Gucci president and chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri’s apology tour continued Wednesday night when he gave the Marvin Traub Lecture at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York.
What was meant to be an interview spanning his career and his tenure at Gucci became heavily dominated by talk of the fashion house’s recent faux pas — a balaclava-style sweater that critics said evoked blackface.
Even the introductory remarks by Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons School of Design, which would usually just focus on the recipient’s merits, turned to the sweater.
“Gucci is often in the news for their extraordinary commercial success, but also for their commitments to communities around the world. They are a truly global brand, which made the blackface balaclava even more distressing,” he said.
When it came to Bizzarri, he launched into a lengthy explanation of what went wrong, telling the audience that the sweater was debuted at a February 2018 show, but “nothing happened” until it was recently linked to blackface on Twitter, which sparked the social media storm.
He admitted that when his team first told him about this, he didn’t know what they were talking about, which he puts down to ignorance on his behalf.
“We apologized because of this mistake, because of this ignorance,” adding that it was not at all intentional. “We are coming from a different culture. We are Italian. We don’t know all the cultural differences.”
In a memo earlier this week to all of Gucci’s 18,000 employees, creative director Alessandro Michele explained that the turtleneck-style top, which covers the bottom half of the face with a cutout and giant red lips around the mouth, was in fact a tribute to the late performance artist and designer Leigh Bowery.
Back at the lecture, Bizzarri went on to state that as soon as Gucci realized it had caused offense, it recalled the item because it is “not in fashion to offend people.”
He continued that the sweater goes completely against the brand’s culture and that’s “why we are suffering at Gucci….It’s not a matter of how much revenue we’re going to lose, if we’re going to lose revenue.”
For now, he believes that when something like this happens — and mistakes do happen — then education is the answer.
“Learning for me means discussing. It’s not pointing the finger and saying ‘You are wrong. I’m going to go against you.’ This is not the world I want to live in,” he continued. “This is populism. I want to talk to people who are able to teach me how to be a better person and how to improve my company. For me, that’s absolutely key and to do so we need to listen. We need to learn. We need to be exposed to different cultures.
“I thought I was very, very open. I thought I knew many, many things. I didn’t know that that created this event….In a way it’s a good way to be discussing the topic with the leaders of the community to understand how we can improve ourselves.”
He views the incident as a “wake-up call” for the company to accelerate its diversity and inclusiveness, including a full program of scholarships in major cities, such as New York, Nairobi, Tokyo, Beijing, Seoul, which will facilitate an increase of different communities within the creative office. After 12 months, the recipients will be hired by Gucci.
In addition to this, it will immediately hire designers from different cultures in the design team as part of an exchange program.
“Having a full representation of different cultures in Italy is not easy. It’s not easy because we are a small country. It’s not easy to find the right people from different cultures coming into fashion in Italy, so for this reason we decided to accelerate an exchange program,” he said.
When talk moved to diversity among Gucci’s top echelon during the Q&A session with students, he responded that he didn’t know the numbers off the top of his head.
He did, though, give the reason as to why the setup wasn’t particularly diversified, which was that when he joined Gucci in 2015 he took the unusual step of keeping the same top team in place and joked that none of them had left since.
He then turned the tables, asking: “What should I do practically talking? Should I fire one of them because I want to inject diversity? Should I foster instead meetings and committees where I make sure people of different ages, different cultures are part of the discussion? To me, that’s the best way because otherwise I’m discriminating against my team.”
Like Prada and H&M, critics have blamed Gucci’s release of an insensitive product on the lack of diversity in its corporate setup.
Away from the sweater incident, Bizzarri described what it was like to take over the helms of Gucci back in January 2015 when the brand was struggling.
Just three months in, the production manager told him that he had to let 4,000 workers go, but Bizzarri instinctively knew that he had to wait for Michele’s magic to feed through. Bizzarri held strong and ended up hiring thousands of people instead of making job cuts.
He described his leadership style in those days as a dictatorship: “I decide, you follow because when you really want do a turnaround you can’t wait for consensus. It takes too long and you need to be the only one to be blamed if you fail.”
He admitted at the time he didn’t really know what the answer was and was meeting with Michele every day, fine-tuning their plans on a daily basis.
When it worked and the company was lauded for cracking the Millennial code, he laughed because he didn’t really know what a Millennial was.