Friday, March 31, 2006

Will Success at Gucci Be Sexy or Safe?


Milan - ON a drizzly February morning toward the end of the Italian fall shows, as editors from New York, Shanghai and Moscow were watching models snake down the catwalks, Francesca Tronchetti Provera, a mother of three, was shopping for pants at the Gucci flagship on Via Montenapoleone in Milan.

Given Italy's sizable interest in fashion, it's not hard to find people who know that Tom Ford no longer designs Gucci, but it's surprising to hear someone sound almost relieved that the style of his successor, Frida Giannini, doesn't immediately suggest an orgy or, as Mr. Ford once put it, an impulse to "pour hot wax over your lover and straddle him."

"It's more feminine and easier to wear," said Ms. Tronchetti Provera, 33, of Ms. Giannini's pretty tea dresses and horse-bit print silk blouses. "I like that she's going back to the way Gucci used to be. It's very Italian, it's joyful."

But is it sexy? Ms. Tronchetti Provera smiled. "It's sexy enough," she said.

Of course it would take a person of moderate taste not to see that "sexy enough" is probably the worst thing you could say about a brand that stands for maximal excitement. Whatever one may think of Mr. Ford's design abilities, this is the hook that convinced consumers in the mid-1990's they were getting something new and not their grandfather's loafers. Gucci's revenues shot up to $1.8 billion in 2001 from $500 million in 1995. Now Robert Polet, the new president and chief executive of Gucci Group, wants to see revenues top $3 billion by 2011. But can that happen if Gucci is just "sexy enough?"

For the moment no one at Gucci — or at PPR, the French retail conglomerate that owns Gucci — has to worry about that question. In 2005 Gucci's revenues hit a record 1.8 billion euros ($2.2 billion), driven in part by sales of Ms. Giannini's popular Flora bags (a style that Mr. Ford once rejected), and in the last year PPR's share price has risen to 99 euros from 74 euros, largely due to the performance of Gucci Group.

Beyond what the numbers say, however, there is a question whether Gucci still has the surprise and sense of vision it had under Mr. Ford, who left two years ago, a doubt that The Times of London raised recently when it asked in a headline, "Is Frida the one to save Gucci?" What makes people think that Gucci, which is enormously profitable, needs saving?

Fashion editors started complaining privately last fall that Gucci collections had lost their spark. The word they used to describe their dissatisfaction was "commercial." This did not mean they thought the clothes had gone down-market. It meant that, to sophisticates, they had no meaning.

To someone else — a woman, say, in Dallas or Hong Kong — the clothes might have tremendous value, and a number of young retailing executives said after Ms. Giannini's first collection, in September, that they thought her dresses and black satin shorts looked fresh and would appeal to a new generation of customers.

Still, the gap between Gucci's reputation as a hip brand and its reality seems to have widened. Burt Tansky, the chief executive of Neiman Marcus, dismisses the idea that Gucci has become commercial. Referring to Mr. Ford and Domenico De Sole, Gucci's former chief, he said: "It's not that the old group didn't do a decent job. But this new group seems less enchanted by the media and more focused on the customer. They're very, very efficient. Deliveries are better, and we're selling more and more."

PPR paid 7.2 billion euros (about $8.5 billion now) for Gucci Group, taking on debt to do so. Mr. Polet, who seems to get on as well with store executives as he does the designers in the group, like Nicolas Ghesquiere, the star at Balenciaga, is confident that Gucci can meet its revenue goal without resorting to short-term strategies. "We're not here to make a quick buck," said Mr. Polet, whose three-billion-euro target is based on an annual market growth rate of 4 to 7 percent.

But there are subtle signs that Gucci, under its new brand president, Mark Lee, is trying to broaden its reach. An executive who has worked for the company for a number of years and who declined to be identified because it would jeopardize his job, recently expressed dismay that the tone of advertising and marketing campaigns was now expected "to be light, happy, accessible." Mr. Ford preferred to agitate customers, largely through his ads, though his clothes could also look quite commercial.

Mr. Lee is clearly annoyed at such criticism. Three times in the course of an hourlong interview in Milan, he brought up the "commercial" tag, saying that it didn't fit the product. "What I object to is all the talk that we're trading down, when the opposite is true," Mr. Lee said. He pointed to new leather goods that emphasize costly Florentine handcraft and Ms. Giannini's use of fine jewelry in her shows. And he noted that ready-to-wear sales were up sharply in 2005, to 221 million euros, after four years of stagnant growth. "This is a fashion brand, and we intend to remain a fashion brand," he said.

With makers of $1,500 handbags experiencing what one analyst called "luxury nirvana," it's hard to know whether Gucci's gains are the result of distinctive design or unleashed consumer demand after several years of purse-pinching. Certainly a case can be made that, apart from this season's monster platform shoes, there isn't a killer accessory: no heart-stopping equivalent of Louis Vuitton's Murakami bag or the Chloé Paddington. (Though Fendi's buckle bag is looking more and more like a winner.)

