Gucci chief executive Marco Bizzarri credited for remodelling the Italian fashion brand

In just two years as chief, Marco Bizzarri has revived Gucci and made it a brand of rising sales again

If the fashion world was asked to name a visionary leader it was looking up to right now, the answer would likely be Gucci president and chief executive Marco Bizzarri.

And that is not only because, at 1.9m tall, one has no choice but to literally look up to the 54-year-old.

In his signature look of a slim-fit, three-piece tailored suit - which seems to only accentuate his height - the slightly gangly and very bald Bizzarri cuts an intimidating figure, even as he warmly offers up a seat in his chic, all-white office in the Gucci Hub in Milan.

"I've always believed in supporting change, even if I don't fully understand it," he says in his quickfire Italian-accented English, referencing the extraordinarily rapid transformation of Gucci since his takeover of the brand in 2015.

"When I came on board, I knew Gucci was struggling. I wanted to innovate and change the rules of the industry, to make Gucci a fashion authority once again," he adds.

It seems that the Italian native - he hails from a small town near Reggio Emilia, the home of parmesan cheese - is a man of his word.


When he took over as Gucci president and chief executive, Mr Marco Bizzarri appointed an unknown – the brand’s behind-the-scenes accessories designer, Alessandro Michele (above) – creative director. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

In just two years since taking over the helm, Mr Bizzarri has returned the 10,000-strong Gucci brand to its money-making status for parent company, Kering - the French luxury-goods holding company that also owns brands such as Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Puma, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent Paris.

Last year, Gucci reported that its revenue rose 12.7 per cent from the previous year. The brand's 2016 full-year revenue also exceeded 4 billion euros (S$5.96 billion) for the first time. But the financials are impressive only when compared with the dismal state the brand had been in just months before Mr Bizzarri came on board, having suffered more than a year of next-to-nothing growth before sales started plummeting in the third quarter of 2014.

The brand that once sold the hottest ticket items in the 2004 heyday of then-creative designer Tom Ford and chief executive Domenico de Sole, had a decade later begun leaching heat.

"It had become a brand that had too much emphasis on craftsmanship, to the point that it was no longer pushing the boundaries of fashion," Mr Bizzarri says. "I wanted to look at the business with fresh eyes. For Gucci to evolve to its next phase, the change had to be swift and company-wide - something that would affect the company culture."

And though he knew evolution meant replacing long-time creative director Frida Giannini with a new name, few in the industry anticipated his next move: promoting an unknown - Gucci's behind-the-scenes accessories designer, Alessandro Michele - to top dog and essentially turning a stagehand into a star.

On his part, Mr Bizzarri does not deny initially meeting a shortlist of potential candidates comprising the who's who of the industry, all of whom were gunning for the role at the brand.

But the introductory meetings he had set up early on to speak with those at Gucci who report to him led him to Michele.

My favourites are always the pieces that are the most bold, the most different, the most daring. Fashion, just like business, should be about challenging what people think and having fun.

GUCCI PRESIDENT AND CHIEF EXECUTIVE MARCO BIZZARRI

On the surface, it seems surprising that two strangers - who seem poles apart - could come together in such sweet synthesis.

Compared to the fast-talking, sharp-suited Mr Bizzarri, Michele is soft-spoken and exemplifies a sort of hobo-chic vibe: think flowing black mane and a uniform of worn-out jeans, baseball caps and an assortment of rings and trinkets adorning each finger.

But superficial differences aside, what was meant to be a short catch-up session at Michele's apartment in Rome to understand the work processes at Gucci, ended up becoming a four-hour-long discussion - with the two talking about everything from Gucci's brand positioning to its future direction, culture and even its shopfront displays.

Michele, 45, who had been at Gucci since 2002 and was thinking of resigning at the time, saw nothing to lose in being honest to a fault.

Mr Bizzarri, in turn, was open-minded and observant. He immediately took to Michele's bold and eclectic personal style, which was nothing like the products Gucci was selling at the time.

Case in point: The fur-lined loafers Michele had on his feet during that first meeting - which he designed and created for himself - caught Mr Bizzarri's eye and have today become a Gucci cult classic.

"Everything about Michele was fearless. He was very open about the issues he saw and had a clear idea of what needed to be done moving forward," says Mr Bizzarri. "Even though he was looking at things from an aesthetic point of view and I was looking at it from a business angle, we were in sync in our direction and how we wanted to shape the company."

