How Gucci’s makeover man Marco Bizzarri resurrected the brand

by Marion Hume

Who do fashion people look up to right now? Anyone who tracks the luxury business would give the same answer: Marco Bizzarri. And that’s not just because he stands two metres tall. Bizzarri is the mastermind of an extraordinarily rapid change of direction for the mega-brand Gucci1, which accounts for half the annual luxury revenues of the Kering conglomerate2. That said, the Gucci chief executive is the first to concede that when it comes to leadership, height helps. “At least in the beginning,” he says. “People listen to you because physically, you’re overwhelming.” A reputation for being swift and decisive doesn’t hurt either. “I’m very, very impatient. I like people to take decisions. I don’t like people to think too long.”

The 53-year-old, who hails from a small Italian town near Reggio Emilia (home of parmesan cheese), plays soccer and runs for an hour four times a week.

He also earned a black belt in karate when younger. Not someone to mess with. No wonder then, that when Kering chairman Fran ois-Henri Pinault needed to get Gucci back on track, Bizzarri was the man he called. That was in December 2014, with Bizzarri taking up the role on January 1, 2015. The brand had suffered more than a year of next-to-nothing growth, then in the third quarter of 2014, sales fell. To use the American parlance, the brand worth ‘ 3.5 billion ($5 billion) at that moment in time was simply too big to fail. Some 10,000 people are directly employed by Gucci, which provides work for a further 45,000 artisans across Italy, small family firms that have been working with the brand for generations.

There are more than 500 Gucci stores across the globe, corporate offices in Milan and Florence, and a creative hub in Rome. When Bizzarri took Pinault’s call, something intolerable was occurring beyond the flattening of sales. Gucci was leaching heat. To key arbiters of taste, the dip in temperature was all the more noticeable because they remembered when Gucci was scorching hot, back in the era when Tom Ford was synonymous with it. But in fashion years that was eons ago; Ford left the brand in 2004.

Fast track to November 2015, 11 months after Bizzarri took command. He’s seated at a key table inside the London Coliseum for the British Fashion Awards, the closest thing this industry has to the Oscars. Sandwiched between Bizzarri and Pinault’s Hollywood bombshell wife, Salma Hayek, is a bearded 43-year-old Roman designer with long dark locks. Alessandro Michele was unknown to this crowd3 until Bizzarri, in his first decisive move, tapped him for the top creative role. He no longer enjoys such anonymity. When Michele is announced winner of the night’s big gong, the International Designer Award, those who swing by the table to add their congratulations include Naomi Campbell, Orlando Bloom, Karlie Kloss and both Beckhams.

The awards don’t have a comparable honour for business. But if they did, everyone in the room could have pointed to the man most likely. The tall one.

A brief history of GG

Mega-brands are juggernauts and it takes muscle and guts to turn them around. Bizzarri adds speed to that, so let’s match his pace by sprinting through some scene-setting so we can get to what happens next. In 1921, hotel porter Guccio Gucci opens a leather goods shop in Florence. His son Aldo invents the GG logo. By the 1960s and ’70s, Gucci loafers with a snaffle horsebit fastening are de rigueur among the jet set. But by the 1980s, the glitter has started to fade. In 1993, the brand suffers $US22 million in losses.

The family has lost control while Gucci’s grandson Maurizio is at the helm. Maurizio loses his life in a hit ordered by his estranged wife. The name is notorious, the brand, it seems, irrevocably tarnished. In 1990, an unknown American designer called Tom Ford is hired. In 1994, he’s promoted to creative director; a year later, when the company goes public, its shares are 16 times oversubscribed. For a decade, Ford’s sexed-up template electrifies Gucci. Then Ford and Domenico De Sole, the business architect of this success, part ways with the brand that made them fashion superstars.

Let’s call 2004 “acrimonious” and move on. Alessandra Facchinetti steps into the creative role, leaves swiftly. In 2006 comes Frida Giannini. She starts well, focusing attention on the heritage of the brand but fatal this she makes Gucci gaudy, is seen to cheapen core values. Her departure in 2014 coincides with that of chief executive Patrizio di Marco, also her partner in life. The pair marry post-Gucci. The bride wears Valentino.

