Should Gucci depend less on its designers?

MILAN — On Friday, Gucci opened Milan Fashion Week with its first standalone menswear show in 3 years, announced as part of a plan to reboot the brand’s rapid growth. However, the show was also Gucci’s first outing since the departure of designer Alessandro Michele in November, and ended up being a low-key, transitional affair.

Signed by Gucci’s studio team, the collection still bore traces of Michele: his unusual, gender-fluid touch lived on in androgynous combinations, such as dance rehearsal leggings paired with ankle boots. But most of the clothes were stripped of the maximalist embellishments that defined the designer’s mandate, replaced by the slouchy, oversized fit that — albeit elegant — any Italian brand could show off, as well as a dash of patent leather pants that fell to the hips that suggested Tom Ford.

“The time of the collection represents a moment of reflection, reaction and reorganization,” prompting the house to “explore the idea of ​​improvisation as an aesthetic,” Gucci said in a statement.

“A collection designed for the masses … lacked overall coherence,” with some parts of the show seeming “probably deliberately banal,” wrote Vogue Runway critic Luke Leitch after leaving the showroom, which was decorated only with a purple carpet. climbs and a round platform for the indie rock band Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog.

Of course, fashion groups have a long history of cutting runway budgets between designer mandates, conserving their financial power for the brand’s next chapter. “We can’t blame them for being in transition,” said Citi analyst Thomas Chauvet. “It makes sense that they don’t want to push a studio collection of a designer who’s no longer there, but push the next people.”

Still, there’s more than one way to manage the transition, and Gucci’s strategy contrasts sharply with that of rival Louis Vuitton. Since the death of menswear designer Virgil Abloh in November 2021, flagship LVMH has invested in bigger and more memorable menswear outings than ever, honoring its late designer with expansive collections full of couture-level craftsmanship, elaborate sets and performances by music stars like conductor Gustave Dudamel and rapper Kendrick Lamar. For their next edition of the studio’s signature menswear, which will be shown in Paris next week, they’ve tapped guest designer KidSuper, as well as their top stylist and set designer.

Vuitton has also continued the buzz with major marketing activations that don’t depend on any one designer, such as the latest chapter of its collaboration with artist Yayoi Kusama. Keeping marketing costs down helped Vuitton reach record sales of more than 20 billion euros last year, according to analyst estimates.

Of course, Gucci is a different brand, with a different history and set of circumstances. Last year, Gucci’s growth lagged behind key competitors for the third consecutive year despite the brand spending around 700 million euros on marketing. While Abloh’s products have been more popular than ever since his death, consumer excitement for Michele’s aesthetic has cooled in recent seasons. But there are also deeper differences.

Unlike rivals such as Vuitton and Hermès, whose business is largely driven by accessories that carry over from season to season, Gucci maintains a high exposure to ready-to-wear and footwear, generating roughly half of its revenue from seasonal products. Gucci’s creative directors have historically had a high level of control not only over the products, but also over the brand’s marketing message and retail concepts.

“Gucci’s DNA is established in the minds of consumers as a brand that makes strong fashion statements,” said Chauvet. When it works, the fad approach can fuel explosive growth. But over-reliance on any one designer’s vision risks instability, especially for a company of Gucci’s scale.

Gucci owner Kering has told investors that he plans to further develop a more timeless, iconic dimension to the brand that will sit alongside his seasonal fashion output. At its current size, Gucci’s reach extends far beyond die-hard fashion fans. Rising demand for classic items like Chanel flap bags and Hermès Birkins since the pandemic suggests there are many clients who value consistency as much as novelty. A more stable strategy that is less dependent on the designer could insulate Gucci from another boom-and-bust cycle.

However, the realization of this ambition will not happen overnight, and the brand is currently urgently looking for a new designer. Eager investors are hoping Gucci will announce its new creative director before Kering presents its annual results in February. But the enduring popularity of Michele’s aesthetic among many Gucci devotees makes him difficult to follow, and even if the group can quickly identify its new creative lead, it will likely be months before its new products hit stores.

Meanwhile, Gucci appears to be dimming the lights ahead of what it hopes will be its next creative “big bang.” But management should be careful not to turn them away too much.

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