Thursday, February 22, 2007

From disco slappers to Diana: Gucci trades up to BCBG

Sitting in the already-packed ballroom of the Diana hotel at Piazza Oberdan, the show venue of choice for Gucci.

It's another big Milan show that has to be split into two.

We're waiting for the 5pm version, which is already 22 minutes late. And while many showgoers think nothing of arriving 45 minutes late for many shows, because they know they probably won't start on time, due to today's show gridlock there was a bit of a panic earlier this afternoon when a series of media shuttle buses containing at least 100 people were shut out of the Roberto Cavalli show after the buses arrived too late.

In theory, noone who shows on the official schedule is supposed to start before the previous show has finished and the media throng has had a chance to hotfoot it - or at least hotbus it - from one to the other.

But with the organisers attempting to cram the usual eight days into seven this season, that is proving a challenge. Noone wanted to run the risk of getting shut out of this show so they have ditched anything immediately prior in order to get over.

Obscure Italian labels such as Frankie Morello, which was supposed to start at 4pm, but showed no sign of it some 50 minutes later, will have to stay that way. It's hard competing with the Gucci juggernaut.

The models are out - it's precisely 5.30pm. And the styling is pure... Rita Hayworth.

The hair is loose and parted to one side, like a 40s screen siren, the makeup is also very 1940s, with porcelain faces and dark red lips. Designer Frida Giannini is supposed to have been inspired by the 1940s American model/photographer Lee Miller but there's something almost well, Diana, about this show. And that's not just due to the name of the hotel.

Yes the silhouettes are 40s-nosed: cute bomber/aviator jackets in either leather or plaid over plaid plus fours, boxy knee-length skirts, sweet little floral print dresses with ruffles. But the plaid combo in particular looks like something straight out of Diana and Charles' honeymoon photos taken at Balmoral.

There's fur galore - while Prada may have ditched fur for alpaca this season, don't believe that there's not plenty of fur on this season's runways in Milan. Particularly at Gucci, where one super-luxe coat in particular layers fur-on-fur, with glossy mink arms over a coat base in something with a pattern that looks alarmingly like jaguar.

The black and white eveningwear series, accented with Art Deco-inspired embroidery and jewellery, will no doubt look beautiful in Gucci's advertising campaign. Save for the finale dress however - a very Alix Gres-inspired white gown with plisse bodice and metal hardware detail - on a runway, it doesn't really catch fire.

Apart from a few nods to Gucci's recent sex-drenched past under Tom Ford, and even Giannini's own autumn/winter 0607 disco diva collection - notably the skinny anthracite grey pants with matching, contoured jacket with wetsuit-look seamwork and large plastic zippers - it's overall a very demure collection.

There seems to be a wind of conservatism blowing through fashion this season.

This time last year, notably after Marc Jacobs' layered, edgy "neo grunge" collection in New York, many talked about "the new sobriety" in fashion.

The current mood isn't so much sobre as well, bourgeois. Two weeks ago Jacobs shocked many with his finely-tailored, frightfully ladylike collection. Giannini seems to have picked up the same cue card.

However this collection is critically received, make no mistake: Gucci, like so many other luxury goods companies, makes most of its money out of leathergoods. In some companies 80percent of business is derived from same. The new Gucci bag this season is the 'Aviator' - a structured tote in leather or a diamante-infused wool and exxie crocodile.

Being unable to secure any comments from Giannini herself, who is sequestered backstage prepping for the 6pm show, I am obliged to settle for the next best thing by grabbing a mini iv with the man who signs Giannini's pay cheques: Gucci Group ceo Robert Polet.

Bailing Polet up as he heads out the door, I ask him what he thinks about Gucci's new conservative mood.

Marc Jacobs showed this very ladylike, bourgeois collection in New York, and now Gucci. Giannini's collection this time last year was sex on legs.
Robert Polet: What we see I think in general in the market is what you call 'up trading'. And people looking for a more higher value, higher quality, timeless quality. And you see that in our portfolio of brands, as we have Balenciaga, Bottega Venete, Boucheron growing very fast. We also see it within a brand like Gucci: the constant quest for higher quality and more desirable products.

But how does that translate to a more classic design?
First of all, I run the company, I am not the designer. But from my observation, if I look at the marketplace... first of all the uptrading, what I just said, and secondly, I think things evolve and go in cycles and I think we have evolved from overt sexuality much more to sensuality and refinement. And we are right in the middle of that stage.

The price points are higher?
I didn't say up-pricing, I said uptrading. And uptrading in offering actually much more desirable products with even higher quality, with precious skins and so on and so forth - with of course a price that is the consequence of that.

Yes however the prices in the luxury market are going up, right across the board. As absurd as it might sound to most people, a $20,000 handbag is not that uncommon these days.
I think the quality and creativity goes up. And with that the sales of products that are of higher quality and (have) more 'specialness'. And we probably have more expensive products.

How do you marry that 'specialness' with growing a brand: opening stores, making products that you want to be accessible to the average consumer but by the same token, attempting to maintain that sense of exclusivity with the ultra rich?
It's a buildup. It's a pyramid of luxury, where we focus on bringing more and more and more creativity at the higher end of the luxury pyramid. At the same time we offer products where people can actually add to the brand. And that's also related to a category - you would have small leathergoods or belts, or sunglasses or in the sense of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, people are able to buy perfume, which of course is a way to enter and be part of the dream of the brand.

Yes but more and more 'average' people now think nothing of paying over $1000 for a handbag - that was unheard of 10 years ago.
You've got to push your (stop) button now.

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