MILAN — Fashion cycles seem to last around five years, contends Marco Bizzarri, but he is more than ready to challenge this assumption.
In a candid and wide-ranging interview, Bizzarri, who was appointed Gucci president and chief executive officer in December 2014, admitted that in March last year, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused Italy to enter a full lockdown, both he and creative director Alessandro Michele wondered about the future.
“I asked myself, what do I want to do, stay on and roll the dice or do something else? Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole’s cycle lasted about six years, from 1995 peaking until 2000 and slowing down until 2003; I worked with Stella McCartney and at Bottega Veneta for five years each,” Bizzarri reminisced.
Bizzarri is not only staying on, but with Michele, he is helping Gucci recover from the impact of the pandemic — revenues climbed 24.6 percent on a comparable basis in the first quarter — as he maps out the next five years, and many more. His energy and excitement about future steps at the brand are palpable, as he shares his comments in his typical rapid-fire way.
“Both Alessandro and I are in love with the Gucci brand. Alessandro is Gucci, he could be called Alessandro Gucci, he’s worked for the brand [since 2002 when he joined the design studio] and in this centenary year for the label, we could say it’s the Year Zero and we are paving a new path,” mused Bizzarri, who in February firmly shut down rumors that he was headed to Ferrari as CEO.
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Addressing the most recent collection by Michele — Aria, which was presented virtually last month — Bizzarri said the designer “rethought the codes of the brand, elevating them, seeing nature as an actor of change, ideally showing what we can expect from the future, when we can hope to return to what we did [before the pandemic]. Aria is a powerful allegory for the times we are living in. For me, this show and this collection have achieved the same global resonance and recognition as his pivotal New York cruise show in 2015, when I fully realized that Alessandro would have changed the rules of fashion.”
Alessandro Michele KEVIN TACHMAN
For these reasons, Bizzarri is confident in the future of the brand. While admitting “nobody has a crystal ball,” Bizzarri envisions people will want to express their individuality going forward “in a powerful, sexy way,” aiming to “dress well.” He praised Michele for interpreting this mood “very well. When there is a crisis consumers tend to buy more conservatively, but in a growth mode, they will seek fashion and Gucci is more about fashion — and generally a crisis lasts less than a growth period.”
What remains key, he believes, is for Gucci to “continue to be [Gucci] and not change to play a game that is not ours. We must maintain this creativity and freshness, this desire to innovate, typical of Gucci. This is embodied by Alessandro, who is not afraid to take risks.”
Bizzarri said he and Michele are in “even greater sync” than in 2015, when the executive that January promoted the designer to the top creative spot, with the goal to make Gucci more directional and the brand’s shows must-sees, building a culture of “empathy, joy and not fear” for the company.
“Back then, I didn’t know what that meant creatively, but Alessandro has perfectly turned those objectives into reality. We have grown to know and respect one another even more now and we share the same goals,” he said, expressing his pride in such a successful collaboration in a fashion industry that sees “constant changes” in the leading positions of companies.
Bizzarri can back his confidence with Gucci’s first-quarter sales, which confirm the brand’s momentum and its return to pre-pandemic growth trends. Gucci posted revenues of 2.16 million euros in the first three months ended March 31, up 20.2 percent as reported and 24.6 percent on a comparable basis. Thanks also to multiple local clienteling initiatives and successful collaborations — for example, with The North Face, Ken Scott and Doraemon — the company saw a 33.6 percent increase in comparable sales through its directly operated stores. In particular, sales in Asia-Pacific climbed 78 percent and rose 51 percent in North America. Europe was hurt by the lack of tourists, but Gucci is recovering a sense of loyalty with local customers with specific clienteling experiences, Bizzarri said.
In the quarter, wholesale revenues were down 26.1 percent on a comparable basis, but this was in line with Gucci’s strategy of gradually streamlining its distribution since March 2020 to better control brand equity and enhance its exclusivity, underscored Bizzarri. “This was a short-term impact and our choice, which will be offset by other openings.”
The process will be completed by the end of the year, but Gucci parent Kering does not disclose how many wholesale accounts will finally be closed. “We changed our relations with e-tailers turning them into concessions, the same with travel retail, we reduced the number of outlets, exited Neiman Marcus, reduced doors at Saks, Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom,” clarified Bizzarri.
At the same time, Gucci has opened on Tmall, which is also a concession.
The company has more than 483 directly operated stores and is planning new boutiques and renovations, after recently opening units in Canada, in Edmonton, and in Florida at the Bal Harbour Shops.
In 2020, Gucci saw its annual comparable growth rate fall 21.5 percent, hurt by the widespread store closures and a sharp drop in tourism due to the pandemic, as well as the above mentioned cutback of its wholesale network. But Bizzarri underscored that the company was also severely penalized by the closure of production activities in Italy, which lasted longer than in France, for example. This caused Gucci to move its cruise presentation from May to July and the deliveries from September to November.
“We lost two months of sales,” he noted. “But everything restarted in the first quarter and we saw a return to normality in the second part of the first quarter, culminating with Aria, which represents a new beginning.”
Gucci, fall 2021 Giovanni Giannoni/WWD
Bizzarri shed some light on the distribution of the tie-up with Balenciaga, which will be sold only in Gucci stores and the brand’s Pins, or pop-ups, starting in November. “Alessandro wanted to emphasize what is defined as appropriation, which makes sense in fashion. It was extraordinary to do it with a brand such as Balenciaga,” the CEO said.
