MILAN — “Brioni is a work in progress, I underline the word progress,” said Jean-François Palus, Kering Group’s managing director, during a call with analysts on Thursday, to discuss first-half results of the Italian men’s wear brand’s parent company. And on Friday, the company revealed it was once again parting ways with its creative director — this time Nina-Maria Nitsche — after only one year. Brioni chief executive officer Fabrizio Malverdi was not available for comment.
What happened with Nitsche is open to interpretation. Kering does not break out sales for its smaller brands, but it was reported that the “other luxury houses” division posted a 34.7 percent increase in sales to 534 million euros in the second quarter, despite continued losses at Brioni. But Jean-Marc Duplaix, Kering’s chief financial officer, said during the call that “Brioni’s top line is on track to gradually better absorb its fixed costs.”
Analysts are skeptical Kering would be looking to sell Brioni now, a suggestion confirmed by Palus, who said the group does “not intend to dispose of any other brands of our current portfolio.” Kering, then called PPR, acquired Brioni in 2011 from the descendants of the company’s founders, Nazareno Fonticoli and Gaetano Savini.
A successor for Nitsche has not been named, and a source said Brioni had been searching for a new designer, although several market sources in Milan questioned whether the brand would actually need one at the helm. Nitsche was the company’s third creative director in less than three years and succeeded Justin O’Shea, a women’s retail executive who had no design experience. O’Shea left the company in October 2016 after a disruptive six month stint. He chose the see-now-buy-now format, relying on a heavy emphasis on the Seventies à la “Shaft,” and further pushed Brioni away from its core customer by tapping members of the rock band Metallica as the faces of the brand’s ad campaign. Shortly after, in February 2017, then-ceo Gianluca Flore, who had handpicked O’Shea, also left Brioni, succeeded by Malverdi. Previously, British designer Brendan Mullane held the role of Brioni creative director from July 2012 to February 2016, under former ceo Francesco Pesci.
After these missteps and changes, which left the company in a state of flux and without a clear identity, as well as a rationalization of its workforce at its Penne, Italy, headquarters, Nitsche returned Brioni to its classic tailoring tradition.
“For me, coming to a house with such a big history, you have to respect this history and evolve it,” she said in January. She opted for presenting a cross-generational cast of “real” men from across the globe to embody the Brioni universe, which ranged from artist Hisao Hanafusa to architect Matteo Thun and entrepreneur Marco Danielli, to name a few. Nitsche, a Maison Martin Margiela veteran, said the aim was also to show the capacity of Brioni’s bespoke service, which represents 23 percent of the business.
The news of Nitsche’s exit comes at a time of ongoing changes in the Italian men’s wear industry as storied brands adapt to consumers’ need for easier and younger looks, catering to the elusive Millennial, and adding streetwear and sportswear elements to their collections.
In June, former Pal Zileri ceo Giovanni Mannucci told WWD he was rethinking the brand, with the help of creative director Rocco Iannone, in a way that would maintain the its essence but “applying it to the current context.” One thought was tweaking the idea that the suit is only fit for work and a formal or evening event, with “the goal and ambition” to create suits “worn for pleasure.”
Isaia, for example, has been working to expand its sportswear division for a few seasons now, growing it to represent 25 percent of total sales. “This trend is not going away — the luxury customer does not always want to wear a suit and wants precious items also when he is relaxed, so we invest in research to find special yarns or details. It’s not easy but we are seeing good results,” ceo Gianluca Isaia told WWD last month.
Mannucci took the industry by surprise earlier this month, exiting the brand after only one year, and was succeeded by Marco Sanavia, who has experience in human resources.
Mannucci joined Pal Zileri in October 2016, succeeding Paolo Roviera, who left at the end of July 2016 to join Corneliani, which was acquired by Bahrain-based Investcorp in 2016.
Mayhoola, an investment vehicle backed by a private investor group from Qatar, first took a 65 percent stake in Pal Zileri parent Forall SpA in 2014. Two years later, Mayhoola bought the remaining 35 percent of the firm from Arafa Holding, representing the fund’s commitment to expand the brand over the long term. Mayhoola also controls Valentino and Balmain.
Mannucci hailed from Boglioli, which has seen its own share of changes after the arrival of a new owner, PHI Industrial Acquisitions, last year and of a new president, Francesco Russo.
A designer, who requested anonymity, said he had recently turned down a number of offers to work in-house at men’s wear brands, choosing to focus on several personal projects and citing “a general lack of focus and long-term strategy” in the men’s wear industry.
These concerns are also triggered by socioeconomic and geopolitical issues. “Everyone is hoping to see a modicum of stability, which would allow us to set goals in the medium-term, invest in three-year plans without this sense of anxiety hovering over us,” Corneliani’s Roviera told WWD last month.
Even as traditional Italian men’s wear brands struggle to cope with the change in attitude toward classic tailoring, the overall sector is showing no signs of deceleration. According to industry association Sistema Moda Italia, in 2017 the Italian men’s wear fashion industry recorded a 3.4 percent increase in revenues, reaching 9.3 billion euros, beating expectations of a 2.1 percent gain expected in January. Men’s wear accounted for 17.2 percent of Italy’s textile and fashion pipeline and for 27.4 percent of apparel.
In terms of categories, knitwear rose 7.6 percent, while clothing grew 3.4 percent. Shirts and leather clothing decreased 2 percent and ties slumped 9.5 percent. Exports last year climbed 5.2 percent to 6 billion euros, accounting for 64.5 percent of the men’s wear business.
In addition, to further leverage the attraction of Made in Italy production, control quality and improve customer service, companies continue to invest in their own manufacturing. Isaia, for example, is expanding its manufacturing capability by 48,600 square feet in Casalnuovo di Napoli, where it is headquartered. Gucci and Prada recently unveiled stunning state-of-the-art industrial complexes in Tuscany.