Beyond being its mega-brand, Gucci is Kering’s foundation stone. During the Ford/De Sole tenure Gucci grows from a single brand to become a group, the Gucci Group, including labels such as Bottega Veneta, Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga. Enter father and son Fran ois and Fran ois-Henri Pinault, timber barons from Brittany who’d already acquired Yves Saint Laurent. (How? It’s complicated.) The Gucci Group brings glamour to their holding company PPR, which in 2013, helmed by the younger, is renamed Kering.

Now let’s get in step with Bizzarri. We’ll start in 2005 when, after serving time in middle-market French and Italian companies, he joins PPR as president and CEO of Stella McCartney. This he transforms from a niche label led by a famous man’s daughter with high principles into a global lifestyle brand. In 2009 he moves to Bottega Veneta, sees from the beauty of its hand-plaited leather that it can be positioned as ultra-exclusive, and pushes it upmarket. Bottega Veneta revenues grow from ‘ 400 million in 2008 to ‘ 1.131 billion in 2014, a year in which Bizzarri is appointed CEO of Luxury for Kering, overseeing leather goods for a whole raft of brands. For any CEO in this business, the chance to run the brand that dominates is alluring.

It can be a poison chalice though. There’s no science to fashion; success relies on triggering that most mercurial of emotions, desire. You need both business strategy and creative vision. Securing the latter was Bizzarri’s challenge in the early days of 2015 and a particularly tough one. The luxury sector has grown exponentially and, put simply, there are not enough first-division creatives to go around. Think of international soccer’s transfer season, with all its nail-biting desperation, and apply it to the fashion world.

In the wake of a decade which saw the suicide of Alexander McQueen, the meltdown of John Galliano at Dior and the circle of addiction that once plagued now-former Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs, has come ever greater demand from shareholders for returns, and from customers for the new, plus unprecedented 24/7 scrutiny from citizen media. In a bid for self-preservation, those with talent are mindful of how they measure it out. Last year Raf Simons apparently chose love over a multimillion-dollar contract at Dior, walking away from one of the top jobs. It is into this climate that, in January 2015, Bizzarri ignored the headhunter’s shortlist of contenders for the role of Gucci creative director and decided to follow the time-honoured tactic of turning a chorus girl into a star.

Genderless fashion

Bizzarri and Michele were only meant to have a five-minute phone call. “I asked my HR director to give me the list of the people on my direct report,” Bizzarri recalls. “We had a bit of a situation of fear.” The 2015 menswear show, held at the end of January, was fast approaching. Rumours were flying that it would be cancelled. Bizzarri worked his way through his list of key staff, telling them not to worry, that there wasn’t about to be wholesale change, that the company would continue looking for a new creative director. Michele was one of those direct reports. He’d been with Gucci since 2002, working as an accessories designer during Ford’s tenure before being promoted by Giannini to associate creative director leather goods, in charge of a category that accounts for about 57 per cent of Gucci’s annual revenue.

When Bizzarri called, something sparked. The pair met for a coffee. It lasted four hours. “I told him, ‘I want to change Gucci. I want it to become the fashion leader. I want to have a show in Milan that is again the fashion show’,” Bizzarri says. “I said I wanted to find someone that was able to bring back the logo in a nice and modern way, because everybody was ashamed of our logo in the previous era.”

The pair started sharing ideas. Michele had been thinking about resigning so had nothing to lose.

“‘Do you feel comfortable doing a show in five days?'” Bizzarri asked him as January drew to a close. “I really want to have someone very brave. I don’t want someone trying to protect himself. He says, ‘Yes, let’s do it.’ ‘OK, do it,’ I say.”

What Bizzarri and Michele share is a belief that fashion is genderless. In Gucci’s new world order boys can be girls, girls can be boys, and whoever hooks up with whoever is their business.

