Gucci: Reinvented - critics love it but will the consumers?
What's happening at the Italian brand is unprecedented. The critics love it, but will the customers? Our reporter reports from Milan
Last week, away from the catwalks, on Milan's chic Via Montenapoleone, where the real shopping happens, a lesson in how rapidly consumer desire can now flick on and off was vividly demonstrated in a store not usually troubled by visits from the world's key taste-makers.
Gucci was mobbed. Not by the hordes of undiscriminating tourists who have been keeping it afloat in recent years by buying the obvious "entry-price" monogrammed trophies, but by fashion leaders whose spending power, while welcome, is far outflanked by their influence.
In one changing room: the editor of British Vogue. At the marble counter where Gucci's 1940s classic and Grace Kelly favourite, the Bamboo bag, was on offer in a dozen colours and various prints (priced from ¤2,198).
Charlotte Stockdale, a leading stylist and consultant for, inter alia, Fendi, who contemplated buying two. Observing the activity with dispassionate interest was the editor of French Vogue, Emanuelle Alt, whose customary Parisian black uniform of skinny jeans and blazer does not prevent her from recognising a major shift in taste when she sees one.
Those who have already succumbed to the new Gucci aesthetic (perhaps best characterised as a highly refined, pile-it-on maximalism, infused with 1970s references) have been displaying their trophies throughout fashion month. The unisex, kangaroo-fur-lined, backless Gucci mules have become a social media staple (pictured right). The pussy-bow blouses (and copies) are favourites on female - and the occasional male - editors. The new Gucci Dionysus bag - in floral-printed, monogrammed canvas, suede or leather - dangles on its gilt chain from many a shoulder in the front row; while the ultra-feminine, floral pleated dresses, a nod to the brand's archival flower prints, are competing with Valentino's severely plain column dresses for the title of most aspirational evening look. (In a flourish of status-ranking, Glenda Bailey, editor-in-chief of US Harper's Bazaar, has a beautiful plain version, in forget-me-not-blue-pleated chiffon, that was custom-made for her.)
This may seem insular industry semaphoring, but what the front row wears today, fashion consumers wear tomorrow. Thanks to Zara and Mango, the two chains which have been assiduously noting every major trend coming out of Gucci since the first show under its new creative director Alessandro Michele last February, some are already wearing it. The fashion world is accustomed to the ebb and flow of taste. But no one can remember as phenomenal and fast a turn-around as Gucci's.
"It's unprecedented," Sarah Rutson, president of global buying at Net-A-Porter.com, told me excitedly last week. "In six months it has become our second biggest-selling brand after Saint Laurent."
To put this into context, Net-A-Porter stocks over 390 fashion brands. "The bags and shoes especially are on fire," continued Rutson, "and it's only the beginning. We anticipate a growing interest in the seasons ahead."
It's a similar story at Matchesfashion.com and Mytheresa.com, both websites with plenty of high-spending, fashion-forward customers.
That the man responsible for this volteface was unknown to anyone outside Gucci seven months ago only makes the transformation in the label's prestige all the more fascinating. When Kering, the luxury conglomerate that owns Gucci, abruptly parted company with Frida Giannini and her partner Patrizio di Marco, then Gucci's chief executive, in January, following a period of disappointing sales figures (they fell by almost 2pc in the last quarter of 2014), the name most widely tipped to succeed Giannini as creative director was the Italian designer Riccardo Tisci, who had made a creative splash at Givenchy in Paris and, crucially, overseen various commercial hits such as Bambi-printed T-shirts and nylon clutches.
Kering's chief executive, Francois-Henri Pinault, however, sanctioned a far more disruptive plan. Michele, a softly spoken 42-year-old with flowing Renaissance locks, had been working in the background at Gucci since the Tom Ford era, having joined the company in 2002. He knows Gucci's archives inside out, and experienced its glory years when the louche decadence promulgated by Ford not only generated billions, but became a cultural touchstone.
Michele also witnessed its gradual descent, after Ford's departure in 2004, into a cash cow that thrived commercially but was becoming increasingly irrelevant as a fashion voice. He understood Ford's marketing genius and strong mono-view but, crucially, had his own taste - one diametrically different from Ford's confrontational sexiness. And as Michele told me last week: "It's 20 years since Tom worked his magic at Gucci. The world is completely different. What women want is completely different."
An avid collector of antiques and textiles, Michele's response to the crude reductivism of Kardashian culture has been a flight in the opposite direction towards what Natalie Kingham, buying director at Matchesfashion.com, calls "an idealised interpretation of aristocratic 1970s glamour".
Remarkably, he had just four weeks to put together that first womenswear collection which garnered such positive reviews in February. Much of its impact derived from the clever styling, the casting of androgynous-looking male and female models - and the appropriation of Margot Tenenbaum as its central muse. Tenenbaum, a fictional character from Wes Anderson's 2001 cult film The Royal Tenenbaums, hit a nerve with the fashion crowd because of her downbeat, introverted glamour - a contrast with the incessant stream of self-publicising exhibitionists on social media.
If that first show essentially produced two stand-out pieces (the furry loafer-mules and the Dionysus bag), as well as making Deirdre Barlow specs seem almost desirable, the collection Michele unveiled in Milan last week was rammed with intensely crafted show stoppers.
"This is back to what Gucci did at the start," Michele explained backstage, as he showed me luxurious skins, lavish embroideries, intriguing textures and eye-catching accessories, including patterned loafers with "trodden-down" backs and pearl-studded heels. The effect is lushly expensive-looking, yet off-beat, conceived to be worn with a throw-away insouciance.
"It's clever because on the catwalk it presents a total look which appeals to the fashion editor and one type of customer," says Kingham, "but Alessandro is very savvy about what women want, so it's easy to break his collections down and wear them in a simpler way.
"He's actually made Gucci more relevant for a far wider audience than before. He's massively creative, but also commercial. 24 hours after the show, we had waiting lists for the lightning-flash bags, the triple-platform shoes and pearl loafers."
Talented as Michele undoubtedly is, he's also fortunate in his chief executive. Marco Bizzarri previously worked at Bottega Veneta (also in Kering's portfolio) where he doubled turnover while preserving its reputation as a "niche" label. It was Bizzarri who appointed Michele. He recognises that the spark which sets certain brands alight can't be reduced to numbers. "It's about creating emotion," he recently told American Vogue. "It's not necessarily rational."
Bizzarri is overseeing a comprehensive makeover of Gucci's stores - no easy undertaking, given it has around 425 stand-alone shops. The first of the new-look stores - that floral and toile de Jouy decorated flagship on Via Montenapoleone - couldn't be more different from the dark, shiny, expensive-nightclub ambience of the other 424. They, too, will be brought in line. Gucci, for all the lukewarm reviews of the past few years, remains one of the biggest names in fashion, with sales of around ¤3.5 billion a year. Its fate is a kind of parable for all luxury labels. Until now, that fate was contentious. Sales for the first quarter of 2015 dropped by 7.9pc.
One executive at a major Italian house told me last week that Gucci was changing far too radically and quickly. Another, at an equally large brand, believes fashion labels have to act fast nowadays to surf a wave of positivity. Thanks to the instant fashion news culture, currents are much more volatile than ever before. Miss the wave and you could find your hot commodity all washed up. (© The Daily Telegraph)