Gucci Parts Ways With Giannini in Bid to Regain Lost Exclusivity

Gucci’s longtime Creative Director Frida Giannini is leaving, a victim of her own success after her designs became too popular to retain the exclusive cachet their price tags demand.

Giannini, 42, will step down from Gucci in February after more than 12 years at the Florence, Italy-based company, the brand’s owner Kering SA said today. Kering didn’t name a successor, though a search is underway. Gucci Chief Executive Officer Patrizio di Marco, Giannini’s partner at home and at work, is also leaving.

The designer achieved commercial success with her floral bags and updated products from the 93-year-old brand’s archives, growing sales by nearly two thirds in her tenure as Gucci pushed into new categories such as fragrances and beauty. Still, she rarely won critical acclaim. Of one collection, Women’s Wear Daily said, “trends do not start here.” Then-New York Times critic Cathy Horyn later wrote: “It’s clear we can’t expect world-creating fashion from Frida Giannini.”

“Luxury is about selling a promise of exclusivity,” said Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas. “Commercial success risks undermining brand equity.”

While Giannini helped give Gucci and its double-G logos an omnipresence on streets, luxury tastes have changed and the world’s wealthiest consumers switched to brands they perceived to be more exclusive like Hermes and Chanel. Gucci sales have barely grown in the past five quarters and fell in the most recent reported period, despite efforts by Giannini and Di Marco to add more leather goods and bring prices higher.

Ford, De Sole

Other brands in Kering’s fashion portfolio have been more successful at perpetuating that idea, with Bottega Veneta quadrupling sales since 2006 as shoppers sought out designer Tomas Maier’s signature braided leather goods. Kering and bigger rival LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA have been snapping up lesser-known designers as they seek to secure rising stars.

The Gucci shakeup is the brand’s biggest since the 2004 departure of Domenico de Sole and Tom Ford, who were widely credited with reviving the storied, yet then-unprofitable family brand by adding sex appeal with things like net lingerie dresses and rhinestone heels. Giannini, then relatively unknown, succeeded Ford, initially as head of design for leather goods, before becoming sole creative director in 2006.

Shares Drop

Despite her success with bag design, she wasn’t as strong on ready-to-wear, according to Armando Branchini, founder of Milan-based luxury consultant Intercorporate. Ready-to-wear “is the basis of a brand’s appeal and reputation” as a trendsetter even if it accounts for a smaller portion of sales than accessories, he said. Her predecessor Tom Ford was commercially and critically successful, Branchini said. Gucci needs to rediscover that balance, particularly in terms of appealing to the “cognoscenti,” he said.

Kering shares fell as much as 2.2 percent in Paris today, limiting their advance this year to 1.5 percent and the company’s market value to about 20 billion euros ($25 billion).

“This was a change that was for a long time in the making,” Solca said. “Di Marco and Giannini have presided over Gucci for a whole era, taking it to new heights. It is in the nature of the business that managers go, and brands remain.”

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