MILAN — Is sartorial men’s wear the final glass ceiling for female designers?
On Thursday, Nina-Maria Nitsche was named creative director of Brioni, becoming the first woman to lead the storied Italian tailoring brand, sending out a message of innovation and a break with the past, observers contend.
“The appointment says a lot about the direction Brioni is taking,” said Giovanna Brambilla, partner at Milan-based executive search firm Value Search. “It means Brioni wants to innovate in terms of research, materials and style, and move away from tradition in terms of fits and shapes.”
Brambilla said the sartorial world is still dominated by men, perhaps because “women feel it is farther away in terms of sensibility,” but added that there are some exceptions, such as longtime Hermès men’s artistic director Véronique Nichanian.
Paola Cillo, associate professor and vice director, department of management and technology at Bocconi University and coordinator of luxury business management FT MBA at SDA Bocconi school of management, agreed Brioni’s choice shows a desire to innovate. Citing research by her colleague Myriam Mariani on women inventors in science, still only 4 percent in a male-dominated world, Cillo said, “It’s more difficult for them to enter and emerge in this arena but when they do, because they trademark an invention, for example, they are found to be more persistent and innovative than their male colleagues. Translating this into fashion, when there is an intellectual or scientific contribution, the impact is stronger and the drive to change runs deeper.”
Recently, several women designers have been in the spotlight for taking the top job at storied fashion brands, such as Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior; Bouchra Jarrar at Lanvin; Clare Waight Keller at Givenchy, and Natacha Ramsay-Levi at Chloé. And things may be changing in the more traditional sartorial world. At Brunello Cucinelli’s school of arts and crafts and specifically at the tailoring school at his Solomeo, Italy, headquarters, the majority of students are women.
Nitsche joined Maison Martin Margiela in 1989, working closely with the founding designer for 23 years. After Margiela’s resignation in 2009, Nitsche took over the creative direction of the brand. She joined Vetements in September 2016 but left when the company relocated to Zurich from Paris earlier this year.
The designer’s experience at Margiela was highlighted by Armando Mammina, Milan-based marketing and strategic consultant. “This is significant because the professional skills there are very high, nothing is redundant at Margiela and all is based on details as it is at Brioni, where the combination of details is almost invisible,” he said.
Mammina commended the choice, which signals Brioni’s goal to “grow strong again after a period of turmoil.” He also believes that a woman’s eye and aesthetic sense could add a different streak on men’s traditional sartorial designs. “Perhaps they will be more fluid and more up-to-date,” he mused.
Brioni’s chief executive officer Fabrizio Malverdi clearly believes so and said on Thursday: “Ever since I met her in 1996, I have been impressed by her creative approach, starting from a clearly defined concept and then transforming that into products that accurately resonate with the customer. Her point of view will allow the brand’s core values to prosper and yet inject a contemporary dialogue that will enable Brioni to evolve into the future.”
Nitsche underscored how “the house’s philosophy is based on a pioneering approach to men’s wear,” saying that her goal was to “reinforce and invigorate this long-standing tradition.”
One men’s wear executive who spoke on condition of anonymity noted Brioni, founded in 1945, was the first to introduce silk, color and new silhouettes in men’s wear in the Fifties, moving away from the Savile Row tradition.
“Tapping a woman who comes from a fashion company clearly means that Brioni’s offer will be fashion and not sartorial. This is not a sexist message, but I believe that, generally, it’s inevitable for a woman not to have that same sensibility toward tailoring, the taste and the technical culture,” said the executive. “By choosing to do fashion, they are changing Brioni’s positioning.”
Another men’s wear executive said he was less surprised by the fact that Nitsche is a woman than by Brioni’s choice to opt for a non-Italian designer. “They pride themselves on the Roman style, but it’s true that the brand is very strong outside of Italy. In any case, these are all stereotypes. Everything is based on good taste and creativity. Brioni should build on what it was good at, high and pure luxury. Creative directors all have the same kind of education, culture and experiences that are very similar.”
The executive also emphasized Maison Margiela’s “niche, not mainstream creativity” and what this could mean for Nitsche’s take on Brioni.
François-Henri Pinault, chairman and ceo of parent Brioni’s parent Kering, highlighted that Nitsche “has a very accurate understanding of the Brioni man and she will bring a comprehensive and articulate creative vision to the house. I am sure that, together with Fabrizio Malverdi, she will build on the house’s tradition of exceptional craftsmanship to propel Brioni into a new dynamic.”
Malverdi joined Brioni as ceo in April, succeeding Gianluca Flore and reporting to Jean-François Palus, managing director of Kering. He was most recently ceo of Agent Provocateur and is perhaps best known for his stints as managing director of Dior Homme and as ceo of Givenchy, where he accrued expertise in the high-end men’s wear market.
At Brioni, Malverdi is tasked with repositioning the brand and bringing stability. The company has been in a state of flux after going through two creative directors in less than a year, confounding some customers and retailers. Issues linked to positioning, pricing and communication also weighed on the brand, as did a rationalization of its workforce at its headquarters in Penne, Italy.
Flore, a former Bottega Veneta executive, joined Brioni in November 2014 and handpicked Brioni’s former creative director Justin O’Shea, a women’s retail executive who had no design experience. O’Shea abruptly departed the company last October after only six months. During his brief tenure, he steered Brioni away from its heritage and made changes that observers believed were not in sync with the brand, such as tapping Metallica for the label’s fall 2016 ads.
O’Shea succeeded Brendan Mullane, who had joined the Italian men’s wear brand in July 2012 and exited in February 2016. The arrival of Mullane marked the first time Brioni had named a designer to oversee the men’s line. A former head men’s wear designer at Givenchy, Mullane was based in Rome and reported to then ceo Francesco Pesci. Mullane helped expand other categories for the Italian men’s wear brand, known for its high-end tailored suits, developing its outerwear and sportswear, footwear and accessories, and targeting a younger customer.