This mash-up of sexual identity, coupled with a taste for the fugly a term now used as a compliment could not be more different from Gucci’s hyper-sexualised past, which reached its apotheosis in Ford’s era with a notorious image of a guy shaving the GG logo into a woman’s pubic hair. For today’s Gucci, think Jimi Hendrix meets Granny Takes a Trip. Pussy bows, chinoiserie, disco lurex, librarian spectacles. Satin pyjamas, flora and fauna appliqu s. While Gucci stages five full-scale shows a year, two ostensibly menswear, two womenswear and a single mid-year cruise show, male and female models appear in all of them.

From glamour to geeksville

Dissolving the boundaries between the genders is not the only change. Gone, too, are Gucci shows staged amidst marble and mirrors in the glittering palazzo the company owns in the centre of Milan. The show venue these days is a disused railway station on the city limits. As for the front row, there’s Italian actor Alessandro Borghi, K Pop heart-throb Jung Yong-hwa, American singer-songwriter B RNS No, I haven’t a clue either, except to know that this crowd would find George Clooney ancient. The exception, of course, is Madonna, never one to miss a reinvention. She wore new Gucci in her recent worldwide Rebel Heart tour. The online reaction to Michele’s first show was extraordinary.

It was as if the Roman who would not look out of place in Jesus Christ Superstar had turned water into wine. The transformation of Gucci from lascivious glamour to teenage normcore geeksville was seen as something of a miracle. The response of those sitting at the show itself, however, was muted these days, a sign of great success.

“It’s all about social now,” Bizzarri says. “I mean, look at our children. They don’t care about talking directly. They sit next to each other, they send a text. It’s a different way of praising. Me, I don’t really care about applause.

You see the product, you see the collection, then the way they show appreciation is through their phone.”

That Gucci has hit a mark creatively is evidenced by the mass-market imitations all over the place. Blame Michele that youngsters now dress like your Auntie Beryl did in 1976. “For so many seasons Gucci was not copied. We are copied now, which is great,” says Bizzarri, who adds, predictably, that there is a limit to flattery.

Gucci overtakes forecasts

For all the hype, the measure is the numbers. The only way has to be up, Bizzarri states bullishly in our interview, held in his Milan office immediately after the January 2016 menswear show.

“We are a ‘ 4 billion brand. Of course, we need to at least maintain that ‘ 4 billion. Going back to ‘ 2 billion to be exclusive is not my objective. I want to be the most exclusive possible and grow.” Gucci was worth ‘ 3.5 billion when Bizzarri took the helm, but we’ll let him spin it.

Let’s fast-forward to February 19, when Kering reported its fourth quarter and full-year 2015 results. Among the business headlines: “Gucci leads Kering’s stable of labels to overtake forecasts”, and “Kering lifted by euro and Gucci sales”. Gucci played a key role in helping the French luxury and sports clothing group to annual total sales of ‘ 11.6 billion, with a 31 per cent leap in annual consolidated net income to ‘ 721 million. Gucci’s fourth-quarter revenue reached ‘ 1.1 billion, 4.8 per cent higher than the same quarter of 2014. Analysts had predicted an increase of just 1.5 per cent. On a reported basis, Gucci’s fourth-quarter sales rose 13.4 per cent; taking its value up to ‘ 3.9 billion.

Bizzarri’s management, including his bold choice of the unknown Michele, looks to have been officially vindicated. Yet these remain tough times for the luxury sector. Adding new markets is over. China’s insatiable appetite has been blunted. European sales slumped after the November 2015 attacks on Paris, and the ongoing plunge in hotel occupancy, which directly affects shopping, is not encouraging. Low oil prices are denting desire in Russia and the Middle East.

The best defence a brand has against this is to whip up desire with a cult item that cuts through the gloom; a must-have. Every designer dreams of creating the piece that pops, the item everyone feels they must own. In the case of Michele, his success is unusual in that it lies in the ultimate fugly shoe: a leather horsebit slipper lined in kangaroo, available in men’s and women’s sizes for $885 and $1095 respectively4. “It became an immediate success. In fact, we didn’t expect such a success. We thought it would just be for super-fashion people,” Bizzarri says of the most unexpected best-seller, launched last July. “In reality, we needed to produce four times more because everybody wants it and now it’s like you can’t believe: a fashion phenomenon.”

