There is much change in store for the fashion world in 2018, and still so many questions: Burberry and Céline are on the hunt for new creative chiefs, and it’s still unclear whether Kim Jones will leave Louis Vuitton to join Versace. Sources speculate that Hedi Slimane could take the top job at Dior, but only if he can control 100 percent of the product, including beauty and fragrance.
Pucci, Moncler and Courrèges are all still designer-less, while the fate of maison Alaïa remains unclear following the designer’s death in November. The brand’s next ready-to-wear and accessories collections will be presented in January and March, although the question marks continue to hover. Does the house of Alaïa even need a new designer, or can it streak ahead on the powerful engines of its archives?
There is one overarching question, though, that luxury group principals will increasingly be asking themselves in the year ahead, and that’s the Gucci one: Can they — or should they — replicate the power couple magic of Marco Bizzarri, the brand’s chief executive officer, and Alessandro Michele, its creative director?
“It’s all about couples,” said Davide Dallomo, founder and president of the creative talent and management agency Lagente. “It is really important nowadays to have a creative director who is practical, and a ceo who is creative.”
Given Gucci’s skyrocketing growth over the last few years, financial analysts would argue the same (some say that professional threesomes work even better, with the addition of a chief merchant to the mix) in a moment when the market is flooded with merch and populated by shrewd consumers.
“There was a time when supply was low, you could be a creative director in your ivory tower, invent something and enjoy great success. You thought this was because you were a genius. Maybe,” said Exane BNP Paribas in an October report called “The Strategic Perspective on Luxury Goods.”
“In a crowded market and a faster innovation environment, there is a smaller space for isolated genius and top-down dictators. Genius has to be nurtured by market intelligence and empowered by execution. The creative director, the chief merchandising officer and the ceo have to be on the same page and work toward the same goal.”
That’s one reason why rumors have been churning for so long about Phoebe Philo going to Burberry, where Marco Gobbetti has just taken up the role of ceo. Philo and Gobbetti have already proven themselves a powerful team, having catapulted Céline’s sales to nearly a billion euros when Gobbetti was ceo and Philo creative chief of the buzzy brand.
Despite the ongoing speculation, however, it’s unclear whether that dream will come true since sources have said that Philo has no intention of jumping to Burberry.
Mary Gallagher, European associate for New York-based search firm Martens & Heads, said of the Gobbetti/Philo team that the combination of “an extremely strong ceo and an extremely creative and powerful female designer was just an incredible match. The kind of match that in future years will be benchmarked, in the way people talk today about Tom Ford and [former president and ceo of Gucci Group] Domenico De Sole.”
The idea of the powerhouse fashion couple isn’t a new one; it just fell out of fashion for a while when a generation of lone-wolf designers took over at some of the big houses. Imitating Gucci’s strategies isn’t a new concept, either. In the Nineties, when dusty old Gucci was owned by Investcorp, Dawn Mello, Ford and later, De Sole were so successful in reviving the house that other heritage brands — like Burberry — aspired to “do a Gucci” and reclaim their cool.
While the new Gucci may be going from strength to strength — third-quarter sales were up 49.4 percent versus analysts’ estimates of 30 percent — not every company is going to have the opportunity or the guts to test the latest power couple template.
Bizzarri, already a star at Kering, gambled on the relatively unknown Michele, a Gucci veteran and the accessories designer under former creative director Frida Giannini. His discovery of such a star designer already in-house has spurred other brands to look inward, too.
Principals at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton are said to be interviewing “number-two” designers at a wide swath of fashion houses for the Céline job, and sources believe Michael Rider, who’s been working closely with Philo as design director rtw at Céline, is a strong candidate.
Yet one headhunter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said LVMH “is very rarely tempted by a number-two designer,” preferring a splashy name instead, which some would argue is a shame. Another headhunter said that if LVMH were to choose Rider, “Céline would continue with the DNA of Phoebe,” but with no frisson or freshness.
It’s not just the hot ceo/creative combination that’s going to make or break a brand: Principals also have to think about creating a team that can set social media on fire, appeal to Millennials and remain authentic to a brand’s DNA. Then, of course, there’s the challenge of China, a market that needs to be handled with care.
According to a Bernstein report from November, brands are still seeing diverging momentum in Greater China and the trend is set to continue into 2018.
“For soft luxury, Gucci, LV, YSL, Moncler, Balenciaga and Fendi continue to power ahead; Hermès, Chanel, Ferragamo and Prada are flattish while Céline, Givenchy, Burberry and BV are sluggish,” the report said, adding that the winners will be leather goods companies that “innovate and introduce entry price products to gain an edge with Chinese consumers.”
Gucci has already dropped the price of some of its footwear, with certain styles now costing less than comparative styles from competitors such as Miu Miu, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, proof that the Italian brand is blazing a trail into the future — once again.