrug off the way transgression and transition had been so cleverly tucked into each other. The “un-suit” was so suitable for our times. Michele, who had described Détournement in his collection note as “memories projected against a new poetic horizon”, “re-associating the reservoirs of memory in new forms”, called his collection “also, and above all, a political device”.

The politics of emotion may also just describe Bizzarri’s instantly successful one-year tenure at Gucci. Bizzarri, who had first joined Kering (the luxury conglomerate) in 2005 as president and CEO of Stella McCartney, went on to head Bottega Veneta and would go on to become the CEO of the group’s luxury—couture and leather goods division, was brought to Gucci as its CEO in December 2014. The business of the once sought after luxury brand, which saw a peak under Tom Ford, had fallen. The creative leadership of Frida Giannini, who succeeded Ford, had left the label a little insipid for the evolving global consumer’s taste.

Gucci’s revenue had fallen two years in a row, declining 1.1% to €3.5 billion (around Rs.26,250 crore now) in 2014 at a time when the Kering group’s luxury fashion business overall showed growth.

But Bizzarri, who had created magic at Bottega Veneta as its president and CEO from 2009-14, would seem to have a Midas touch. The annual figures last month showed Gucci’s revenue had risen by 13% in the fourth quarter of 2015. Full year revenue reached €3.9 billion, with 11.5% growth. Analysts had expected an increase of 1.5%.

The better than expected figures at the brand are a result of more than a few factors: Michele’s retro romanticism as his primary creative inspiration, a gender ambivalence in design that echoes current mindsets and new store concepts fired with surrealistic ideas—confrontational surprises that global fashion needs from time to time—among them. Not surprisingly, Michele was awarded the International Designer of the Year award at the British Fashion Awards last year.

The first new store concept was introduced by Gucci in Milan last September, and 34 more stores globally were renovated in 2015. This year, 60 more stores are under renovation, and the number will reach 100 by the end of 2016. These new concept stores show a collage of contrasts—soft elements such as velvet chairs are offset by industrial materials such as rivets. Polychrome marble inlays produce decorative three-dimensional effects on the floors, even as they have been integrated with functional cement.

The same visual approach of gender-bending ambivalence has been applied to the imagery for ad campaigns. On the distribution front, Gucci is trying to go beyond its own store networks to forge relationships with retailers and multi-brand stores. It has also redesigned its website, and packaging.

“The solid growth in our revenue in the fourth quarter of 2015 is a testament to the success of the new direction, even if the new collections still only represented around 30% of the total revenue, due to the unavoidable phasing out of the previous collections,” says Bizzarri.

It sounds like a fast and freakily enviable success story, but Bizzarri is a leader who invests in people. He listens to his instinct. When he (along with Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault) appointed Michele—who had been with Gucci for 12 years as a designer but was little known otherwise—as the creative director, Bizzarri was obviously trusting his gut. “I tend to make my most important decisions by following my instincts rather than any straightforward logic,” he agrees.

Bizzarri isn’t just changing the cosmetic aspects of the brand. He is working towards a cultural change within Gucci. “The change has not just been about an aesthetic and brand transformation, it has also involved a cultural transformation. Since the very beginning I wanted to establish a culture within the company that empowered every individual to make the most of her or his contribution. Above all, I wanted our workplace to be defined by respect and collegiality: an environment that each and every one of our company can and should help to create,” says Bizzarri.

He explains that the main organizational changes made in the early months focused on adopting a faster decision-making process, streamlining processes at all levels and guaranteeing rapid implementation of the new strategy. The story goes that Michele made his first collection in February last year in just five days, while Bizzarri went about canvassing for his vision within the group. “In the first four months of my mandate, I met with over 3,000 people, shaking hands with everybody, while presenting the new vision. It was fundamental to have a full internal alignment with all teams, to count on their enthusiasm and commitment,” he says.

