MILAN — Is Gucci set for yet another textbook reinvention?
Time will tell, but on Saturday morning, Gucci and parent company Kering took the industry by surprise, naming Sabato De Sarno the Italian brand’s new creative director. His first show for the brand will bow in September.
His name may not ring a bell to those outside the inner fashion circle and he was never rumored to be in the run to succeed Alessandro Michele, who exited last November, but he joins from Valentino.
Raised in Naples, Italy, and based in Rome, he began his career at Prada in 2005, moving to Dolce & Gabbana, before joining Valentino in 2009, where he held positions of increasing responsibility, finally being appointed fashion director overseeing both men’s and women’s collections.
“He has a lot of experience in menswear and a deep knowledge of knitwear. Sabato has a very detailed and precise hand, and I didn’t get the impression he is a fashionista. He is very concrete, with an eye also on commercial matters. He is balanced and tenacious, very determined and with very clear and structured working procedures,” said a luxury goods talent recruiter, who requested anonymity. With the decision to tap De Sarno, “it seems Gucci wants to radically change skin. The news will likely lead to major changes in the design office. I wonder if this is a transitional phase.”
This was a theory of several sources, who wondered about the magnitude of the job offered to De Sarno, at a brand that last year reached sales of 9.73 billion euros.
It is understood that François-Henri Pinault, chairman and chief executive officer of Kering, is looking to elevate the luxury quotient of Gucci. Sources said Pinault is considering a more structured organization that is headed by a creative director, but one that does not hinge around a star persona. Instead, the creative director would supervise key designers overseeing the different categories, from beauty to fashion to jewelry.
One single designer in charge is no longer considered viable for Gucci to further grow — especially a hands-on creative director like Alessandro Michele was known to be.
No matter, the general consensus from sources who spoke to WWD on Saturday was that De Sarno is very talented — and a likeable person to boot.
His expertise in menswear is in line with Gucci’s need to build up that category, said one luxury goods analyst, who remarked that De Sarno is the designer responsible for conceiving the VLTN logo at Valentino. “He can build desire for the brand but is not oblivious to merchandising,” the source said.
De Sarno started in menswear but his purview expanded to womenswear with the spring 2020 collection. “There’s no question about his talent, he was Pierpaolo’s [Piccioli’s] right arm, and has been growing his range at Valentino,” said another Milan-based source.
One market source said that Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri’s decision “shows he is very skilled at finding talent and understanding people’s potential. Had I not known Sabato, I would have said such a bold choice was a suicide, but knowing him very well, I believe this is another successful move by Bizzarri. Sabato has a comprehensive vision. A creative director does not only design the collections but must have a vision on so many levels, be a good planner, very creative and very organized and Sabato is all this.”
In 2015, Bizzarri famously promoted Michele, who was also a second in command and not a household name, reinventing Gucci with his gender-fluid, inclusive and romantic spirit. He had joined the Gucci design studio in 2002 following a stint as senior accessories designer at Fendi. His predecessor, Frida 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.
In their report on Saturday, Bernstein analysts Luca Solca, Renny Shao and Clementine Flinois saluted Kering’s decision and were reassured, since naming a new creative director was “a key ingredient to make this call work,” rating group shares as Outperform.
According to their industry contacts, they wrote that De Sarno is believed to have “the required personality, ambition and drive to fill his new, highly prestigious role. The eyes of the world will be on him to see if he also has the required creative genius. We are reassured by remarks about De Sarno’s profile: he will have to bear the pressure and find the courage to express an original and compelling view of what Gucci can be.”
The report, however, urged De Sarno to be brave and have a strong point of view, stating that “bringing Gucci center stage and making it more timeless can only be done if Gucci makes at the same time a strong statement, attracting global consumers back to its stores. Gucci has to be over the top in order to thrive, the same as zebras have to run. Zebras who convince themselves they can metamorphose into lions and behave as such would not face a bright future. Said more clearly, a watered-down Gucci — as it has been perceived in Milan during the recent menswear fashion week, with utterly negative media and industry peer reviews — would continue to lose altitude and do little to unlock a better valuation for the Kering shares.”
They also kept an open mind about De Sarno’s recent work. “We don’t think much of the fact that Valentino hasn’t been at the top of its form in recent times. Judging Sabato De Sarno on the recent fortunes of Valentino would be as accurate as judging Alessandro Michele on the-then fortunes of Gucci. De Sarno has been working in the team of [Pierpaolo] Piccioli, the same as Michele was working in the team of Frida Giannini. Noblesse oblige, it is the head of the creative department who carries responsibility and calls the shots. We will see how well Sabato De Sarno can do that.”
Jefferies analysts Flavio Cereda, Kathryn Parker and Bhumi Kanabar in their report characterized the choice of revealing the name of the new designer on Saturday “odd perhaps but at least ahead of the FY print set for Feb. 15, and this may well have swung timing.”
They believe this is “another bold choice that may work well again” for Kering, but “it’s not straightforward at this time.” The announcement offers “little insight into what next.”
Among the challenges flagged is that “the decision to remain with a single creative head at a house the size of Gucci is a bold one,” even more so because De Sarno is not a Gucci insider, was not in a similar position before, and follows a designer as influential as Michele.
The analysts underscore De Sarno’s “strong reputation for organization, discipline and a solid track record in ready-to-wear,” which “may help address the issue of Gucci’s strong gender-fluid aesthetic that no longer works as well as it did,” but note that the designer appears to have “no real expertise in leather goods and accessories, which is the one area Gucci must fire up again to initiate a trend reversal.”
Another issue is that De Sarno’s impact will not be felt until full year 2024, “a long time as the market tries to understand Gucci’s new direction under a name not yet well known (with limited, so far at least, social media presence).” In conclusion, the degree of change is not clear, stated the report.
“In our view, Gucci does need another ‘revolution’ but rather a form of ‘aggressive evolution’ with a shift in the apparel aesthetic (De Sarno could work well here) which would drive a more commercial product and help elevate what we consider to be a superior leather goods offering.…De Sarno’s profile is not likely to move the dial much today, but the announcement is welcome.”
De Sarno — who will start in his new position as soon as he will have completed all his obligations in his current role, said Gucci in a statement — will report to Bizzarri.
“Having worked with a number of Italy’s most renowned luxury fashion houses, he brings with him a vast and relevant experience,” Bizzarri said of De Sarno on Saturday. “I am certain that through Sabato’s deep understanding and appreciation for Gucci’s unique legacy, he will lead our creative teams with a distinctive vision that will help write this exciting next chapter, reinforcing the house’s fashion authority while capitalizing on its rich heritage.”
As reported, on the sidelines of the men’s show earlier this month, designed by the in-house team, Pinault told WWD Bizzarri would stay in place and lead the brand in the post-Alessandro Michele period. Rumors were circulating that Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini was on her way to Gucci.
“One hundred and two years after Guccio Gucci opened his first store in Florence, Gucci remains one of the most iconic, prominent and influential luxury houses in the world,” Pinault said. “With Sabato De Sarno at the creative helm, we are confident that the house will continue both to influence fashion and culture through highly desirable products and collections, and to bring a singular and contemporary perspective to modern luxury.”
For his part, De Sarno stated that he was “deeply honored to take on the role” and “proud to join a house with such an extraordinary history and heritage, that over the years has been able to welcome and cherish values I believe in. I am touched and excited to contribute my creative vision for the brand.”
According to WWD sources, strong disagreements over the future of the brand caused a rift between Michele and Bizzarri, who with Pinault had urged Michele to initiate a strong design shift, a change of pace and a further elevation of the brand toward a true luxury positioning.