Amid the many issues that grip high fashion today, the arrival of previously unknown, spirited, "cool" creative directors at some of the most iconic luxury brands has set the industry ablaze. LuxuryFacts dissects the recent past, the present and the likely future of two centenarians with new young leaders - Gucci and Balenciaga
By: Dimitria Vitanova
Posted on: June 8, 2016
The brands are all luxury mavericks: Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Gucci and Brioni among others. The names that now reign over the artistic heights of the industry, not so much – or at least not until they stepped in: Antony Vaccarello, Damna Gvasalia, Alessandro Michele and Justin O’Shea.
This new crop of creative directors – in the early summer of their design careers – is ripening in an uncertain yet intriguing climate. The almost exigent demand to embrace digital, the vocal calls to reset the fashion calendar and the unavoidable need to win over a rising, whimsical demographic – millennials and Asian consumers, alike – are molding up a novel high-fashion landscape that requires young talents to plow through. From Diane von Furstenberg to Hermes to Martin Margiela that hastily changed creative leadership in the last three years to the likes of Dior and Tod’s that are yet to announce Raf Simons’ and Alessandra Facchinetti’s replacements, respectively, houses seem to search for the right route into the future.
LuxuryFacts looked at two recent appointments in French conglomerate Kering’s luxury wing and how they compare to their predecessors. One tapped into his insider acuity for his century-old label, while the other brought his deconstructivist, streetwise forte to an old brand revered for its refinement. We dissect the styles of Gucci’s Michele and Balenciaga’ Gvasalia. Or should we rather say: Michele’s Gucci and Gvasalia’s Balenciaga.
GUCCI: A FASHION RELIGION
Recent fashion-world sensation, Alessandro Michele and his forerunner at Gucci’s creative helm, Frida Giannini, share somewhat similar professional paths. Both studied in Rome – Mr Michele at the famed Accademia di Costume e di Moda and Ms Giannini at the Fashion Academy. Both designed accessories for Fendi before joining Gucci in the early aughts, where, from 2011 – 2014, Mr Michele served as associate to Ms Giannini.
Yet, their creative vision for the Italian luxury brand could not diverge more.
G for Giannini
Ms Giannini became the creative director for the entire Gucci label in 2006. In the post-Tom Ford era, she kept sales high – soaring at around $4 billion (almost double the combined revenue of Kering’s other luxury houses, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent) – for a while before taking a plunge, partially propelled by a tepid critical reaction to her creations.
Under Ms Giannini, who aimed to dust off the aged veneer of the brand’s heritage, Gucci lost its punk, shockingly modern and rather irreverent edge Tom Ford styled in the heady 1990s. Not that her designs were bad. They were just quite different – precise cuts and sleek silhouettes, pastel tones and animal prints that denoted the wearability of Ms Giannini’s proper dresses, unassuming blouses and simple shirts as well as her high-end Bermuda shorts.
Not that Ms Giannini did not reap commercial success but “[s]he never created a moment,” commented casting director James Scully for Fashion Week Daily. Her clothes lounged in “the calm after the storm,” as Suzy Menkes of New York Times described her Fall/Winter 2010 menswear line. Gone were the label’s flashy, inverted double-G monogram as well as the bulky, one-too-many accessories that spiced up the looks of Tom Ford’s golden days.
G for Gentle revolutionary
Ms Giannini ushered Gucci into creative sobriety and moderation that celebrated the woman, who “likes to party but also likes to work,” who balances between her family and her career, as the designer said in an interview with People Magazine. Contrast that conservative vision of femininity with Mr Michele’s brazen take: “"She [his woman] is an intellectual who has taste," he said for Harper’s Bazaar. “A woman whom you'll never know if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend, a woman with great freedom of expression.”
In no time, Mr Michele’s own artistic liberty roughed up Gucci and thrusted it into the fashion spotlight, a la Tom Ford, who, back in 2002, invited him on the brand’s designer team. Largely unknown to the fashion mavens prior to his appointment as creative director, Mr Michele stirred furor when, following Ms Giannini’s hastened departure, he presented the label’s Fall/Winter 2015 men’s line, conceived and executed in just five days.
And it was not that stellar pace that shocked the most. The sudden, sharp creative U-turn did. Crepe-de-Chine blouses with bows, long-sleeved lace shirts, horn-rimmed nerdy glasses and fingers heavy with rings dominated the menswear collection, strutted by both male and female models. In the following four presentations, Michele has fostered an eccentric high-end-meets-the-street aesthetic, which he tags as “a hippie Renaissance idea of fashion.” Jimi Hendrix crossed with an old lady is another apt metaphor the 42-year old designer has stitched to his eclectic, bright and layered ensembles, which fuzz the threads between ultramodern and super vintage, between feminine and masculine, romantic and grunge.
Back in is what Ms Giannini discarded. Gucci’s oversized logo regally gilds jackets, purses and belt buckles, while the brand’s one-time gender irrelevance peaks. Starting with the Fall/Winter 2017 season, Mr Michele will unite his men’s and women’s shows, slashing the number of the house’s yearly runway spectacles in half. But that does not mean they would be any less grand.
