At Gucci, a Messy Exit for One Designer Opens an Unlikely Door for Another

“Against my will, I leave my cathedral uncompleted,” he wrote in the nearly 3,000-word document, which was obtained by The New York Times and translated from Italian to English. He also said, “It’s a pity I won’t be able to see how this beautiful story would have continued.”

Patrizio di Marco was ousted as chief executive of Gucci, a position he had held for five years. Credit Tiziana Fabi/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. di Marco spoke not just as a spurned executive of one of the biggest fashion companies in the world, but also as one half of fashion’s most famous power couple, the partner of the Gucci designer Frida Giannini and the father of their nearly 2-year-old daughter, born just two weeks after Ms. Giannini had presented the fashion house’s fall 2013 collection on the Milan runway. She, too, had been ousted from the company in December in a parting that was anything but amicable and was about to get worse.

If the dual firings of Mr. di Marco and Ms. Giannini came as a surprise, that was nothing compared with the reaction to the person whom Kering, Gucci’s parent company, soon chose to install in Ms. Giannini’s place: Alessandro Michele.

Within hours of the news of Ms. Giannini’s firing, names surfaced in the news media about who would fill her post, suddenly the most coveted job in fashion. Would it be Riccardo Tisci, the star designer who took a drifting French label, Givenchy, and transformed it into the must-have uniform for rock stars and celebrities? Or the rising American designer Joseph Altuzarra? Or maybe Hedi Slimane, who had recently revived the fortunes of Saint Laurent, another Kering brand? Or could Kering even entice Tom Ford to go back to the company he had turned into the hottest fashion brand of the 1990s and whose work at Gucci is still cited by many designers today?

Instead, on Jan. 21, the company announced it had hired Mr. Michele, who had spent the last 12 years working in Gucci’s accessories department, the last three as the associate director to Ms. Giannini.

And the reaction of the fashion world could be summed up with one word: “Who?”

In interviews, a number of fashion industry executives were surprised that Gucci would appoint Mr. Michele, though none were willing to be quoted by name out of fear of criticizing the company’s choice.

“I don’t know what to think,” said one fashion executive who has worked with Kering but who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, when asked about the appointment of Mr. Michele. “It makes no sense to me. I didn’t expect them to go with an unknown.”

WHEN FRIDA GIANNINI was let go in December, after several years of mixed reviews and increasingly sluggish sales for a brand that is crucial to the parent company’s bottom line, she was given the chance to bow out gracefully. She would be able to show her men’s collection in January and her women’s collection in late February.

But something seemed to go awry soon after the December announcement that both she and Mr. di Marco would be leaving.

Within days of Mr. di Marco’s departure, tension grew between Ms. Giannini and Gucci, according to two people directly familiar with the situation but who weren’t authorized to speak for the company. Barely a week into the job, Mr. di Marco’s replacement, Marco Bizzarri, apparently found the situation untenable.

On Jan. 9, Ms. Giannini, after more than 12 years with the company, was immediately dismissed. She left the building that day, assisted by a few colleagues who helped her carry out her belongings, according to two people with knowledge of the situation. (Through a spokesman, Mr. Bizzarri and Mr. Michele declined to comment. Mr. di Marco and Ms. Giannini did not respond to several requests, by email and by phone, for comment.)

In the fashion industry, the vacancy meant a giant opportunity. Both Kering and its main rival in the fashion world, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, had used recent job openings to make star acquisitions. In the last few years, Raf Simons was hired at Dior, replacing John Galliano; Alexander Wang replaced Nicolas Ghesquière at Kering’s Balenciaga; Mr. Ghesquière went to LVMH’s Louis Vuitton. Mr. Slimane, the former Dior Homme designer, went to Saint Laurent after a several-year break from fashion to focus on his photography. In nearly every case, that splashy hire resulted in business success.

Suggesting a similarly big move might be in the offing, the Kering chief executive, François-Henri Pinault, said in December that Gucci needed a new point of view, complete with “more daring shows.”

At first, all eyes centered on Givenchy’s Mr. Tisci, whose name had long been circulated in connection to the Gucci gig. Those talks never happened, Mr. Tisci said.

“No, no, no,” Mr. Tisci said, when asked at the couture shows in Paris last month if he had been contacted by Kering. “I’m happy at the house I’m staying at.”

Mr. Bizzarri and Mr. Pinault didn’t come close to hiring any outside designers, according to two people familiar with the process. They quickly settled on Ms. Giannini’s longtime colleague Mr. Michele. He came to Gucci with Ms. Giannini; the two worked together at Fendi before that.

“I have to say, I think many people were surprised with the decision because Gucci is so important and drives such significant revenues to the group,” said Imran Amed, the founder of The Business of Fashion. “That being said, the industry is willing to wait and see.”

Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor, said she met with Mr. Michele in late January, shortly after he had been given the position.

Frida Giannini, Gucci's former creative director. Credit Antonio Calanni/Associated Press

“He was eccentric, a little bit eccentric, but charming,” she said at the Oscar de la Renta show last week. “I really enjoyed talking with him.”

She quickly added: “I didn’t see anything,” referring to his work. “We had a cup of coffee.”

During a brief interview last week in Los Angeles, where he staged his most recent fashion show, Mr. Ford declined to comment on the changes at Gucci but said of Mr. Michele, “He was a great handbag designer when he worked with me.”