Not everyone is enamoured. A menswear commentator on fashion’s front line sniffs that they’ve become “rather too common in our circles”, while a registered ‘roo shooter from central NSW is blunter when I send him an image. “You must be f—ing kidding me! Must be a gee-up. Not even a kangaroo would wear them.” Suffice to say those at the fur supply front line are puzzled. “They remind me of a mullet business up front, party at the back,” is another reaction from one close to the black stump.

‘Mid-life crisis’ in Sydney

Bizzarri is familiar with Australia. He spent his, “you know, mid-life crisis at 40 years old” in Sydney, working as a general manager for a luxury watch importer. “The location was amazing, quality of life great. But coming from fashion, I felt a little bit cut out from what was happening,” he says. He returned to Europe 12 years ago, after less than a year here. His other connection to Australia is that his son studied in Perth. His working life is balanced. “Twenty-four hours a day for seven days a week, I never believed in that,” he says. “The fact that I play sports and I have friends and I go out, it’s important for me, to give energy to what I do.

If you work 20 hours, the day after you’re killed.” He insists staffers take all Discount Holidays © holiday allowances. Last October, Bizzarri was presented in New York with a UN award for Humanitarian of the Year, praised for his dedication to gender equality and women’s empowerment. He squirms slightly at the memory because the award came in recognition of Chime for Change, a 10-year partnership with UNICEF, which was founded in Gucci’s previous era but is ongoing. Bizzarri readily admits he got the gong by chance.

“They gave me the award, but I was not the one really deserving. I was there. I am the CEO, which is fine.”

The Kering Group is big on sustainability, but Bizzarri does not want to talk about that. “We cannot communicate about everything at the same time,” he says, adding that this “does not mean that we are not doing it”.

Still, there are gaps. If Bizzarri can use his power, speed and decisiveness to forge the world’s first truly ethical mega-brand, Gucci really would have a water-into-wine miracle. We’d need to give him more than five days though.

Coat hangers tell the story

What Bizzarri does want to talk about is the new store design, best shown, he says, at the Via Montenapoleone Milan flagship. To ensure I visit before I catch my plane, he loans me his Porsche. I can confirm that the look of the store is tactile as opposed to forbidding, comfortable as opposed to stark, with exotic carpets rolled over concrete floors and armchairs upholstered in ruby red velvet. In keeping with Michele’s bower bird aesthetic, the biggest change is the coat hangers.

They hang haphazardly and don’t match, a detail which would have had past perfectionists at Gucci, especially Ford, in meltdown. Of course, it’s deliberate.

“I don’t think the industry should be driven any more by fashion gods,” Bizzarri muses. “They look so far away, they cannot be touched. We need to be more normal, all of us.” Ah yes, normal; never an ambition in Gucci’s razzle-dazzle days of yore. Today, it’s the touch of imperfection that makes perfection-focused brands more reachable, human … more Gen Z. Bizzarri seems to be heading in the right direction in making Gucci synonymous with the ethos of upcoming generations. Given that, and his emphasis on work-life balance, let’s picture him at home.

It’s after work, he’s relaxing with his feet up. Does he have his ‘roo slippers on? Somehow, I doubt it.

The AFR Magazine‘s Fashion issue is out Friday, April 1.

Follow AFR Mag on Twitter and Instagram56

References

  1. ^ Gucci (www.gucci.com)
  2. ^ Kering conglomerate (www.kering.com)
  3. ^ Alessandro Michele was unknown to this crowd (www.afr.com)
  4. ^ the ultimate fugly shoe: a leather horsebit slipper lined in kangaroo, available in men’s and women’s sizes for $885 and $1095 respectively (www.gucci.com)
  5. ^ Twitter (https)
  6. ^ Instagram (instagram.com)

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