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Gucci’s Changing of the Guard Opens ‘New Creative Chapter’

Kering faced upheaval this week with an executive reshuffle and a controversial ad campaign.

Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele, for one, is leaving the high-heat label after a tour of 20 years, nearly eight of which were spent in his outgoing role reviving the Italian fashion house’s popularity, particularly among younger generations of consumers, and boosting the brand’s bottom line.

The New York Times called the move the “largest creative shake-up of a fashion brand since the Covid-19 pandemic,” while Vogue credited Michele for “revers[ing] the fortunes of the Italian heritage label and chang[ing] the look of fashion.” On Twitter, Rachel Tashjian, fashion news director at Harper’s Bazaar, called this a “very sad day” for fashion. “Alessandro changed the way we think about gender, maximalism, reinvention, celebrity and creativity in fashion,” she wrote. “He completely shifted the aesthetic of clothes and frankly of pop culture over the past eight years.”

Gucci, for its part, hailed Michele for playing a “fundamental part” in making the brand what it is today through his “groundbreaking creativity” while “staying true” to the company’s vision.

“I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet Alessandro at the end of 2014, since then we have had the pleasure to work closely together as Gucci has charted its successful path over these last eight years,” said Marco Bizzarri, president and CEO of Gucci. “I would like to thank him for his 20 years of commitment to Gucci and for his vision, devotion, and unconditional love for this unique House during his tenure as creative director.”

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François-Henri Pinault, chairman and CEO of Kering, the conglomerate that owns the brand, was equally effusive.

“The road that Gucci and Alessandro walked together over the past years is unique and will remain as an outstanding moment in the history of the house,” he said. “I am grateful to Alessandro for bringing so much of himself in this adventure. His passion, his imagination, his ingenuity and his culture put Gucci center stage, where its place is. I wish him a great next chapter in his creative journey.”

Alessandro Michele, creative director of Gucci
MILAN, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 23: Fashion Designer Alessandro Michele acknowledges the applause of the audience during the Gucci Twinsburg Show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2023 on September 23, 2022 in Milan, Italy. Daniele Venturelli/Getty Images for Gucci.

The man himself said he was wrapping up what has been an “extraordinary journey” full of “love and creative passion.”

“During this long period Gucci has been my home, my adopted family,” Michele said. “To this extended family, to all the individuals who have looked after and supported it, I send my most sincere thanks, my biggest and most heartfelt embrace. Together with them I have wished, dreamed, imagined. Without them, none of what I have built would have been possible. To them goes my most sincerest wish: may you continue to cultivate your dreams, the subtle and intangible matter that makes life worth living. May you continue to nourish yourselves with poetic and inclusive imagery, remaining faithful to your values. May you always live by your passions, propelled by the wind of freedom.”

Michele didn’t offer a reason for his departure, though he hinted at times when “paths part ways because of the different perspectives each one of us may have.” A replacement has not been announced.

Still, analysts have been calling for change as Gucci’s sales showed signs of stagnation, particularly in the critical China market, where online sales have not compensated for the fall in foot traffic from the country’s rolling “zero Covid” lockdowns.

“Gucci is suffering from brand fatigue,” Luca Solca, senior analyst, European luxury goods, at Bernstein, wrote in a note to clients on Wednesday. “In order to reaccelerate, Gucci doesn’t need to move to the mainstream or to become timeless. It needs to open a new creative chapter.”

RBC Capital Markets analyst Piral Dadhania concurred. “After seven years in charge of Gucci’s creative engine, it may well be time for a change,” he told clients this week. “And consensus amongst institutional investors appears to be forming that a new approach is required to reignite the brand.”

Sister company Balenciaga has endured a critical drubbing over the past few days after advertisements posted last week featured children posing with teddy bears dressed in BDSM gear such as studded leather harnesses and collars with locks.

Social media users quickly criticized both the brand and photographer Gabriele Galimberti after one campaign image appeared to show a grown man holding a key to one of these locks. Another seemingly displayed an excerpt from a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that upheld part of a law that criminalized child pornography. Yet another shot appeared to show court documents of a Supreme Court case that struck down a portion of the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, decreeing that virtual child pornography is protected speech.

Balenciaga, which previously cut ties with the artist formerly known as Kanye West for his antisemitic remarks, apologized on Instagram on Tuesday.

“We sincerely apologize for any offense our holiday campaign may have caused,” Balenciaga wrote. “Our plush bear bags should not have been featured with children in this campaign. We have immediately removed the campaign from all platforms.”

In a separate statement, the fashion house, which left Twitter earlier this month after billionaire Elon Musk’s tumultuous takeover, apologized for reproducing “unsettling documents” in its campaign.

“We take this matter very seriously and are taking legal action against the parties responsible for creating the set and including unapproved items for our Spring 23 campaign photoshoot,” it said. “We strongly condemn abuse of children in any form. We stand for children’s safety and well-being.”

Misan Harriman, a British photographer who has shot covers for Vogue and other glossies, wasn’t buying it, however.

“As a photographer who has worked with many brands in the fashion industry, I’m utterly horrified—and I’m angry,” he said in a video that he posted on Twitter on Tuesday. “I know how many steps you go through as a photographer to get the client to approve images. I know how many adult eyes have to look at images for them to be printed, especially for a retail campaign where you’re selling the products online.”

Harriman, a father of two, denounced the entire shoot, describing it as “abhorrent” and an “affront.” An Instagram apology, he insisted, was “not enough.”

“Those babies…were not protected so you could sell your products,” he added. “The fashion industry needs to do something about this. The owner of Balenciaga, Kering…needs to do something about this. …This is an alarm for the industry.”