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The Gucci Conundrum

With Gucci reinventing itself, yet again, are they on the path to finding success?

Gucci is, perhaps, the most watched, analyzed, and judged brand. Blame it on its dramatic history, its colorful designers, or the allure that they have had for generations on fashion devotees. It can’t be easy to be under all that pressure.

Each of its designers, from Tom Ford to Alessandro Michele, have been tasked with resurrecting Gucci. With all the scrutiny over them, their achievements, and failures, have all been noted. But there hasn’t been a long reign of happy success. With its current, new era, will Gucci finally find continuous financial gain, coupled with an inspiring market reputation?

What Gucci has been

Gucci is an example of a brand that couldn’t hold its reins. A brand that flourished under the original leadership of Guccio Gucci, came to flounder under the younger members. While Aldo Gucci raised the brand to unseen heights, his risky financial management led to his downfall. Rodolfo Gucci gave the brand all the flair he had, but not much financial power. His son, Maurizio Gucci, also astute and passionate, couldn’t save the brand from his own pride. The other members were, well, mostly enjoying the fruits. Philippe Mihailovich, a Paris-based author, professor, and Co-founder of HAUTeLUXE, says aptly, “Nobody can destroy a brand or a business more than the owners or managers themselves -more damage than competitors could ever inflict.”

Aldo Gucci
Aldo Gucci

The book House of Gucci by Sara Gay Forden tells the journey of this brand quite remarkably. The 2001 takeover of Gucci by Kering (then PPR), after a fierce boardroom-battle of 48 hours – is seen as a boon for both – the brand and the conglomerate. Gucci is, after all, the flagship brand of Kering. Abhay Gupta, Founder & CEO of Luxury Connect, a luxury business consulting firm based in India, and an author, explains, “In retrospect, this acquisition provided the much-needed long term vision, financial muscle, brand autonomy, managerial stability, operational expertise and brand revitalization which was so very much lacking due to the infighting within the family. The acquisition by Kering was instrumental in Gucci’s transformation and resurgence as a global luxury powerhouse.”

Maurizio Gucci & Patrizia Reggiani
Maurizio Gucci & Patrizia Reggiani

Lesser known are the contributions of Dawn Mello, a fashion retail expert hired by Maurizio Gucci, who brought exclusivity back to the brand by reducing the number of products and SKUs under Gucci, consolidating the number of stores, and also hiring designer Tom Ford to revamp the brand. Mr. Ford, who saw both – the pre-Kering (PPR then) and post-Kering era – gave a seductive look to Gucci – some might call it vulgar, some call it pure genius. Mr. Mihailovich adds his perspective: “I think the brand got distorted under Tom Ford who made it a big fashion brand worth billions after the family almost bankrupted the company through infighting and greed. The result was a brand reborn as a fashion brand and leather goods craftmaking became secondary to Ford’s personality.”

Gucci Fall 1996 collection
A Tom Ford design for Gucci in 1996

This high luxury brand had begun to show signs of old age, exacerbated by the trials and duels between the Gucci family members. Mr. Ford zoomed it into the present at supersonic speed, entirely changing the definition of Gucci in one go.

Tom Ford collection AW 2005
A Tom Ford design for Gucci in 2004

Domenico de Sole, the then-CEO of Gucci, and Mr. Ford, had an incredible partnership. They not only orchestrated Gucci’s partnership with PPR, but truly gave the brand their entire love. They gave it their soul. However, a disagreement with PPR led to both Mr. Ford and Mr. Sole quitting the brand. Mr. Ford presented his last show for Gucci in 2004.

Tom Ford Gucci last show
Tom Ford taking the bow at his last show for Gucci

Frida Giannini, who was the next creative director of the brand for almost 10 years, brought a sensual elegance to the brand. Groomed under Mr. Ford, Ms. Giannini slowly and steadily steered Gucci away from the hedonistic designs of its last designer, and gave it her own unique personality – pragmatic, elegant, lush. Patrizio de Marco – then CEO of Gucci – had a great run as Gucci not only made revenue but expanded its universe to include charity activities and the opening of the Gucci Museum.

The expansion, perhaps, tangled up the legacy of Gucci in other ways. “…Frida refocused on craftsmanship but killed the fashion side and started to copycat Hermes, even by sponsoring horse-riding events. Gucci had never created their own universe. They were just good bag makers with borrowed universes from others,” says Mr. Mihailovich. After a decade almost, this famous partnership of Giannini-de Marco came to an end too – as sales started to decline.

