LONDON — Can Burberry’s new Italian duo work their magic once again?
Marco Gobbetti and Riccardo Tisci, the men who helped transform Givenchy into a star brand in the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton stable, are reuniting after 10 years apart at the helm of Burberry with the ambition of refashioning it for a new generation of luxury customers.
Gobbetti has proven himself a man of his word by pulling in Tisci, a prize couturier with streetwear in his veins, to breathe new life into Britain’s biggest fashion brand, a publicly quoted behemoth that’s been struggling to grow in line with its luxury peers and exploit its strengths, especially in the big margin accessories business.
The decision to hire Tisci as chief creative officer, replacing Christopher Bailey, may have blindsided some, but it makes sense given Gobbetti’s strategy to fire up sales growth, fix Burberry in the luxury firmament and take on a designer for the long haul. In November, Gobbetti told the markets he wanted his designer pick to stay for at least a decade, to lay down a new luxury template for the brand, and appeal to the new, laid-back luxury customer who’s dressing ever more casually.
Although Tisci wasn’t the obvious choice — Phoebe Philo and Stuart Vevers were both mooted as Bailey’s successors, as was Kim Jones — his appointment sent a frisson of anticipation through the front rows at Paris Fashion Week and through the industry in general.
“A lot of the names previously circulating were a safe choice, and had they been chosen, Burberry would have stayed the same British heritage luxury brand. Now I think it will be thrown into a truly international realm — with a lot more humor and sex thrown in,” said Emma Davidson, managing director at Denza, the fashion recruitment company. “What’s going to happen to the Burberry mac? I can’t wait to see. Burberry hiring Tisci is like an old British eccentric suddenly introducing their Italian lover to the family. There is going to be a lot of gossip in the village.”
Davidson added that Gobbetti’s choice, while risky, “speaks a lot to the trust between the two and the support that will come for the creative vision.”
They’re certainly a like-minded pair: Only a few days into the job, Gobbetti told Burberry shareholders last year: “We have to be bold in all areas of the business in order to create a new energy and positivity.” In 2016, while still at Givenchy, Tisci told WWD: “I was born a daring designer and I’m going to die as a daring designer.”
It’s clearly time to say farewell to the cozy, artfully rumpled and very British Burberry that Bailey fashioned during his 17 years in the role.
During his 12 years at Givenchy, the charming — and demanding — Tisci set a new DNA for the brand with his runway shows that set pulses racing with his brand of tough chic, bold prints and T-shirts with snarling Rottweilers.
He also helped ignite the luxury streetwear trend: Tisci’s feet are forever clad in Nike, and he’s been collaborating on a string of special projects with the brand since 2014. Yet Coco Chan, head of women’s wear at Stylebop.com, said anyone writing Tisci off as just a celebrity streetwear designer would be mistaken. She said he has “vast skills in tailoring and a back catalogue of incredible women’s wear,” across ready-to-wear and Givenchy couture.
“I think he has the opportunity to take a blank canvas and start to repaint the picture,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, vice president and designer fashion director for Nordstrom. “I’m looking forward to expect the unexpected. I’m completely open to whatever their vision is and excited not to know.”
On Tisci’s creative watch, Givenchy increased more than six times in size, with revenues north of 500 million euros, and it wasn’t just the T-shirts that were making money. Men’s wear became the number-one category at Givenchy during the Tisci era, and his bags also drew a strong following, a talent that should serve him well at Burberry, which has so far been playing catch-up in the category.
Mary Gallagher, European associate for the New York-based search firm Martens & Heads, said she understands Gobbetti’s choice. “High fashion pivots on mystique and the unpredictable, and it makes a lot of sense given the successful duo (they) made at Givenchy,” she said. Gallagher added that Tisci’s “formative years at Central Saint Martins in London would have given him a rich, cinematic view of England,” that should inform his collections for the brand.
Born in northern Italy in 1974, Tisci worked with designers including Stefano Guerrero and Antonio Berardi, and for the now-defunct Ruffo Research. Later, Tisci launched a signature label that drew a strong following in London. Gobbetti discovered him in those years and took a chance on him at Givenchy, where Tisci became the latest in a revolving door of designers including John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Julien Macdonald.
At Givenchy he built up a broad network of celebrity clients and collaborators, creating costumes for works by the performance artist Marina Abramovic and directing the artwork for the award-winning “Watch the Throne” album by Jay Z and Kanye West. He has also designed the stage outfits for world tours of Madonna, Beyoncé and Rihanna, and famously designed Kim Kardashian’s Givenchy couture lace wedding dress.
“I guess it is going to be goodbye to Romeo Beckham now that Riccardo can choose between Madonna’s kids or the West family. It’s going to be very different now with the celebs in the front row, the hype over the brand, the eventual success of Riccardo. Let’s face it, the appointment will be good,” said Denza’s Davidson.