Mr Michele’s sensitivities mark not only his creations but also the sets where they debut – extravagant stages removed from the generic, washed-down catwalks of Ms Giannini’s years. Gucci’s resort 2017 collection, replete with Victorian-age references, pop-star-worthy kitsch as well as treasures from grandma’s closet, presents a case in point with its unlikely venue – the cloisters of the Westminster Abbey.
The church inscribed with the history of the British monarchy hosted some 94 looks that are distinctly Alessandro Michele. Mismatched prints and piled-up fabrics, signature rings and knee-high lace socks, busy details and bright hues romped on the somber gray stones.
Although the location antagonized some and bewildered others, it couldn’t better quote Mr Michele’s boundary-prodding doctrine. "Fashion is a religion in one sense," he said to Harper’s. "Once upon a time our brand was considered the sanctum sanctorum of fashion.” Yet, unlike Ms Giannini, Mr Michele revisits the brand’s past not to revive it, but to modernize it.
We are really such different people,” he said to Vogue. “Night and day, I am trying to cause a little revolution inside the company—to push another language, a different way to talk about beauty and sexiness, which is an old word. It’s about sensuality now.”
BALENCIAGA: A FASHION TRANSLATION
Maybe more than any other luxury label, Balenciaga elevates its past on a plinth. The legacy of its founder Cristobal Balenciaga has for a century now imposed purity and austerity in design. Yet, today, the brand seems to bend under the commercial demands of the 21st century – with two unlikely artistic director appointments.
Three years ago, New York-based, sportswear designer Alexander Wang replaced the acclaimed Nicolas Ghesquiere, who moved to Louis Vuitton. If the street-embracing Wang at the helm of a fine Parisian maison shocked the high fashion world then, his successor, Georgia-born, Germany-bred Demna Gvasalia, is now raising a slate of queries about the house’s future.
Despite the buzz, Mr Wang did not really transform Balenciaga. On the contrary – he bowed to its heritage, revisiting it for inspiration. His clothes sated “all the predictable expectations, reminding me most of what you’d think someone who had just seen Balenciaga archives and was full of respect and intimidation, but was instructed to tweak it a bit for now, would produce,” says Vanessa Friedman for the New York Times.
Yet, Mr Wang, who dressed celebrities in the ranks of Cate Blanchett, Lady Gaga and Taraji P. Henson, found the courage to assert some of his own sensibilities into his Balenciaga creations. Dark, moody palettes and easy, athleisure silhouettes creeped at Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2015 collection, heating up the stage for Mr Wang’s farewell Spring/Summer 2016 line of all-white, good-girl looks in silk and satin. Chest-baring lace and gold cigarette holders under a hip-hop and rap soundtrack peeled Mr Wang’s rebellious side. Actresses Zoe Kravitz and Riley Keough modeled along baptismal pools, laid out to form a cross that, the show notes read, marked “the intersection between past and future.” And with that tribute, Mr Wang entered Balenciaga’s past.
The future, or at least, the next couple of seasons, belongs to Mr Demna Gvasalia, who worked for the avant-gardist Maison Margiela as well as Louis Vuitton before establishing the all-the-craze creative of seven anonymous designers, Vetements (“clothes” in French). A rising force in fashion, Gvasalia possesses a rich deconstructivist aesthetic, coupled with Eastern European nonchalance that created $1,000 Vetements hoodies, presented in clubs rather than on catwalks and rocked by the likes of Kanye West.
In his first collection for Balenciaga – Fall/Winter 2016, Mr Gvasalia’s creative extravagance toyed with the brand’s heritage in a manner Mr Wang never dared to. The label’s famed cocoon coats and egg dresses morphed into slung puffers and rustling floral gowns, paired with matching tight-high, crinkled boots. Layered outfits with denim accents, waist-pinched suits, giant striped totes, shades with oversized Kelly green chains seem to boldly lead Balenciaga to the street.
In a time when the house saw rising profits, the abrupt yet amicable break with Mr Wang, who is now to exclusively focus on his own label, appears to stem from Kering’s own stride to reshuffle its luxury portfolio. As Mr Gvasalia’s show notes stated, his designs – despite bearing the faint artistic stamp of Vetements, which he continues to head – are “a reimagining of the work of Cristobal Balenciaga—a wardrobe of absolute contemporaneity and realism imbued with the attitude of haute couture. A translation, not a reiteration. A new chapter.”
Perhaps the two most talked about men in the world of high fashion in the past two years, Mr Michele and Mr Gvasalia are redefining the brands they creatively lead. Their work is not solely about a heritage, whose shine has dimmed. It is about experimentation, flamboyancy and individuality that borrow from the past to venerate it – yes – but to also update it and repackage it for an attention-strapped consumer. And if sales are a measure to go by, that approach is, for now, paying off, steadily exciting the luxury fashion industry, itself.