Most successful businesses, at least in theory, are products of a rare marriage of beauty, brains, commitment, carefree-ness and trust, excitability and freedom. Even if all these coexist in fuzzy proportions. Gucci as a brand has had one or the other for most of the last century. For instance, the Gucci loafer, with its snaffle bit detail, was among the world’s most coveted accessories. The symbol of sporty glamour in the 1970s, it has also been in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art (Moma) in New York since 1985. In the 1980s, the Gucci logo purse drove logomania, and thus the brand’s sales. Meanwhile, back in Florence, the late 1990s were owned by Tom Ford’s creative leadership. Ford brought fashionable currency to the label with his sleek and sexy looks, taking it beyond just logos and loafers—and the unmistakable green and red stripes handbag. Celebrities wanted to be seen in Gucci.

Gucci arrived in India in 2007. The first store was a franchise arrangement with the Murjani Group. In 2009, the brand announced its direct entry into the Indian market. For the uninitiated here, Gucci then meant some big Italian brand, whose logo—a double G—and signature green and red stripes could be found on numerous plagiarized goods. For high-networth consumers, whose luxury aspirations too were primarily driven by the logo (and still are), Gucci remained a must-have status symbol.

But the market, despite the generous coverage given to the brand by fashion magazines, remained indifferent to its unexcitable tenure under Giannini. That is changing now. With Hindi film stars seen frequently in Gucci on fashion blogs, there is a clear visual connect between the reports that come out of Gucci shows in Milan and what Kangana Ranaut, for instance, wears here. This has given the brand a stronger recall. Logo or not.

Bizzarri and Michele’s partnership, too, is going beyond logos and products, responding to the sentiments of people. It is a New Age model of creativity. “I am definitely a person who firmly believes in the human touch and in the importance of people. In our industry, technological barriers are not high compared with others, and every brand and every company can, therefore, gain access to the most up-to-date production capabilities and techniques,” says Bizzarri. It is the talent of people, he says, that can truly make a difference. “If talented people across teams, functions and geographies share the same passion and dedication, the results can be remarkable.”

Now consider this. Michele’s “new” punk has been teased out of an “old” romance and Bizzarri’s “new” strategy was valued as an “old”-world tactic of trusting people instead of data sheets and smart software. The customers now queuing up for Gucci are perhaps sensing these reassuring sensitivities. Michele’s first Cruise collection, shown in June, garnered a huge response on social media. The ready-to-wear collection for women, shown in September, was showered with unabashed praise. “Alessandro Michele serves up a ‘madly pretty’ collection for Gucci”, with “…feminine, romantic clothes, raddled with luxurious craft elements that were dying out if not dead…,” wrote The Telegraph in London. People were responding emotionally to emotionally wired clothes.

Bizzarri puts it best. “Our new brand identity, values and messages have progressively gained the attention of an entirely new segment of clients and our customer base is naturally growing and becoming more varied. We think of our clients today more in terms of psychographics rather than demographics,” he says, adding that the new image is contemporary and more relevant.

Success, though, is a demanding mistress, and instant success a neurotic one. That’s why this is the right time to ask if the global media is premature in painting Gucci’s turnaround in rosy hues. “Edginess” and “eccentricity” are seductive words, but they could be camouflaging a narrative that has just begun to unravel and may need time for accurate documentation.

It’s also important to ask what this reinvention means for the Indian luxury market. Is Gucci’s influence here still only symbolic and derivative? India currently has six Gucci stores. Two in Mumbai, two in Delhi, one each in Gurgaon and Kolkata. The store at The Oberoi in Gurgaon, near Delhi, is a speciality made-to-measure store. Its very inception reveals a clientele.

Even so, Bizzarri may have to invest time and cultural thought tailored to our region if the fashion market here is to develop a lasting taste for Gucci. Till then, we must make do with remote learnings from the brand’s masterclass in motion. For now, let’s remember it as “détournement” from the set pattern.