Gobbetti’s choice of Tisci also speaks to this particular fashion moment when brand image has become a fluid concept, with the quest for surprise and freshness trumping the idea of heritage. Less than a year ago, Tisci was rumored to be joining Versace (talks collapsed in the end), a house that could not be more different in scale — or aesthetics — from Burberry. Yet Donatella Versace and Gobbetti are both looking to speak to a similar new audience, and know that Tisci can do the job.
“The fact that Riccardo was sought after by two brands as disparate as Versace and Burberry attests as much to the power of relationships as it does to his talent and vision to create to different DNAs and customers. His visceral hold on cool melds with history, rituals and cultures, so quite a few brands would love to tap into that and to the guaranteed buzz,” said Gallagher of Martens & Heads.
Helen David, Harrods’ chief merchant, said it’s a sign of the times that Tisci would appeal to Versace and to Burberry. “Fashion today is fast-paced and boundary-blurring. There are no rules, other than the fact that, currently, disrupting the industry tends to be applauded and well-received. No one wants boring and obvious. A few months ago, Hedi (Slimane) perhaps wouldn’t have been thought of as the obvious choice for Céline. This move in itself is evidence that fashion is — and needs to — constantly reinvent itself. Tisci is a multifaceted designer and could have worked well in both houses; he will be more disruptive at Burberry, which will be fun to watch.”
Chan of Stylebop.com said so many luxury brands are looking to engage the same customer: “Many recent developments at Burberry, Versace and countless other houses have been implemented to connect with this much-discussed Millennial consumer. Tisci has proven — with Givenchy, Nike and his two million Instagram followers — that he can speak that language and engage a younger customer. I can’t wait to see what that looks like for Burberry.”
Gucci’s Alessandro Michele has been talking the new talk for a while with his mashed-up, surreal collections featuring designs that are difficult to replicate (take that, counterfeiters), but still wholly identifiable as Gucci. “Alessandro, I think, has surely been avant-garde, a genius in understanding that the luxury world in the last years has changed in a radical way, it’s less stiff and monolithic,” said Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s chief executive officer, in an interview with WWD last year. He added that brands should allow consumers and artists to be able to interpret the logo in the way they prefer, “or someone will do it in your stead.”
Burberry is clearly keen to telegraph its message to a younger audience: Over the past year, it’s unveiled collaborations with the Russian streetwear kingpin Gosha Rubchinskiy, while Bailey’s last collection was an ode to the streetwise side of the brand. Gone was the sharp military tailoring, the lace trenches and empire-line dresses, and in their place tracksuits, loose, billowing trenches, sneakers and oversized sweatshirts.
“It’s clear the brand is wanting to explore streetwear and clothing with a bit more attitude, both of which are Tisci’s strengths,” said Ida Petersson, women’s buying director at Browns. “This is why I could also see him doing so well at Versace.”
Gobbetti wants to refresh and upgrade the brand on multiple levels, another reason why he needed a strong partner, and a known quantity.
Gobbetti said in November that over the next two years, he’ll be consolidating the brand’s position in the luxury space by aligning prices with Burberry’s luxury peers, upping the levels of in-store service, rethinking wholesale and outlet distribution, and putting a better focus on digital and audience engagement.
“We are already playing in the luxury space. We’re already there. This is not about a movement ‘up.’ There are categories where we think our pricing does not represent brand value, prices that are under those who we consider to be our luxury peers, and we’ll revise the offer accordingly,” he said, adding that changes would also be made in distribution, customer experience and communication.
Judy Collinson, Burberry’s chief merchandising officer, said during the same presentation that Burberry also plans to add novelty to core categories, “entice with newness, capsules and collaborations,” and emphasized that Burberry would remain “unconstrained by the traditional” fashion calendar. As reported, instead of doing pure see-now-buy-now collections, it will have multiple product drops during the year.
“Creativity means refreshing products — and we’ve started already,” Gobbetti said. “Customers are calling for it, and we are performing much better in newness and in fashion than in what is simply replenishment of products. So you need to update regularly and constantly.”
Gobbetti also plans to ramp up Burberry’s leather goods offer — with a broader range of product, and more footwear — and cross-sell leather accessories with clothing as part of a strategy to “wardrobe” customers from head-to-toe rather than sell them a single item — another move that will play to Tisci’s strengths.
“We have a pretty good leather accessories business for an apparel company, and we’re starting from a position of strength. I expect the leather goods business to grow significantly,” Gobbetti said, adding that he’s not looking to rely on leather like a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci would.
His five-year plan, which entails two years of flat revenue growth and adjusted operating margin, didn’t exactly thrill the markets (the stock fell 11 percent after his presentation) but Tisci’s arrival has already given the brand a boost. Burberry shares closed up 4 percent at 15.92 pounds on the news that Tisci starts work on March 12.