Mr. Michele rushed a men’s collection together in January, and his first official show as creative director of Gucci will be the one that was supposed to be Ms. Giannini’s last: the women’s fall collection this week in Milan.

GUCCI DOMINATES KERING’S luxury business. (Kering was formerly known as PPR, and known before that as the Gucci Group.) In 2014, Gucci had 3.49 billion euros in revenue, or nearly $4 billion. The next two biggest luxury revenue earners at Kering — Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent — brought in, combined, $2 billion.

The company is nearly a century old, but it became a significant profit and revenue generator only in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, Gucci nearly went bankrupt.

“The company was broke,” said Domenico De Sole, the former chief executive of the Gucci Group, by telephone. “It had a fantastic name, but the family had mismanaged it.”

Mr. De Sole, along with Mr. Ford, quickly changed that. Mr. Ford’s work as creative director has become one of the most celebrated turnarounds in fashion history. He infused Gucci with sexiness, minted fashion stars (Carine Roitfeld was one) and built an empire. In the years after Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole’s success, the company bought Bottega Venetaand purchased stakes in Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney.

When Mr. Ford and Mr. De Sole left the company in 2004, Gucci was earning revenue of $3 billion, up from the $200 million it made when they took over a decade earlier. Gucci Group executives got their first crack at a major succession plan. It failed. It split up leadership ranks and appointed three bosses: Alessandra Facchinetti headed women’s wear; John Ray controlled men’s; and Ms. Giannini led accessories. Ms. Facchinetti was gone by 2005, Mr. Ray in early 2006, and soon Ms. Giannini was the sole creative director at Gucci, producing both men’s and women’s wear.

Alessandro Michele, who had spent the last 12 years working in Gucci’s accessories department. Credit Matteo Bazzi/European Pressphoto Agency

When she took over, Mr. Ford’s iconic sexy designs went by the wayside, but the money and profits kept pouring in.

In early 2009, Mr. di Marco was appointed Gucci chief executive after having achieved considerable financial success at Bottega Veneta. Six months later, his relationship with Ms. Giannini became romantic, a development that was largely unknown outside the company until the two went public nearly two years later.

When Mr. De Sole was in charge of the Gucci Group, he prohibitedemployees from becoming involved with each other because he felt it disrupted business, according to two people familiar with the label when he ran it. 

But Robert Polet, then Gucci Group’s chief executive, was more lenient. He had no issue with his colleagues’ revelation.

“They themselves were surprised that it happened and were slightly embarrassed about how to present it,” Mr. Polet said in an interview. “They probably felt it was an awkward thing. But they made it work over time.”

Not everyone felt this way.

“You can’t have the two No. 1s being an item,” said Mimma Viglezio, a former executive vice president for global communications at the Gucci Group. She said she voiced her objections at the time but was overruled.

“It’s bad for the employees,” she said. “I got emails from people saying, ‘We don’t have anyone to talk to because they talk to each other.’ And if one or the other wants to go because they’ve been hired by someone else, then they’re both going. That’s bad.”

In 2012, Mr. di Marco and Ms. Giannini had a daughter.

Tom Ford, whose work as Gucci's creative director has become one of the most celebrated turnarounds in fashion history. Credit Luca Bruno/Associated Press

It was around that time that Gucci’s growth came to a halt. Just as significant, Gucci went from being one of the hottest shows on the European fashion calendar to just another stop for editors and buyers.

“It went from an internationally recognized leader in fashion and became more provincial and product focused,” said Mr. Amed, of The Business of Fashion. “It was no longer a brand that would create ripples of influence in the industry as it once had under Tom Ford. When you lose creative influence, the numbers and money eventually catch up.”

Gucci’s operating profit dropped 6.7 percent in 2014; Kering has had back-to-back years in losses in profit, despite strong returns from other labels like Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta.

The industry began speculating that changes were inevitable. Last year, Ms. Giannini, in what became a somewhat-frequent exercise, had to bat down questions that Kering was searching for a replacement. She told Women’s Wear Daily in May that they were “absurd rumors” and speculated that all the talk was born out of “the fact that my partner works with me is annoying to some,” she said.

A little over six months later, they were both out of a job.

In the interview process, Mr. Michele presented a plan that greatly diverged from Ms. Giannini’s, with Mr. Bizzarri telling the news media that the selection of Mr. Michele was “based upon the contemporary vision he has articulated for the brand.”

Mr. Michele’s hastily cobbled-together men’s collection, shown in January, was notable for its androgynous looks that signaled a departure from his predecessor, a clean break with the past.

In his farewell memo, Mr. di Marco said that he lost his job, in part, because unnamed people within the company, “including some of the people close to him,” had started to plot against him. (Mr. Pinault, the chief executive of Kering, is not mentioned in the memo.)

But he was also wistful.

“Gucci is the brand I’ve loved the most in my life, the brand I will always love, and it’s also the brand where I met the love of my life,” he wrote.

He said he wanted to honor many people at Gucci, but he singled out just one: Ms. Giannini.

“Not because she’s the best possible life partner or the best possible mother that a difficult and complicated person like me could have hoped to meet,” he wrote. “But because in the workplace — which we both put above everything, at great personal cost — she was the best possible partner that one could have wished for.”

Ms. Giannini’s story as creative director lasted eight years.

Mr. Michele’s began Wednesday.


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