MILAN — Will Brioni be able to get back on track?
That was the question being asked following the abrupt departure Tuesday of the venerable Italian men’s wear brand’s creative director, Justin O’Shea, after only six months in an experiment that clearly didn’t work.
The company said “the strategy of revitalization of Brioni that started at the beginning of this year is set to continue being implemented through a long-term plan aimed to further establish the brand as a leader in the luxury men’s wear category.”
While Brioni chief executive officer Gianluca Flore thanked O’Shea, whom he had hand-picked for the role, no further indications of future strategies were revealed. The company did indicate that the fall 2017 collection will be presented to buyers at Brioni’s Milan showroom from mid-November and will not be shown on the runway.
Numerous sources said O’Shea was abruptly fired while he was traveling in Paris, with observers speculating the reason was that the changes he initiated were not in sync with the brand. The general consensus is that Brioni now needs to take a look back to its history instead of trying to push too hard to become edgy and cool, as O’Shea did by signing the members of Metallica as the faces of the brand’s fall ad campaign.
“Virtually all men’s wear brands are under pressure, as suits appear to be a mature category. Brioni is no exception — and possibly more so — as this brand was more exposed than most to Russian consumers, who are still on the back foot,” said Luca Solca, managing director at Exane BNP Paribas. “Breaking with tradition to inject fresh energy into the business — the same way as Gucci and Saint Laurent very successfully did — hasn’t seemed to have worked at Brioni, at least so far. The risk is always that of losing ‘traditional’ customers — to whom Metallica, for example, may have appeared irksome — without gaining new ones. Justin’s departure may be the beginning of a new attempt to relaunch Brioni on a path to success.”
Daniele Alibrandi, luxury goods analyst at Intermonte, said “a change in the creative leadership of a fashion house is often a necessary step in order to transform stagnant brands and boost business results. It always brings some risks especially when you go too far from your roots. Justin O’Shea was a radically new figure, who liked to be called ‘the anti-Gucci.’ Sometimes turning the page pays off, sometimes not and this might have been the case.”
Alibrandi underscored that Brioni accounts only for around 1.5 to 2 percent of parent company Kering Group’s revenues and “this should not be taken too bad by investors.” Kering’s shares rose 3.2 percent Tuesday to close at 186.55 euros, or $208.94 at current exchange.
O’Shea was previously global fashion director at Mytheresa.com and, while at the e-tailer, was known for wearing Brioni suits. He was appointed the brand’s creative director in March, succeeding Brendan Mullane. His arrival raised some eyebrows given his lack of design experience and that his focus at Mytheresa was women’s wear, not men’s wear.
Heavily tattooed and prone to the use of expletives, O’Shea had candidly spoken about wanting to create styles that would appeal to gangsters. Indicating his eagerness to immediately shake things up, he skipped the men’s shows in Milan in June and instead showed his first effort for the house last July during Paris Couture Week. It was a see-now-buy-now collection that was immediately available in Brioni flagships, at the brand’s online store and at selected retailers.
The collection relied on a heavy emphasis on the Seventies à la “Shaft,” and WWD reported at the time that it “had a bit of a pimp vibe going on.”
One men’s wear executive, who requested anonymity, said O’Shea’s exit is “not surprising at all.” He’d been operating according to Kering’s fashion model where designers are given “very expansive management autonomy in the creation of the collections and the image of the campaigns, but this fits a fashion brand more, not a luxury brand.” O’Shea steered Brioni in such a different direction without successful results, he said.
Francesco Pesci, a former Brioni ceo, said Flore was correct in going with the see-now-buy-now format, as it was in line with Brioni’s own history. “Brioni’s collections were made to order until the second half of the Fifties, when department stores started asking for different sizes, initiating ready-to-wear.” Pesci noted that O’Shea’s collection was “disconnected and inconsistent with the identity of the brand. Kering has realized it is necessary to reflect on the brand, work on a drastic repositioning operation.”
He also observed that O’Shea believed Brioni was a fashion brand and Pesci admitted it was so in the Fifties and Sixties, “but not after that. For 40 years, from the Seventies onward, it was a men’s ready-to-wear luxury brand, hinging on craftsmanship, quality and exclusive materials. You can’t modify 40 years of history.”
Another industry observer said “this is a dangerous situation for Brioni. In six seasons, the company has overturned what was normally accepted by Brioni customers and the exit of O’Shea belies a state of confusion. It’s the second time in one year that the creative director has been let go without a successor.”
Another executive, who also requested anonymity, said “the first mistake was that O’Shea was promoting himself and the second was that the changes were terrible.” He also questioned the change of Brioni’s logo, something that should not be taken lightly, he emphasized. “O’Shea thought the Gothic lettering belonged to Brioni, but it was only found in the Rome store in the Seventies and had been ruled out. It has nothing to do with Brioni, Gothic is Kanye West.”
The executive also lamented the introduction of “a vulgar element that was distant from Brioni’s history and that did not reflect its affluent customers. Brioni remains a big brand but who is its target?”
He also questioned O’Shea’s posting of a Brioni-branded coffin on Instagram a few hours before his exit on Tuesday. “Coffins at such a difficult moment today is disturbing, with all that is going on in Paris and in the world. The decision to [part ways with O’Shea] must have been taken very quickly, if only a few hours earlier he was posting the coffin on Instagram.”
Interestingly, several high-end men’s wear retailers in the U.S. had not even been given the opportunity to view O’Shea’s first collection.
“They switched everything to women’s couture week so we didn’t see it,” one store said.
Another merchant agreed. “We didn’t see the collection. That’s the first thing that struck me when we went to Milan for pre-collection. Justin was like the invisible man. No one talked about the inspiration, the evolution, nothing. The showroom was in disarray and we were expecting some new excitement, but there was none of that. Plus, they showed the line during women’s couture when there were no men’s buyers there. There was a massive disconnect.”
The retailer believes that parting ways with former creative director Mullane was a mistake. “He was so talented and just getting into his stride,” the merchant said. “The shows were great, the product was great. He had really turned the corner. The product and the craftsmanship were just where they needed to be and then they made the move to Justin. He’s cool, he has tattoos, but he has no history at all in men’s wear. You’ve got to have someone with a legacy for such a luxury heritage men’s brand. Wow, what a debacle.”