Frida Giannini and Patrizio de Marco
Frida Giannini and Patrizio de Marco. Image courtesy: Wall Street Journal

This cleaned the slate for Marco Bizzarri, the next new CEO, who appointed Alessandro Michele as the new Creative Director of Gucci in 2015. And wow, this pair made a huge splash on the market! Mr. Michele brought an entirely new perspective to the brand, calling it Renaissance. An entirely new language with a big bang of color, flora, sequins, and extravagance. It jolted everyone out of their senses.

Mr. Michele’s androgynous designs found favour with a larger audience. His collaborations with street style brands and digital projects made the brand an Instagram favourite. He got a new generation of celebrities under the Gucci hood – Harry Styles, Jared Leto, Dakota Johnson – and started a décor line and high jewelry line for Gucci. It was a technicolor party at Gucci.

Gucci Cosmogenie
A Gucci look by Alessandro Michele

It was the fatigue that got on though. The burst of colour could only last that long. The revenue went up, and then it went down, as did the luxe glow of the brand. Mr. Gupta says, “The lavish fashion line has since [2021] struggled to retain share of market as even affluent consumers have tightened their belts amid higher inflation and shifted toward more ‘quiet luxury’ brands.” He continues, “It is also believed that the product quality went down while the prices kept going north.”

Gucci 100 years collection
A Gucci look by Alessandro Michele for Gucci’s 100th anniversary collection

Mr. Mihailovich gives an overview of Mr. Michele’s creative direction: “Michele was genius to create their universe out of the Renaissance because both were born in Florence. He successfully moved the brand away from its ‘sexy’ American vulgarised image to deeply cultured Italian, and for once Gucci had their own world, just as Red Bull has extreme sport and Hermes has the equestrian world. However, he went too far in becoming a major ready-to-wear fashion and lifestyle brand with Gucci Garden and great artistic shows, and neglected the craftsmanship heritage of the house.”

Gucci Spring summer 2023
Alessandro Michele’s Twinsburg Spring Summer 2023 collection show for Gucci

And just like the past came the departure of Mr. Michele and Mr. Bizzarri – another CEO-CD partnership at Gucci. “I believe they were an exceptional team. Ok, they got into a bit of trouble. But I think Pinault should have helped them, worked with them, rather than firing them. Gucci would have been in a better place with Michele-Bizzarri,” feels Pamela Danziger, a US-based author, researcher on luxury retail, and founder of Unity Marketing.

What Gucci is today

Today is the era of Sabato de Sarno at Gucci. And the new CEO is Jean-François Palus. After the flamboyance of Mr. Michele, Mr. Sarno has crafted a clean, sleeker look for the new Gucci. It’s almost like an amuse bouche. He calls it Gucci Ancora (meaning ‘again’). And he has a new preferred deep red shade as a personality marker for the brand – also called Ancora.

Gucci Fall 2024
Gucci Fall 2024 look by Sabato de Sarno

Mr. Sarno’s designs echo the alluring looks of Mr. Ford. There are cuts, deep necklines, body fitting silhouettes, and dangerously-up there shorts. However, it won’t be wrong to say that he has given Gucci an elegance, which had gone missing, through tiny details – precise placement of stones and buckles, just enough shimmer, and delicate fabrics.

Elle Fanning Gucci
Elle Fanning wearing Gucci by Sabato de Sarno

The class of celebrities flaunting Gucci has upgraded as well with Elle Fanning, Miley Cyrus, Dua Lipa, Justin Timberlake, Kirsten Dunst, Lily Gladstone, Taylor Swift, Ryan Gosling, and more flaunting custom outfits by this brand. Sales, though, were down in the first quarter of 2024. Down by as much as 21% as per official reports by Kering. The pressure to perform is back again.

Taylor Swift wearing Gucci by Sabato de Sarno
Taylor Swift wearing Gucci by Sabato de Sarno

With Gucci embarking on a new chapter, Kering has high hopes for the brand. This 100-year-old brand has defined fashion and defied trends to create its own. Even then, the brand continues to search for its personality. There is no other brand in the world, perhaps, that has changed itself so dramatically multiple times. Mr. Mihailovich says, “Gucci started out as a serious leather goods competitor to Hermès and other leading ‘haute maroquinerie’ companies. Today it is seen as a ‘luxury fashion’ brand more in competition with Dolce & Gabanna than with Hermès. Do Hermès ever speak of their fashion designers? They speak of their craftsmen. Gucci was wrong to chase Louis Vuitton. I love that they now have a quality-orientated designer, Sabato de Sarno, who is capable of taking the house up into Haute Couture or at least re-establishing their more profitable leather craftsmanship portfolio.”

As Kering and Gucci try to solve the conundrum of success, I am, personally, rooting for this version of the legendary brand.