I t was a name that sounded so sweet, so seductive. Synonymous with wealth, style, power. But that name was a curse, too,” purrs Lady Gaga, in the Italian accent that has divided critics, at the beginning of Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci.
You might have heard a little something about this film, which chronicles the murder of Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) by his ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Its release today has been preceded by months of hype and intrigue. There have been reports of the Gucci family’s outrage (the original clan no longer own the brand), internet-melting set photos — Lady Gaga and Driver wearing fabulously camp skiwear — not to mention images of her violet Gucci dress with Gucci monogram-branded tights at the London premiere.
Though Gucci point out they had no creative involvement with the film, it has helped catapult the brand to the heart of public consciousness in a way other fashion companies could only dream of. The movie is just one example of Gucci’s recent pop culture dominance. Others include its relationship with Harry Styles — an ambassador whose gender norm-disrupting wardrobe has sparked a thousand thinkpieces. Earlier this month, Gucci set the internet on fire by sending Home Alone’s Macaulay Culkin down the catwalk in front of stars including Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Serena Williams.
This summer Gucci was named the most popular luxury brand on TikTok. This all comes after six months of celebrations for its 100th birthday during which Gucci, unusually, designed a collection using the codes of another luxury brand, Balenciaga, titled the Hacker Project. In London, the Gucci Circolo Shoreditch has opened — a pop-up shop, café and listening lounge — while The Savoy has collaborated with it to create The Royal Suite by Gucci.
Its new era started unassumingly enough. It was January 2015, when a then-low profile Gucci staffer of 13 years, Alessandro Michele, was given the chance to design a menswear collection, by a new CEO, Marco Bizzarri. His first show featured peekaboo red lace tops and pussy bow blouses — a marked departure from its usual depiction of men as chino-wearing beefcakes. He followed up with a womenswear collection that swapped Gucci glitz for Wes Anderson-adjacent kookiness.
Many in the industry assumed he would be a temporary appointment, until a big name was helicoptered in, and that this quirky new look would prove a bit much for Gucci’s existing buyers. Actually, what happened next, says Sarah Shannon, editorial director of Vogue Business, was “the biggest luxury turnaround story in recent years”. The brand’s revenues doubled, and profits trebled, between 2015 and 2019.
“I think he has really touched a nerve,” says Sara Gay Forden, author of the book, House of Gucci: A True Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour, and Greed, which inspired Scott’s film. “People really responded to the fluid presentation of gender on the runway, particularly the younger demographic.” The rethink, overseen by Bizzarri and Michele “as a double act,” says Shannon, “has gone far beyond what a lot of other brands have been willing to try. It was so disruptive to the industry — rethinking what a brand could be with a focus on self-expression, inclusivity and being innovative at all costs”.
Gucci was one of the first houses to go fur-free, to stop showing collections during the fashion week schedule — a move made in part in the name of sustainability — and to experiment with the online gaming platform Roblox, Shannon points out. “They test and experiment on everything.”
Whether with inclusive casting (a high point was hiring Ellie Goldstein, a model with Down’s Syndrome, the star of its beauty campaign in summer 2020) or collaborative projects (it recently launched Gucci Vault, an “online concept store”, the brand has cultivated something Grazia fashion and lifestyle features director Laura Antonia Jordan describes as “you can sit with us” energy. “A kind of warmth which bucks traditional stereotypes of those mega-brands being cold and stand-offish.” As for the maximalist, many-layered clothes (a typical catwalk might comprise medieval headdresses, bondage-style dresses and Eighties batwing jumpers), says Jordan, “they are almost — dare I say — immune to trends. They make you feel happy and poppy”. Average fashion fans won’t be able to afford the show-stopper dresses but there are always trainers, belts, bags, tights, perfume and make-up.
Many who appreciate the brand’s glamorous, eccentric fantasy don’t buy anything at all. Last summer, the TikTok #GucciModelChallenge saw teens dress up to look Gucci-esque using items from their own wardrobe. The challenge was created by a TikTok user, but Gucci later got involved, creating its own version.
This isn’t something all luxury bands would do, says head of luxury brand partnerships at TikTok, Kristina Karassoulis. “They are not afraid to fail. They listen to the community and want to take part. A lot of brands don’t want to do that because they want to control the narrative.” Largely, however, Gucci’s TikTok popularity is rooted in its “strong cultural relevance for Gen Z and millennials — because they have the same values, of diversity and sustainability”.
But even while Gucci rides high on the “hottest brands in the world” lists, sales aren’t what they were. They fell short of analyst expectations in 2020, and for the first and third quarters of this year.
Given that the resurgent Gucci now accounts for 60 per cent of revenues and 80 per cent of profits at parent company Kering, this is a problem. François-Henri Pinault, chairman of Kering, said it expected “an intense fourth quarter” though it’s difficult to see how the brand can reconcile ambitions for growth every season with the sustainability that appeals to Gen Z. But for the bottom line, at least, the hype around House of Gucci couldn’t have come at a better time.
In the past, Kering-owned Gucci has not seemed keen to associate with the murky, murderous story of the Gucci family. Now, having given House of Gucci’s costume designer access to the archives, and dressed stars for many of the premieres, they seem to have made peace with it. Which makes sense. Isn’t new Gucci all about embracing one’s flaws? After all, says Forden, “every brand needs a story. Even though this one is a tragic one, it is authentic”.