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Finding the right designer to capture the essence of a heritage house is a daunting task. History has shown that over and over, and many houses have gotten it wrong.

Kering’s challenge at Gucci is particularly difficult; it must not only find the right person to take the brand into the next phase, it must first clarify exactly what the essence of Gucci is.

This story first appeared in the December 17, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The house’s luxury heritage is not in the manner of Chanel and Dior, its founder Guccio Gucci a businessman and leather-goods purveyor rather than a genius couturier. As such, Gucci’s luxury origins more closely mirror those of Prada, and perhaps even more, given the horsey angle, Hermès. The three evolved differently, Prada achieving Olympian fashion status and Hermès never quite breaking through as a fashion leader, but ever at the unquestioned pinnacle of chic luxury. While Gucci had dabbled in ready-to-wear, its pre-Tom Ford identity was not about fashion.

Rather, Ford invented Gucci’s fashion reality, based a little on its horsy heritage and Sixties/Seventies jet-set following and a lot on his own belief in sex, sex and more sex as a matter of style, chic and marketing. It speaks to his designer savvy that he made the sex angle seem as house-appropriate as a sensible shoe-with-horsebit, and to his cultural radar that it resonated so powerfully as an antidote to Nineties deconstruction. Ford’s Gucci at first sizzled and shocked and quickly brought sexy back big-time, while ultimately setting a new standard for house reinvention.

Frida Giannini took over after the failed three-creative-director experiment that followed Ford’s departure. Her CV — chief accessories designer — played perfectly into the already obsessive focus on accessories that had started to drive the industry. Her first show suggested a mandate from what was then Gucci Group to distance the brand from the Ford era and make it her own with a softer, less overtly sexual lineup.

The discovery and development of a designer’s voice is to a considerable degree an organic process, one involving trial and error. It seldom happens overnight. Under tremendous pressure, Giannini made a laudable debut with a pretty, if perhaps too obviously commercial, ode to a girl, she wrote in her program notes, “unaware of her own sex appeal.” But the following season Frida and her Gucci Girl did a high-heat 180, the first in a series of collections that at times were appealing and at times underdelivered on fashion, but in aggregate felt wanting of the kind of razor-sharp message that defines the greatest designers.

Along the way, Gucci became one of numerous high-end brands to make sartorial accessibility a clear message on its runway. From there, it wasn’t a giant leap to a contemporary look at designer prices — a trend that has gained traction, either intentionally or otherwise. Another brand to do so: Kering’s YSL.

Noting the contemporary-ization of a faction of high-end fashion is not an insult. It’s articulation of an interesting phenomenon that plays into an essential question: What is the role of luxury fashion today? Of the designer? What should those roles be?

In the case of Gucci, it’s particularly pertinent to assess two merch-driven relationships, those between the clothes and the accessories, and between fashion and classics. What steers the ship? Is it fair to question whether Gucci needs high-profile fashion rtw? Certainly, as the brand seeks to fill Giannini’s position, it’s important for incoming chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri and the Kering brass to whom he reports to articulate what the job is. To do that, they must first clarify their vision for Gucci.

Ford made sexual imagery, beginning with that on his runway, the nucleus for everything Gucci did. Giannini felt that prior to her ascent, Gucci overplayed sex and underplayed heritage. She immersed herself immediately in the archives, and her revival of the Flora pattern proved a huge and ongoing success.

The Gucci windows now installed at the Trump Tower store on Fifth Avenue speak to the brand’s current positioning. The northern window on Fifth features a shelving installation and two mannequins wearing clothes. The shelves display bags and other accessories, while a third look hangs inside an amazing, vertically positioned travel trunk. In the southern window, a female and a male mannequin face each other, from opposite sides. Their arms extended, they’ve tossed into the air a bounty of handbags that create a fanciful arc. The 56th Street windows feature two large photos, one of a guy in a jacket and striped sweater, the other, a tight shot of a model grasping a bag. Those windows send a message: This is an accessories house, and the clothes accessorize the accessories.

Gucci is the Kering anchor. It has been on the luxury map for nearly a century, even enduring one of the most embarrassing, tragic turns in fashion history, a chapter that involved family infighting, a talking ghost and murder. There are reasons it survived: One, its resonant name and foundation in classics that retained a loyal customer base, even at the lowest moment. Two bigger reasons: Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole, whose reinvention of the house ultimately saved it.

When they left in February 2004, Gucci was generating the lion’s share of the Group’s profits; only Bottega Veneta was also making money. There were in-house fears that if Gucci cracked, Gucci Group would crumble. Mark Lee was tapped from his post at Yves Saint Laurent for the role of ceo of Gucci; it was his decision to appoint Giannini sole creative director. Under her creative direction, the business, if not always the fashion, flourished for the better part of a decade, first in partnership with Lee, and when he left at the end of 2008, with Patrizio di Marco. Driven by heritage, bag business exploded. Along the way, exploiting Gucci’s luxury aspect and its inherent exclusivity became a focus, an initiative that included flaunting made-in-Italy craftsmanship. (This wasn’t always a straight line. Di Marco opened up Macy’s Herald Square and Bloomingdale’s, to the dismay of some long-term retail partners.) For years, the growth looked unstoppable.

