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Gucci’s Creative Chief to Step Down

Alessandro Michele had reinvigorated storied Italian luxury brand, though a period of rapid growth has since slowed

By NICK KOSTOV
Thu, Nov 24, 2022 8:58amGrey Clock 2 min

Alessandro Michele, whose eccentric designs reinvigorated Gucci, is stepping down as creative director of the Italian luxury brand as a period of rapid growth peters out.

Parent company Kering SA said in a statement late Wednesday that Mr. Michele was leaving his post at the fashion house having “played a fundamental part in making the brand what it is today.”

The company said Gucci’s design office would continue to carry the direction of the house forward until a new creative organisation is announced. Mr. Michele is stepping down immediately, a Kering spokesperson said.

Kering didn’t give a reason for Mr. Michele’s departure. In the statement, Mr. Michele said that “there are times when paths part ways because of the different perspectives each one of us may have.”

The departure of Mr. Michele comes as Gucci tries to adopt some subtler designs that endure across fashion seasons.

Since taking the creative lead of Gucci in 2015, Mr. Michele’s flamboyant designs were roundly praised by critics and scooped up by droves of younger shoppers from New York to Beijing, sparking a run of remarkable growth for the brand.

However, in recent years Gucci’s sales growth has lagged behind some major rivals like Louis Vuitton and Dior appeal more to older, wealthier consumers who seek out products that are unlikely to go out of style. That trend was exacerbated by the pandemic because of Gucci’s heavy reliance on tourist shoppers from Asia.

After Mr. Michele’s seven-year stint, Gucci is suffering from brand fatigue, said Bernstein analyst Luca Solca. “It needs to open a new creative chapter,” he said.

Still, the departure of Mr. Michele, 49, marks the end of an era for the industry. When he took the creative director job in 2015 the famous double-GG marque had gone cold after years of over reliance on the logo and over expansion into lower-price bags and accessories.

Mr. Michele, who first joined Gucci in 2002 to design bags, was little-known at the time and his appointment was seen by some analysts as a risk. But the Italian soon rolled out an instantly recognisable look and his use of pop culture logos quickly made his designs a favourite of fashion-savvy Instagram users. Fashion shows became spectacles that generated huge buzz on social media.

Gucci went on a tear, with the brand’s annual revenue more than doubling during Mr. Michele’s first four years to reach €8.3 billion in 2018, currently equivalent to about $8.6 billion.

From 2019, however, growth at Gucci slowed substantially, hurt in part by controversy over a sweater that critics likened to blackface. The pandemic then largely locked down international travel, pressuring the brand’s sales to well-heeled shoppers who splurged abroad.

In the most recent quarter, sales growth at Gucci lagged behind its key competitors while its business in China has yet to rebound.

That is a headache for the parent, Kering, where the Gucci brand accounts for the lion’s share of sales and profit. In June, Kering detailed to investors its strategy for Gucci aimed at sparking the next phase of growth. It recruited a former Tiffany’s executive to run the brand’s Chinese business and named a new executive vice president to oversee merchandising.

Paris-based Kering has in recent years successfully steered its stable of brands to capture the spirit of the times, mixing pop culture with more traditional luxury. Balenciaga has taken the U.S. by storm under the creative direction of Demna, its mononymic Georgian designer, while rising sales at Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta also have helped the company offset slowing growth at Gucci.

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Sales of the cosmetic product are a bright spot in an otherwise bleak discretionary-goods environment

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Masks off, lipstick index on.

In a gloomy economy, consumers might cut back on other discretionary purchases but will keep shelling out for small luxuries such as lipstick—or so goes the theory. “When lipstick sales go up, people don’t want to buy dresses,” Leonard Lauder, then-chairman of Estée Lauder who is widely credited for coming up with the so-called “lipstick index,” told The Wall Street Journal in 2001.

L’Oréal Chief Executive Nicolas Hieronimus called this out during the company’s earnings call in October, noting that a luxury lipstick or mascara is only €30, making it an “affordable treat.” Sales at L’Oréal rose 9.1% in the third quarter compared with a year earlier despite slower sales in China due to Covid-related lockdowns. Coty, maker of CoverGirl makeup, said organic sales grew 9% over the same period.

Beauty sales have also been a rare bright spot for retailers: Target said beauty category sales grew roughly 15% in its quarter ended Oct. 29 compared with a year earlier, with Ulta Beauty shops in Target tripling their total sales volume over that period.

While Macy’s namesake stores saw comparable-store sales decline last quarter, its beauty-focused Bluemercury chain saw same-store sales grow 14% last quarter compared with a year earlier. Kohl’s locations with Sephora are outperforming the rest of the department-store chain.

Of the 14 discretionary categories that market research firm NPD Group tracks, prestige beauty—products you might find at a department store or a Sephora—is the only category that is seeing unit sales growth year to date. And lipstick, which suffered during the masked-up pandemic, is making up for lost time.

Lipstick sales have grown 37% through October this year compared with a year earlier, according to Larissa Jensen, beauty industry analyst at NPD Group. That is an acceleration from the 31% growth seen during the same period last year. Lip product is the only major category within prestige beauty where sales are actually up compared with pre-pandemic levels, according to Ms. Jensen.

Cosmetic companies have also called out strong sales in fragrances, calling it the “fragrance index.” Demand has been so robust that there is an industrywide fragrance component shortage, Coty said in a press release announcing third-quarter earnings earlier this month. CEO Sue Nabi said during the call that Coty hasn’t seen any kind of trade-down or slowdown, also noting that consumers are shifting away from gifting perfume to buying it for themselves.

“A big piece of it is just a shift in what wellness means to consumers,” NPD Group’s Ms. Jensen said. “Beauty is one of the few industries that are positioned to meet [consumers’] emotional need. It makes them feel good.”

While the lipstick effect could be observed in the recession in the early 2000s, that wasn’t the case during the 2007-09 recession, during which lipstick sales declined alongside other discretionary purchases. Part of this might have had to do with category-specific dynamics.

There was a lot of newness in the cosmetic industry in 2001, including lip gloss, a relatively nascent category back then. That tailwind simply wasn’t there starting in 2008, though nail polish turned out to be consumers’ small indulgence of choice in that period. This time around, consumers may be eager to show off a part of their face that was hidden behind a mask for so long during the pandemic.

In an otherwise bleak environment for companies selling discretionary goods, those in the business of selling cosmetics look well poised to come out of the holiday season looking freshened up.

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