On Mr Bizzarri's part, his previous 11 years at Kering (he was formerly the CEO at Stella McCartney and Bottega Veneta before being appointed Kering's CEO of luxury - couture and leather goods division in 2014) meant his decision to appoint an unknown to creative director was not questioned by Kering chairman Francois-Henri Pinault.

But the true test for Michele came in January 2015 when Mr Bizzarri asked him to stage a menswear show in five days after Giannini left earlier than expected.

Mr Bizzarri wanted a creative director who was brave enough to step up to the plate.

"I am very impatient and I needed someone who would be willing to take the plunge with me - it was in some ways a test for both of us," he says.

The result of Michele's genderfluid and eclectic design aesthetic since that first show has meant a complete about-turn for Gucci - a move away from the racy ladieswho-lunch vibe to a whimsical and colourful palette with bold embellishment and disco chinoiserie.

While Giannini had spent the previous decade paring back Gucci's iconic double-G logo and signature green-red-green stripe, Michele transformed them into stars - making them the centrepiece of everything from handbags and sneakers to ready-to-wear. Women's and men's pieces are now also more androgynous and fluid, with prints and cuts used for one gender often reflected in pieces for the other.

The proof of their success is in the pudding.

New products that were introduced as part of Michele's collections represented 30 per cent of total revenue in the last quarter of 2015, but that figure jumped to more than 85 per cent last year.

The duo's stamp can also be seen in stores, with more than 80 of the 520 stores globallyrenovated to reflect this more accessible approach to fashion.

Gone are the gold, beige and dark wood interiors of yore. In their place is a light and open concept, with tufted velvet walls and sofas, colourful exotic carpets and vintage displays - like wooden hand mannequins displaying rings - which encourage buyers to touch, feel and try the products.

In Singapore's Ion Orchard store, the first in South-east Asia revamped with Michele's vision, customisation corners for women's handbags and women's and men's sneakers allow shoppers to play with different embroidered and bejewelled patches on bags, and customise initials on shoes.

The brand also staged its first combined show for Milan Fashion Week last month - doing away with separate shows for men and women that have long been the norm for luxury fashion houses.

"Now 50 per cent of our business come from millennials, from practically zero two years ago, and we are No. 1 in brand perception among a younger consumer," Mr Bizzarri says, adding that the Gucci customer today is someone who is self-confident and has the personality to embrace the colourful aesthetic.

"Sure, maybe we have not retained all our old customers from the past, but what we have gained is a younger, more discerning consumer, who is likely to guarantee the survival of our brand in the future."

For now, Mr Bizzarri is determined to launch Gucci into the digital future - focusing efforts on e-commerce, with 35 per cent of its investment now in digital - as opposed to expanding its empire with more brick-and-mortar stores.

"We want to engage with our consumers and increase the relevancy of the brand," he says. "We need to stay ahead of the competition and rethink how fashion is conceived and experienced, which means factoring in the role of digital."

For Gucci, this has meant using e-commerce to reach a younger and diverse audience, a challenge for many luxury fashion houses that are struggling to appeal to unpredictable millennial consumer. Terrorist attacks, such as those in Paris, have dampened tourism in Europe and impacted the retail industry's sales in European stores.

The need to reach out to new customers has buoyed the importance of markets outside Europe, such as Singapore, which serve as important destinations not only for the South-east Asian consumer, but also for transit consumers from important markets such as China.

Last year, the Asia-Pacific region accounted for 34 per cent of Gucci's overall business, more than Western Europe (28 per cent) and North America (21 per cent).

Ultimately for Mr Bizzarri, it seems that pleasing the customer and enjoying oneself along the way is key.

"I am not a designer, but when Michele asked me in the past to give him feedback about his pieces, my favourites are always the pieces that are the most bold, the most different, the most daring," he says. "Fashion, just like business, should be about challenging what people think and having fun.

"And in this era of Gucci, we are definitely having fun."


Bestsellers introduced by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele


PHOTOS: GUCCI

Medium Dionysus GG Supreme shoulder bag with applique, $8,750



PHOTOS: GUCCI

Mini Sylvie top handle bag, $3,080



PHOTOS: GUCCI

Small GG Marmont velvet matelasse shoulder bag, $2,260



PHOTOS: GUCCI

Ace sneakers with bee embroidery, $790



PHOTOS: GUCCI

Princetown slipper in leather and fur, $1,340

All items available at Gucci, 01-05 Ion Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2017, with the headline 'Makeover Maven'. Print Edition | Subscribe