Gucci has had more lives than a cat and has lived to be 90 (well, next year anyway). And if CEO Patrizio di Marco has his way, the brand’s best years are still to come. To all the detractors who said Gucci could never recover from the 2003 exit of wunderboy Tom Ford the company is doing very well. In fact, it has doubled its size in the ensuing “years of tragedy” some call it; sales went from 1.5 billion in 2004 to 2.27 billion last year.
Di Marco himself is a newcomer to the Gucci story, having taken over as CEO in 2009. But he comes with a cache of pragmatism and astuteness gained from two decades in the luxury business, having earned his stripes at companies like Prada, Louis Vuitton and Bottega Veneta. In fact, he was the CEO of Italian luxury goods maker Bottega Veneta prior to his assignment with Gucci. Bottega Veneta, of course, also being part of the Gucci group, which in turn is owned by luxury conglomerate PPR (Pinault-Printemps-Redoute). Di Marco reminds us that at the time Bottega Veneta wasn’t the brand we know it to be today — the international status symbol brand whose bags can cost up to $75,000 a piece. Instead, it was, a brand that was “lost in translation” and hovering on the brink of bankruptcy. Its creative direction was questionable under British designer Giles Deacon and ownership had just changed hands from the founding family to the Gucci group. Di Marco, who was at Louis Vuitton at the time, was enlisted to help coax the brand back into the minds of consumers. His first task to replace the nylon-loving Deacon (seen as too edgy for the no-logo , understated label) with Tomas Maier. Next step, cajole a completely disengaged trade. Eight years later though and it was a different story. Di Marco and Maier together had grown sales by over ten-fold and Bottega is today second only to Gucci in profitability. So what is his secret? He ran it like a start-up. He drew from his experiences — the innovation and passion that made Prada what it is today and some of the structure and financial discipline.
In many ways isn’t the no-logo Bottega the counterpoint to Gucci’s very visible interlocking GGs? It did take some re-aligning of the mind when he moved to Gucci. Discretion isn’t something that’s been traditionally associated with Gucci. The much seen logo has a long history; its origins lie in the diamante pattern on brown canvas bags from the 1930s, at a time when there was a leather shortage in Italy. This predated the well known “GG” canvas that quickly became the stuff of aspirations through the 60s and much of the 70s. By the 80s however, thanks to the overselling of the same logo and the preponderance of cheap rip-offs, the brand lost its shine. The logo game was overplayed, and were as guilty of that as many others. Their logo is an asset and a large number of companies would kill for this asset but today so many things beyond that. Gucci now gives prime positioning to its more iconic higher priced items, a strategic directive from the CEO.
After all when the CEO came in 2009, in many ways exclusivity was getting lost in Gucci’s more aspirational, cheaper products. The CEO says that they’re now banking on heritage in a big way, refreshing goods made with the interlocking-G logo, reintroducing classic styles such as the 1940s bamboo bag and using classic motifs. Its not just Gucci ; the downturn seems to have made every luxury brand want to talk about heritage — the generations of craftsmanship and know-how that make them who they are — in a bid to get consumers to appreciate the long lasting value of what they’re paying for. It’s a fantastic asset to be this old and have such rich years behind. In that sense, the brand’s creative head Frida Giannini is on the same page as di Marco; Giannini is known to dip into Gucci’s rich past to source inspiration for her designs. In fact di Marco has been a vocal defender of Giannini’s creative direction, even as critics go to town pointing out the stark contrast between her accessible, fun designs and Ford’s heady vision of LA glamour. Frida is a pragmatic designer and some people misinterpret that. The best designers don’t live in ivory towers, they also realise that this is serious business. Gucci directly and indirectly employs 45,000 people and that’s a lot of responsibility on us to perform and be profitable.