Narrowing down the fashion shows to two a year, the importance of such events is not lost on either the executive or Michele. As reported, the designer’s next collection will be presented in Los Angeles on Nov. 3, coinciding with the 10th LACMA Art+Film Gala, taking place on Nov. 6, for which Gucci is the founding and presenting sponsor. “We see this as a sign of a restart. In May 2020, we were planning to hold our cruise show in San Francisco, but the spread of the pandemic didn’t allow it.”
Bizzarri did not wave away the lessons learned in the year of the pandemic. “We did not push events or our commercial communication, but focused on our people internally and externally, cementing our values and our culture — it’s easy to talk of values and people when everything goes well, but it’s something else entirely when problems and outside conditions influence you. I’m pleased with what we did. Compared to our competitors, we were understated, but we put people at the center. We walked the talk. Culture eats strategies for breakfast, as [Austrian management consultant and author Peter Drucker] said. We continue to believe in this and we think this is how our strategy can be successful.”
For Bizzarri, the company culture means “empathy, respect, inclusivity, diversity,” launching initiatives such as the Changemakers fund, fellowship programs, allowing employees to take days to work with nongovernmental organizations, and investments in sustainability, among others.
“We now have 11 students in the design studio with Alessandro working for one year; they were chosen before the pandemic and we supported them financially throughout — before they were able to start,” observed Bizzarri. “Around the world, we covered all salaries, including commissions, also when stores were closed. In my trip to the U.S. in March, I met with a single father working in our store in Palm Beach and he thanked us, saying that he could never have supported his daughter without our [pay check]. In moments such as these, you understand the impact of the choices you make, the granularity of such choices. Employees are not a number, or a cost, and whatever they decide to do in their life, you create loyalty to the brand forever; it’s enormous, even if they leave, they will remain loyal. Our first customer is the salesperson in the store, if they understand what the company is doing, they will transmit it to the customer. That human touch is key.”
In sync with this culture of purpose, in April Gucci offered its social media accounts to the World Health Organization to help in amplifying official public service information to protect the health, safety and well-being of the community.
Bizzarri admitted “staying home was difficult” during the peak of the pandemic, when he felt “like a caged lion.” He recalled how he traveled and met 3,000 people to communicate the new Gucci strategy when he first joined the company. “Surely virtual [assets] will always remain important, you cannot go back in time, but the interpersonal exchange is something else entirely.”
As the consumer has evolved and changed compared to the past, so has the role of a CEO, and asked how he felt about taking a stance on political issues, for example, he admitted “you cannot be extraneous to what happens in the world, but we say what we think not for the sake of it, but to reflect the values we believe in.” For example, in 2018 Gucci spoke up on gun control, donating $500,000 to the gun-control March for Our Lives, following the massacre in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people in February that year.
“This was not isolated. One of our employees was killed in the attack, another was hurt during a mass shooting in Orlando — actually he still works with us. You have to have a point of view, but you cannot satisfy everyone, the world is flooded by constant communication.” At the same time, Bizzarri believes consumers take in information in a much faster way, and that this scenario allows companies to take risks more easily and faster, as “superficial mistakes” are quickly forgotten.
The company continues to evolve, as Michele develops several categories, especially in the high-end segment, reinforcing its leather goods as timeless statement pieces through the Beloved campaign, emphasizing the Dionysus, Marmont, Horsebit 1955, Jackie 1961 and the Diana bags, fronted by the likes of Harry Styles, Serena Williams, Awkwafina and Dakota Johnson, among others. The designer has also been developing the high jewelry collection, shown in Aria, and last month he introduced high watches.
A digital-first strategy, which accelerated during the pandemic, has also helped balance the closure of stores and create a bond with Gucci’s customers. Bizzarri noted that Gucci was the first luxury brand to launch e-commerce, in 2002. Gucci.com last year counted 270 million unique visitors to the site, fully adapted locally in 34 countries and operating in 14 languages.
Gucci has been engaging its community across its owned digital platforms (including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, Pinterest, Twitter, WeChat, Weibo, Red, TikTok, Doujin, Line, and Kakao) that in the first quarter of the year reached over 87 million followers worldwide. As reported, the label ranked first in BrandZ’s valuation presented last week and, for the last three quarters in a row, nabbed the first spot on the Lyst Index’s hottest brand ranking and by Google 2020 Brand Search Queries.
Coincidentally, as Gucci turns 100, the brand is also garnering an extra dose of attention through the filming of Ridley Scott’s “House of Gucci” movie, starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver as Patrizia Reggiani and Maurizio Gucci, respectively. Although the company is not actively involved in the filming, it has offered access to its archives to the production. “We are happy as spectators to see the movie, it’s great that in our centenary there’s this possibility,” said Bizzarri.
At the end of June, coinciding with Pitti Uomo, Gucci will officially inaugurate the newly restored brand archives in the Palazzo di Via della Caldaie in Florence — the original brand headquarters — which will be available by appointment, although Bizzarri has been talking with the mayor of the city to possibly hold events there.
“It’s an incredible archive, personally curated by Alessandro,” said Bizzarri enthusiastically. “Frescoes have been recovered, there’s a beautiful natural light, and the site proves the importance of legacy, of the past reinterpreted through the present — at times you can’t tell that the pieces are from so long ago, and you realize why Gucci is 100 and is still so relevant today.”
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