ROME — “I want to go back to school,” said Marco Bizzarri, feeling the emotion of the 50 finalists of Gucci’s Design Fellowship Program in the frescoed room of Rome’s beautiful 14th-century Palazzo Taverna on Thursday evening. To be sure, it was an night to be remembered by the aspiring young designers that are part of the program, but Gucci’s president and chief executive officer, flanked by the brand’s creative director Alessandro Michele and several of their respective teams in the audience, were equally moved by the response and feelings of the students. “Being exposed to different cultures is the best way to flourish,” said Bizzarri, praising Michele’s willingness to open up his design studio. “You need to be very brave and confident to do collaborations and see with different eyes. In most cases, people want to control, but for longevity, you need to leverage creativity and be open-minded.”
Michele took to the stage briefly to say that he remembered how he was a student, too, “many years ago and, sitting in the audience, I felt like I was in the past. I am very proud, this is my family and I am sure this will be the beginning of a great trip.”
The Design Fellowship Program is part of Gucci’s Diversity & Inclusion initiatives to promote cultural exchange between designers coming from different backgrounds and launched in March. It is meant to offer opportunities to underrepresented groups of talents in partnership with 10 fashion schools in 10 countries (Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, China, Japan, Korea, Dubai, U.S. and Mexico). Five finalists for each school across different product categories were selected for a total of 50 finalists. They were invited to Italy for a week to discover Gucci in Rome and Florence and this was an opportunity for Gucci’s design team to meet directly with them. Gucci then selected 11 graduates — one more than was originally planned — and revealed with the event on Thursday that they will join the brand’s team in Rome starting from March 2020 for their fellowship.
“Their work was fabulous,” enthused Bizzarri. “The 11th designer from Ghana was a decision taken today, the team didn’t want to let him go.” The executive has reinforced Gucci’s team to work on this project and at the end of July tapped Reneé Tirado as the company’s first global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. One of her tasks is to promote “more internal mobility,” said Bizzarri. “To move from one region to the other creates diversity, and attracts people of different cultures,” he observed, pointing out the need to “open our horizons” since the fashion industry tends to hire from a small pool of people.
The emotion felt during the award event had “no price,” said Bizzarri. “And how could we have brought such diversity only with interviews? It would have been impossible, it’s been a long process, but now we will have 11 new designers for a learning experience in a team of 150 — that is quite a big percentage — into a very solid team, close to Alessandro, and they are the first to question things and push creativity.”
The next step is helping to integrate the students, said Tirado, “making sure that they are ready to come into this new environment, to live here for one year and support them, just as it’s important to work with the [existing] team, to make sure the environment is ready for this new injection. It’s a sandwich approach.”
Asked about the impact of the experience, Tirado said she felt “reinvigorated. The diversity and inclusive conversation is not always the easiest, because in essence it’s synonymous with change and people are generally resistant to change but when you see the impact it can have in real time, it gives me a lot of energy to move the boulder up the hill.”
Tirado said that “conceptually and emotionally,” Bizzarri and Michele’s vision has always been one of self-expression and inclusion “from Day One, this is not new for them, they just needed a bit of help and a strategist and the team to bring it to the entire organization in a holistic way.”
As reported, Tirado was tasked with designing, developing and implementing a global strategy to create a more inclusive and equitable workplace at Gucci and increase workforce diversity. She was also asked to ensure a positive corporate culture across all regions by hiring and leading a global team of employees dedicated to diversity, equity and inclusion.
In February, Gucci revealed the first four long-term initiatives to achieve cultural diversity and awareness throughout its organization and activities globally, following accusations earlier that month that a balaclava-style sweater evoked blackface, despite Michele’s explanation that it was a tribute to Leigh Bowery and to his camouflage art. The four initiatives mapped out were: hiring global and regional directors for diversity and inclusion; setting up a multicultural design scholarship program; launching a diversity and inclusivity awareness program, and introducing a global exchange program.
Referring to the balaclava-style sweater, Tirado believes “it was not done in malice, but it was done from an absence of context. In all fairness to the company and the organization, this is an Italian company and it was an homage to an artist and that was lost in the narrative. The miss was that there was not someone to bring attention to how that image would be interpreted in one part of the world, but [the design] was done in the spirit of creativity.” However, Gucci “responded quickly and thoughtfully, with an investment, time and people,” said Tirado, noting that in similar cases, “people apologize and then will no longer talk about it, but look at us here, through this type of program. It was a donkey kick that pushed us in the right direction.”
“Diversity and inclusion were always part of our culture, but we’ve seen an acceleration in the past seven or eight months,” concurred Bizzarri. “And now we are leading the change.”