Gucci is changing skin. Or is it?
Alessandro Michele suddenly exited his role as creative director of Gucci in November, leaving a trail of question marks about what happened behind closed doors and the future of the Italian luxury brand. Its new path and, potentially, yet another textbook reinvention are objects of much speculation, as no successor has been named for the time being.
According to WWD sources, strong disagreements over the future of the brand caused a rift between Michele and president and chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri, who had championed the designer since naming him creative director of the brand in January 2015.
It is understood Bizzarri and François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Gucci’s parent Kering, urged Michele to initiate a strong design shift, a change of pace and a further elevation of the brand toward a true luxury positioning.
Gucci has grown to reach sales last year of 9.73 billion euros, just shy of its oft-stated goal of 10 billion euros, and the demands on Michele have grown exponentially during his tenure. Sources believe Michele was presented with the suggestion of delegating some of his many responsibilities, possibly creating a new design structure with the addition of key individuals, and that this may have triggered a fracture since he is known for his hand-on approach and attention to every detail.
After WWD first reported that Michele was expected to exit Gucci, and the brand confirmed the split, the designer’s parting words were telling, as staying true to his own values and vision appeared to be paramount.
“There are times when paths part ways because of the different perspectives each one of us may have. Today an extraordinary journey ends for me, lasting more than 20 years, within a company to which I have tirelessly dedicated all my love and creative passion,” stated Michele.
“During this long period, Gucci has been my home, my adopted family. To this extended family, to all the individuals who have looked after and supported it, I send my most sincere thanks, my biggest and most heartfelt embrace. Together with them I have wished, dreamed, imagined. Without them, none of what I have built would have been possible. To them goes my most sincerest wish: may you continue to cultivate your dreams, the subtle and intangible matter that makes life worth living. May you continue to nourish yourselves with poetic and inclusive imagery, remaining faithful to your values. May you always live by your passions, propelled by the wind of freedom.”
In the same statement, Bizzarri, who selected Michele to succeed Frida Giannini, underscored the designer’s commitment to Gucci, “his vision, devotion and unconditional love” for the house during his tenure.
Pinault also pointed to the “outstanding moment in the history of the house,” as Michele “[brought] so much of himself in this adventure. His passion, his imagination, his ingenuity and his culture put Gucci center stage, where its place is.”
Sources contended that frictions had been simmering for some time and indeed, Michele did not travel to Seoul for Gucci’s repeat Cosmogonie show scheduled for Nov. 1. The show eventually was canceled following the tragic events in the South Korean city, where more than 150 people were killed and dozens were injured after being crushed in a large crowd in the Itaewon nightlife district while celebrating Halloween.
Michele’s exit however, appeared sudden as a succession plan has not been revealed. In addition, it took place ahead of the men’s fall 2023 collection, to be unveiled in Milan on Jan. 13 — a return to the runway for that category after the designer experimented with different show formats and timing over the past few seasons, following his own inclinations. The men’s fall 2023 collection will be presented by the in-house team.
Gucci may be waiting for a high-profile designer — whose hands could perhaps be tied by a non-compete contract — or the company could be looking at an internal promotion, which is not a new path at Kering, or Gucci itself.
In-house names that circulated after Michele’s exit were those of Remo Macco, a Gucci veteran who was recently appointed studio design director; Davide Renne, also a longtime Gucci designer, and Marco Maria Lombardi, a member of Gucci’s design studio. As for established designers, basically everyone’s name has been tossed in the hat, from Maria Grazia Chiuri and Riccardo Tisci to Daniel Roseberry, now at Schiaparelli.
Michele joined the Gucci design studio in 2002 following a stint as senior accessories designer at Fendi. Giannini brought him to Gucci and he was named her associate in 2011. In 2014, he took on the additional responsibility of creative director of Richard Ginori, the porcelain brand acquired by Gucci in 2013.
Michele undoubtedly made Gucci a major influence in fashion again and his gender-fluid, inclusive and romantic spirit made its mark on a slew of other designers, catering to a younger and more diverse customer. However, according to one source, “Pinault has been trying to recover the uber luxury consumer.”
Michele reinvented Gucci with an androgynous style that toppled Giannini’s sophisticated jet-set lifestyle image. Giannini’s tenure as creative director at the brand lasted 10 years, while her predecessor Tom Ford engineered the first Gucci turnaround and stayed on for almost eight years.
After Michele’s appointment, Gucci posted growth exceeding 35 percent for five consecutive quarters by the first quarter of 2018, prompting Bizzarri to set a 10 billion euro revenue target for the brand in June that year.
His departure comes on the heels of his most recent show for the brand last September, which was one of the standouts of the spring 2023 season. The designer sent out a stream of models in both his signature androgynous looks and some that were more restrained with an injection of classic tailoring.
The twist came when a partition lifted to show that half the audience was watching the exact same show — the models in the show were all identical twins, in a personal reflection by Michele about the nature of identity. He revealed after the show that his mother was a twin and so he always felt he had two mothers.
It is unclear what the future holds for Michele, who has expressed his passion for cinematography — much like Ford. While the rumor mill points him in the direction of Chanel, the French brand has reiterated its support of creative director Virginie Viard, and WWD sources doubt Michele would be inclined to leave Rome for Paris for personal reasons.
Despite Michele’s successful stint at Gucci, which was driven by his unique aesthetic codes, analysts and observers generally approved of the brand’s decision to kick off a new chapter, believing it will bring new energy, fresh creativity and a business acceleration. All agreed that the brand has enough clout, a strong supply chain, top digital expertise and customer engagement skills to weather the transition.
Kering in October reported that its cash cow Gucci continued to underperform versus the group’s other brands, although organic sales picked up pace in the third quarter. Revenues at the Italian label totaled 2.6 billion euros, up 9 percent on a like-for-like basis, following a 4 percent rise in the second quarter.
That was slightly below a consensus of analyst estimates, which called for a 10 percent increase in comparable sales.
The Bizzarri-Michele dream team helped triple the size of Gucci since 2015 and analysts see the next step and expected turnaround as more complicated, wondering if managerial changes could also be in the cards at a time of a more volatile demand.
Indeed, sources in Milan also wonder if Bizzarri could be headed to a top role within Kering and be succeeded by Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini. Incidentally, the latter executive, as reported, appeared at the Bain & Co. and Altagamma conference in Milan in November — a first for Bellettini, who has not attended any event in Milan in recent memory.
A sign of a sharper focus on boosting the top line and a change of direction at Gucci may be seen in the appointment last spring of former Roger Vivier brand manager Maria Cristina Lomanto. She was named executive vice president, brand general manager, a new role for the Italian luxury company. Lomanto was tasked with focusing on coordinating collection and retail merchandising, visual merchandising, beauty and eyewear licensing and retail training, reporting to Bizzarri.
Homing in on historic codes, iconic handbags and craftsmanship was also touted by Pinault, as the executive commented on the group’s third-quarter performance.