Another indication that companies don't feel the need to dazzle the consumer to get her to buy is the tone of their ads. They're conspicuously subdued. In a Prada ad, a model appears to be resting up after a fall, maybe from her wicker platforms — until you realize that the metal device she's holding isn't a crutch but the handle to her wheelie bag. Gucci's ads ask us to believe that the luxury world is a happy place, full of girlfriends and sunsets, and maybe it is. But isn't fashion and sex supposed to be the attraction of Gucci?

Ms. Giannini arrived at Gucci as an accessories designer around the time that Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole were fighting to save their jobs; they spent much of 2003 in contract negotiations with PPR, arguing that Gucci and its sister brands, including Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta, functioned better under their complete control.

PPR's founder, François Pinault, and his son, François-Henri, who is today chief executive of the French company, disagreed, and in 2004, Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole left, with Mr. Polet, who ran Unilever's ice cream and frozen foods division, moving to Gucci Group.

Replacing Mr. Ford proved more difficult, and in a way bewildering. Although Mr. Ford's claim that Gucci needed a dictator could be viewed as self-serving (his salary at the time he left was $6 million, and he made tens of millions more from stock options), there was a historic basis for his contention. Gucci in the early 90's had suffered from a paralyzing management crisis. Essentially there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Once Mr. Ford became creative director, in 1994, he wouldn't brook interference from anyone, including Mr. De Sole, who had mediated Gucci family squabbles and had succeeded Dawn Mello as president. According to Sara Gay Forden's book, "The House of Gucci," the two men got into a furious shouting match when Mr. De Sole tried to attend a design meeting and was ejected. But with the lines clear, Mr. Ford felt free to design what he thought best.

Why, then, did Gucci's new managers ignore history and appoint three designers to replace him? By February of this year, only one, Ms. Giannini, 33, had survived an internal purge. Alessandra Facchinetti, initially in charge of women's fashion, was dismissed after one collection, and in January the men's designer, John Ray, resigned.

Mr. Lee, who was not involved in the decision to hire three designers, would say only that the choice of Ms. Giannini was "pretty obvious" to him. She was already responsible, as accessories designer, for 95 percent of the company's business. And while Mr. Lee has been involved in some aesthetic decisions, like a plan to remodel Gucci stores in a classical style, he said, "I certainly don't tell her what to design."

Ms. Giannini's fashion choices have been fairly safe. For her spring collection, she used flowery archive prints as well as a sleek, feminine look that recalled the 1940's. In her view, and perhaps in the view of many women her age, the moment for aggressive sexuality had passed, and she believed that Gucci ads that had featured a model's pubic hair groomed in the shape of a G were wrongheaded. "To be honest," she said last fall, "what Gucci had become — well, a footballer's wife is not the customer of my dreams."

Nonetheless, by her second show, in February, Ms. Giannini had swept aside the flirty dresses and shorts in favor of gold pantsuits and purses chained to handcuffs. These looks were closer to Mr. Ford's aesthetic but hardly novel. Editors didn't know what to think. "They were two completely different collections," said Franca Sozzani, the editor in chief of Italian Vogue, who, in the end, preferred the sexier fall show.

Like many analysts, Simon Irwin of J. P. Morgan in London, said he believes that Gucci management has done an excellent job, and he for one doesn't see a downside to reinterpreting archival styles. "Most of the archive hasn't been seen," Mr. Irwin said. But "the spring collection had a mixed review," he said. "I suspect there was a clientele for whom it didn't work, like the Asians and the Russians. Are they ready for a girlie look? Then we had a massive U-turn with the autumn show. People were confused. Where's Gucci going creatively? And did she actually deliver on her theme particularly well?"

A few days after the show, Ms. Giannini talked about the direction of Gucci. She was warm, candid and seemed self-assured. She said that in her mind the two collections reflected the same youthful attitude, though she acknowledged that she also wanted to answer complaints that her first show didn't offer enough evening wear. I asked Ms. Giannini if there were times where her instincts were affirmed by sales.

She mentioned the Flora bag line, which she proposed to Mr. Ford shortly after she arrived at Gucci. "He rejected it," she said, smiling. "It was too old for him. He said it reminded him of the period of Dawn Mello."

Mr. Ford came to see that Gucci's past represented the biggest obstacle to its future, and so he devised a new look based on his personal tastes. It's possible that Mr. Ford's brand of hedonism now looks camp to us, but it's doubtful that the answer is to go back to the archive or wheel out David Bowie. Now that Ms. Giannini is in control of all of Gucci's design, including men's wear, she may feel more confident and develop her own point of view. Certainly the critical and commercial success of Balenciaga has shown that Mr. Polet and François-Henri Pinault are far more hospitable to talent than the sophisticates thought they would be. But the example of Mr. Ghesquiere should also serve as reminder that it takes more than a happy, accessible nature to make a strong fashion. In fact, it usually takes the opposite.

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