The Selling Power of Gucci's Relentless Gucciness

Are fashion editors burning out on Alessandro Michele's vision for the brand? It may not even matter.
By Steve Dool,

In the roughly two and a half years that Alessandro Michele has served as the creative director of Gucci, fashion observers have been treated to a deep, immersive view of what he finds stylish. A top-line list of his favorites would likely include embroidery, snakes, embroidery of snakes and Jared Leto. Fortunately, if reptiles and method actors aren't appealing to you, there are plenty of other motifs to choose from: Since his debut menswear collection for Gucci in January 2015, Michele has sent a staggering 865 looks down the runway, with an additional 162 spread between two pre-fall collections that were disseminated via digital lookbooks.

The number of pieces Michele has shown in his relatively short tenure at the Italian house can be misleading in that, despite the breadth of each collection, Michele's Gucciverse has yet to waver far from the very specific, maximalist aesthetic he has pioneered. The season-to-season similarities are either admirably consistent or mind-numbingly boring, depending on who you ask. If you do ask, you may find many in the industry wondering aloud how long Gucci can remain on top without offering something that feels actually new.

"It's a question that always comes up whenever something is successful," says Eric Wilson, fashion news director at InStyle. "What is the storyline, and when is it going to not be successful? That's the natural fashion industry gossip talk: How long can anything last?"

Fashion editors may be particularly eager to have this conversation, since they have seen more of Michele's Gucci than most of the population. "There's naturally going to be a cynicism in the editorial world among the people who look at these things on an everyday basis," says Wilson. "But you have to remember, the customer is not getting every press release or looking at every celebrity in a dress. They're aware of it, but they're not necessarily going to be inundated at such a degree that they are going to burn out from it very quickly."

Whatever semblance of Gucci fatigue that exists among editors — especially at legacy fashion publications — could possibly be tempered by the fact that Gucci is a major advertiser in both men's and women's books. Money from sponsors is notoriously a motivating force to keep a lid on public griping among those who have privately expressed their readiness for something new from the label. Either way, even positive stories acknowledge Michele's repetition, though it's often framed as an asset, along the lines of "more of the same of what we love" or "predictability doesn’t obviate pleasurability."

Ana Andjelic, a luxury strategist, writer and doctor of sociology, says she's also heard other industry figures, including representatives from rival brands, criticize the repetitive Gucci output. "I heard the same thing maybe a year ago," she explains. "I think it's pure jealousy."

To be clear, there is much for other brands to be jealous about — Gucci's repeated tropes have resonated with customers in big ways. As Lauren Sherman at Business of Fashion pointed out this week, Gucci is selling better than ever. Sales for the Kering-owned brand were up 43.4 percent during the 2016 fiscal year, Sherman reports, with an operating profit of €907 million in the first half of 2017 (a bit shy of $1.1 billion).

For an idea of what sales like that look like for retailers, consider last season's street style favorite, the relatively simple $550 throwback Gucci logo tee. Lisa Aiken, fashion retail director at Net-a-Porter, says the site sold out of that style in about three weeks. "We sold 1,000 units in that period, which is really quite astonishing," she reports. Aiken is confident that consumer interest in Michele's Gucci has not yet peaked, pointing to double-digit sales growth for the brand on Net-a-Porter and other massive numbers, like the 13,000 Gucci Princetown slippers the site has sold during Michele's tenure alone. Net-a-Porter is doubling down on fall's logo T-shirt range, including options customized by the artist Coco Capitan, who scrawled "Common sense is not that common" across the front of one tank top. "We've got 5,000 units [of that piece] coming in," Aiken says. "When you look at that rate of sale, we don't believe it's going to slow down. That 5,000 units might get us to the end of the season."

If Aiken's sales forecast is accurate across the board, Michele will, once again, have very little incentive to reinvent the wheel. If anything, Aiken says, he may be proof that customers appreciate familiarity over chasing ever-changing (and ever-more-expensive) trends. "It feels like the collections have a sense of longevity," she says. "It feels like you are investing in pieces, and you know that they're still going to be relevant in one, or two or three seasons time, because that's the perspective the designer is taking."

Certain changes that Michele has put in place — combining men's and women's shows, speeding up the brand's supply chain, investing in a digital strategy and revamping e-commerce — are unequivocal wins from a business perspective. But his commitment to a singular aesthetic could be added to that list, too, Andjelic says. "The problem of luxury brands — that Gucci sort of overcame in a sense — is that they target their audience season after season with everything new: a new celebrity photographer, with brand management who wants to change aesthetics time after time and just keep some signature elements," she explains. (The exhaustion among creative teams charged with a constant cycle of breakneck reinvention and evolution is well-documented, too.) Andjelic also mentions that new revenue streams, like Gucci's recent extensions into décor and travel, work seamlessly primarily because the label eschews too much change. "It's fine to have that complete aesthetic look to close the loop when it comes to your brand strategy or brand world," she adds.

In the end, complaints from within the industry about the relentless Gucciness of Gucci may inadvertently highlight the limited clout of some longstanding fashion gatekeepers. Wilson, for one, says Michele would be wise to heed sales numbers over any fashion media sniping. "Any [designer] that pays attention to what fashion editors think is probably still living in 1992," he says. "Any designer who is basing his judgment on what outsiders think or tell him to do is making a mistake and shouldn't be in that position in the first place."

Or, as Andjelic puts it more succinctly, "When consumers are tired of it, that's going to be the end. When editors are tired, who gives a shit?"

Homepage photo: Imaxtree

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