“Looking from outside, it’s not the most obvious choice.”
Gucci president and chief executive officer Marco Bizzarri thus described the elevation of Alessandro Michele to the post of creative director, the appointment confirmed by WWD on Wednesday. The firm noted at the time that Michele will have “total creative responsibility for all of Gucci’s collections and its brand image.”
“Alessandro is not a big name. He is under the radar,” Bizzarri said in a phone conversation. “He is known in the company as being the most talented person and is very much respected by the team. He knows Gucci inside and out.”
Michele joined the Gucci design studio in 2002 following a stint as senior accessories designer at Fendi. He was appointed “associate” to Frida Giannini in 2011, and last year took on the additional responsibility of creative director of GRG Richard Ginori, the porcelain brand acquired by Gucci in 2013.
The confirmation put to rest, in relatively short order speculation about whom would succeed Giannini, whose tenure ended when she left the house earlier this month. Under the original terms of her departure, Giannini was to work through the fall 2015 season and present both the men’s and women’s collections. Ultimately, her exit was hastened in the interests of changing course as soon as possible. Together with Gucci’s existing men’s team, Michele redid the men’s collection completely, garnering favorable reviews for his provocative androgyny, though the brand is touting the upcoming women’s fall 2015 collection as his first official collection.
Bizzarri voiced enthusiastic confidence in Michele’s abilities, calling him “exactly the right person” for Gucci’s creative helm. He is tasked with halting Gucci’s recent performance declines while restoring its one-time position as a major force in directional fashion. “When he started discussing Gucci, his vision, his talent and the images associated with the way he looked at Gucci were exactly in [keeping with] the way we wanted to move Gucci forward,” Bizzarri said.
Bizzarri admitted to first considering numerous “big names,” some of them the subjects of ample press speculation, and some not. Among those buzzed about: the red-hot Riccardo Tisci, whose contract with Givenchy has a ways to go. Bizzarri vehemently rejected the suggestion that Michele’s might be a closet “interim” hire. “I never contacted Riccardo Tisci once; it was never a discussion,” he said. “Alessandro is definitely the choice; he is not the temporary choice. Alessandro is by far my personal choice, and that of François-Henri Pinault. We share the same vision.”
Bizzarri assumed his post at Gucci on Jan. 1, from parent company Kering’s luxury couture and leather goods division. He and Michele effectively begin their tenures together, an instant team with fortunes tied in a manner that has become something of a brand tradition forged by Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford and followed by Giannini’s partnerships, first with Mark Lee and later, Patrizio di Marco, with whom she became involved personally.
This is a critical moment for Gucci, one Bizzarri did not shy away from discussing. Within the challenged luxury sector, Gucci’s market share has been hit more than most. Yet it’s not only the brand’s bottom line that has fallen off, but its reputation as a bold, brash, aggressive fashion leader that reached its pinnacle during the Tom Ford glory years. Granted, that fashion moment was very different. One could argue (convincingly) that the fashion of fashion mattered far more than now, when focusing on the mutual obsessions of globalization and online “likes” too often trump serious consideration of the strength or weakness of what’s shown on the runway.
Though he spoke openly, Bizzarri voiced “great admiration and respect” for the accomplishments of Giannini and di Marco. At first, Gucci’s numbers flourished under Giannini’s creative direction. But as the increases started to slow, the retreat from fashion influence became more pronounced. Giannini’s often-appealing, sometimes-overwrought clothes veered toward flash of the accessible sort. Her approach didn’t develop in a vacuum but played into a trend toward clothes with a contemporary look at luxury prices. While officially, the house stood behind her choices, at some point, the mood changed. Bizzarri now acknowledges the brand’s fashion decline and cites it as a major factor in need of correction. As he tells it, he and Pinault won’t be satisfied to merely restore Gucci to golden cash-cow status; the house must regain its fashion prominence as well. “Gucci should become again a brand that is in the mind of opinion leaders, of fashion people. They should [feel] the need to go into the Gucci shop,” he said. “What do you feel about [the brand]? What is your perception? Is it/this relevant or not relevant? Our business it is not just about the results. It’s about what you feel about [the brand] and the perspective.”
At issue is the loss of a clear-cut identity such as that which underscored the Ford years. “I think Gucci lost a little bit of relevance in the past one or two years, so I think that’s the moment to change,” Bizzarri said. “Both Patrizio and Frida brought amazing things to Gucci. They created a huge company from a business standpoint. [Now] from a creative standpoint, it’s time to give a little bit of push in terms of modernity to make Gucci relevant again in the fashion world.”
Bizzarri stressed that this renewed emphasis on directional fashion will not mean retreat from the Giannini-di Marco focus on craftsmanship or on the archival awareness that Giannini made integral to her Gucci platform. Nor will it mean rejection of all things accessible. “The company is very big. You need to have something that is wearable and accessible,” he offered. “The point is, what’s driving the accessibility? It takes a reference to something very fashion-forward. That doesn’t mean we’re going to destroy what we have now, not at all. It’s something that’s valid, something we need to respect. And being so big and we have different markets to satisfy. But always they should be linked under the same umbrella.”
To that end, Bizzarri loves a logo. He calls Gucci’s an amazing asset that must be utilized proudly and properly. “You invest in a logo for so many years and then you’re going to be ashamed because there is a trend outside, and you say, ‘I’m sophisticated. I don’t use the logo?’ That’s not sophistication,” he said.
Rather, Bizzarri views celebration of legacy as essential, adherence to certain codes and values a path to a powerful brand equity that can be achieved only over time. Yet, he noted, legacy must be invoked sagely, lest the brand be “held hostage” by its own history.
He noted two elements essential when considering brand position. One is the brand’s values, linked to and derived from its legacy. The other is the culture and customer. “Being relevant is understanding how the consumer works, and respecting your tradition but making progress and communication that make sense for today. Otherwise you look at the past, what happened 20-25 years ago — nobody cares, especially today, in the world that moves so fast.”
As for the consumer, at the luxury level, the richer the better. Yet there’s no single archetype. Once everyone’s darling, the aspirational customer is now viewed variously as asset or albatross, depending upon a brand’s point of view. Gucci classifies her firmly as the former. “She’s the customer of tomorrow. You need to pamper her,” Bizzarri said. “You need to understand why she wants to be a part of [your brand]. And why she’s aspirational. Is it a matter of disposable income or accessibility in terms of distribution?”
Bizzarri acknowledged that fashion’s hyper-growth mode has been a mixed blessing across the luxury spectrum. He noted that fashion is essentially a discipline of emotion and that purveyors forget that at their own risk. “When you talk about big companies, you’re talking about market share, merchandising, etc.,” he said, noting those are big parts of the equation.
“Everything is linked together. We need to continue to foster the emotional side of our brand [along with] the sales. We need to sustain and protect the business; we have a 3.5 billion euro company and we have thousands of people working for Gucci so we need to protect that. In order to do that, we need to push, and at the top, we need to create a vision through emotion and creativity.”
Bizzarri brought the conversation around seamlessly to its primary topic. “The way you do that is through a great creative director,” he said. “I like the fact that Alessandro came out from nowhere. He’s been here forever and is emotional about the company. He’s super-respected by everybody here. They recognize him as a leader and someone who can drive them to the next steps.”
“He has a willingness to take risks.” Bizzarri continued. “Gucci is very much about that. The brand needs to take risks, the industry needs to take risks. We need to move. Otherwise, it’s boring if everyone looks the same.”