Recently, China has floundered, luxury across the board has been hit and weaknesses in various businesses exposed. At the same time, with few exceptions, sales of luxury rtw have declined. At Gucci, the look of the rtw has seemed at odds with the tactical upgrading of the accessories.

Those realities converged, raising a fundamental question for the brand: What does Gucci stand for as a fashion house? Superior Italian craftsmanship isn’t enough; an entire national industry is based on that. What distinguishes Gucci fashionwise? What does Kering — read: Francois Henri-Pinault — want consumers to think, what images conjured, when they hear the word “Gucci”? Where does he see Gucci as a fashion entity within the Kering portfolio? Can a brand tout luxury, craftsmanship, exclusivity on one hand, and put contemporary-looking clothes on the runway?

These questions must be answered concretely before Giannini’s replacement is hired. Informed speculation indicates Pinault’s desire to hire a designer who will embrace and run with the house legacy. Which one? There are two. The first, classic, tony leather goods, back in the day attracted the likes of Jackie O and Elizabeth Taylor. Yet despite photo documentation of those women carrying bags and wearing a sportif shirtdress or two, the glamour quotient of midcentury Gucci is more post-fact marketing invention than reality. Then again, marketing is its own reality. Pinault could choose to focus on that Seventies moment, at least as this next chapter commences. Lord knows, plenty of designers out there know their way around that decade, including one very high-profile member of Kering’s own stable.

The second legacy is the hypersexual fashion of Tom Ford (not without its own Seventies references) that, back in another day, rocked fashion. Gucci has done its best to eradicate that one from house history. In the 2011 Florence exhibition celebrating the house’s 90th anniversary, few Ford looks and fewer mentions of his name (none that I recall) were included.

Yet if Pinault decides to pursue fashion — as opposed to classic luxury — it will be difficult for the incoming designer to ignore the Ford years. Horse culture and the accompanying regalia are a style legacy, and a laudable one. They’re not a fashion legacy. The new creative director may embrace the Ford history and draw from it or reject it in a conscious pursuit of something altogether new, à la Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy. But it can’t be ignored.

Which raises the question of how much legacy matters, anyway. Often, the names of storied houses ring familiar but their founding creative dogmas — not so much. If one extracts from the conversation the Big Two, Chanel and Dior, what percentage of potential consumers have a clear image or care about the “house codes?” Even with Dior, could nine out of 10 people on the street pick a Bar jacket out of a well-tailored lineup? Probably not. One could argue that the ongoing relevance and high ID quotient of classic Chanel iconography is rooted as much in Karl Lagerfeld’s brilliant, irreverent nurturing for 30-plus years as in Mademoiselle’s originals. Gucci is different. Seventies shirtdresses aside, its strongest fashion history is perceived of as recent, and many people who were there at the time still work in the industry or remain fashion customers.

The extent to which the next designer mines the horsey heritage and the Ford component, or rejects them, remains to be seen. Several major names have been floated as possible replacements for Giannini, including Tisci, Tomas Maier, Joseph Altuzarra and Christopher Kane. His LVMH contractual situation aside, Tisci would be lights out. He counts among the most closely watched drivers of fashion today, his work indicative that homage to house codes matters less than creating exciting fashion. That said, Givenchy is a very different kind and scale of business. Tisci hasn’t had to make sure his designs for Givenchy work back to a huge classics business.

Maier is even-keeled and disciplined, and as creative director of Bottega Veneta, oversees the creative output of Kering’s second-largest business, one performing beautifully right now. He understands luxury and not trading down. His Bottega bags are gorgeous and often inventive while incorporating the signature woven element. Though Maier’s clothes have been less consistent than his accessories and sometimes awkward, his best work is his most recent. His last collection infused sophisticated chic with an artful touch.

Altuzarra would be amazing for Gucci, but whether Gucci would be amazing for Altuzarra is another story. His is a decidedly sensual aesthetic. He could run with the sexy thing without falling prey to Ford mimicry. But, even after the Kering investment in his company, Altuzarra has been mindful of expanding his own business slowly. To suddenly concern himself with how last season’s bag re-issues are performing online and in hundreds of stores around the world — and make no mistake, he would have to be so concerned — could distract from his essential creative development.

Ditto Christopher Kane on the development front. During his stint at Versus he gained some experience working within the confines of a larger, established brand, though hardly one the scale of Gucci. His charming aesthetic is younger and less obviously sophisticated than Altuzarra’s.

Kering has an interesting, diverse stable of designers at its major houses. In addition to Maier: Stella McCartney, a trailblazer in ethical fashion with a grounded real-woman aesthetic. McQueen’s Sarah Burton, a rare artistic breed and de-facto couturier. Balenciaga’s Alexander Wang, a bold young talent unafraid to fuse street and couture concepts. YSL’s Hedi Slimane, probably the most fascinating designer working today. The shows look to me like the emperor’s new (contemporary) clothes. But the numbers say that a lot of women are buying in.

All of which may play into Pinault’s thought process as he determines how to position the Gucci brand for its next phase, and who is best to take up that creative mantle. Gucci is the flagship. Getting it right — beginning with clear articulation of what Gucci is and should be — is essential.

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