The Gucci Balenciaga debate - Coley Porter Bell

The Gucci Balenciaga debate

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Branding experts, including our own Jenn Szekley, and analysts review and discuss the Gucci Balenciaga debate, looking at the project unveiled with the Aria collection.

MILAN — Arguably, never has a hacking job been as lauded as Gucci’s “incursion” into the Balenciaga brand.

Creative director Alessandro Michele presented his Aria collection for Gucci on Thursday, unveiling designs that pay tribute to Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, Guccifying the designer’s silhouettes and placing the two brands’ labels on a shiny, sequined pantsuit, for example. Michele told WWD that he and Gvasalia “really wanted to surprise viewers with these designs,” aiming to continue to experiment in “a dialogue with the outside world,” and feeling like “playing with possibly the biggest sacrilege,” blending distinctive elements and logos from two very recognizable brands, “getting out of the closed-in atelier. Creativity means dialogue, continuous experiment and freedom.”

How this will translate in production and distribution remains unanswered for the time being as Gucci on Friday said it was “really premature to speculate further on this ‘hacking project,’” underscoring that it was neither a collaboration nor a capsule. No matter — branding experts and analysts piled on the praise, basically defining the whole idea as “genius,” and giving their stamp of approval over the strategy behind it.

“Both being owned by Kering, it’s a win-win, and arguably an easier deal to structure being both in-house,” said Los Angelesbased lawyer Jeff Gluck, who specializes in intellectual property litigation. “I’m not aware of the deal structure but typically the IP is owned by the house, not the designer. I do think this is another example of rules being broken in a good way and industry norms becoming more unrestrained. I’m still waiting for that Nike x Adidas collaboration.”

The tie-up “brings additional desire to the Gucci brand,” said Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm. “This is an especially intelligent project, it’s subtler than co-branding. One brand is reworking the aesthetic code of another label, taking iconic shapes and molding them into something new. And both designers are disruptive. Alessandro sprinkled a good dose of pepper on Gucci.”

For all intents and purposes, he continued, these are Gucci products and the company, he believes, is “testing the waters, feeling the temperature” of the reaction to the products, and will then adjust and fine-tune the distribution, depending on the feedback, maybe channeling a few pieces to celebrities and influencers and then merchandising them for the larger public, perhaps through pop-ups or shops-in-shop. This tie-up is easier to manage for a company such as Gucci that can rely on a formidable retail network, he noted.

Ferreri said the amount of paperwork, red tape, contracts and negotiations between Gucci and Balenciaga had to be less than any other collaboration with an outside company, as they are both owned by Kering. “It would be great to see a Bamboo bag in the Bottega Veneta intrecciato,” he mused, speaking of another Kering brand.

Indeed, Ferreri underscored how this “hacking project” is in sync with remarks made in February by Kering CEO FrançoisHenri Pinault on increasing the number of in-store and digital merchandising events, pop-ups and pop-ins, capsule collections “and powerful creative collaborations” for Gucci, commenting on the label’s 10.3 percent drop in organic sales in the fourth quarter last year.

“Creativity in fashion and luxury is nourished by the constant changes in society’s attitudes, and by understanding the new needs and desires resulting from those changes, enabling creators to provide personal responses that are both surprising and relevant,” Pinault said on Thursday. “I have seen how their innovative, inclusive and iconoclastic visions are aligned with the expectations and desires of people today,” he said of Michele and Gvasalia. “Those visions are reflected not only in their creative offerings, but also in their ability to raise questions about our times and its conventions. The unique, creative experience witnessed [in the Aria collection] is a perfect example of their approach, and illustrates the extent to which creativity and freedom are linked at Kering.”

In an interview on Friday, Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, said Michele’s “hacking” brought the “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice of design appropriation into the open.

“It’s such an amazing, brave conceptual idea to do that — saying and assuming, OK, we’re all influenced by each other in a way, and fashion is an evolution of these kinds of influences. And I think they did it in a great way,” Gvasalia said.

“That idea immediately spoke to me because I felt it brings something new out there in terms of how brands see each other,” he added. “It was a more conceptual exchange.”

Marketing and communication adviser Paolo Landi also said this was a “beautiful idea,” but he believes the true added value of this operation is “immaterial or rather, the immaterial value by far surpasses the potential tangible value. The high conceptual content of the project brings to Gucci, but also to Balenciaga, an enormous intangible value, in terms of modernity of the company culture.”

He sees “the walls of competition being broken down. The rules of strategic positioning are overthrown, as two storied brands are joined together in the modernity of an offer that is disorienting.” The end-results are shared, he said, and the two companies become “even stronger, precisely because of the innovative character of the operation,” stimulating “a dialogue between two of the best talents today, bringing vitality in the universe of fashion, which is sometimes static.”

Landi compared the Gucci-Balenciaga project to “certain artistic partnerships in the past,” such as the 1620 “Martirio delle Sante Rufina e Seconda” in Milan’s Pinacoteca di Brera, dubbed a “painting of the three hands,” because it was realized by three painters — Giovan Battista Cerano, Pier Francesco Morazzone and Giulio Cesare Procaccini. “But there are other examples where one painter, for example, creates the figures and the other the landscape,” said Landi.

The market “always rewards bravery and innovation, especially the financial markets, but I am convinced that also in terms of sales, these products will be successful because of the uniqueness of the event, which will probably be unrepeatable,” according to Landi. The value of this win-win strategy, paradoxically, would be even stronger if the two brands were not both owned by Kering, he concluded.

Analysts were also upbeat about the potential of the project. Equity analyst Fabio Cereda at Jefferies International Limited said the Aria collection was “one of Gucci’s best events — smart and a proper statement of intent in its centenary year. Kind of ‘don’t you forget about me’ on steroids.”

He defined the project with a brand under the same Kering umbrella “a genius idea” for Gucci, believing this “could be a test with scalability.” He also praised the selection of Bamboo bags presented on Thursday, which in a report earlier this month he said are “expected to resonate well with the European cluster in particular given the key heritage component,” seeing them as “a core driver of what we expect to see gradually improving metrics later this year.”

Luca Solca, senior research analyst, global luxury goods at Bernstein, believes the tie-up “is a good idea. Gucci especially needs to create a novelty effect in China with the young Chinese who have bought a lot of Alessandro Michele’s products. We are seeing an excellent reaction on Chinese social media and the collection seems really different, which is a good reason to buy it. Bravo Gucci.”

Vincenzo Di Sarli, president and founder of DMR Group, which focuses on monitoring, tracking and analyzing data, communication activities and public relations strategies for leading brands worldwide, concurred with Solca. In China, he said, consumers are always “rushing for the latest news,” and Di Sarli expects this project to be successful in the region.

He also sees it as “a step forward in fashion.” While leveraging synergies with Kering, Michele succeeded in bringing novelty, foregoing any kind of rivalry with another designer, on the contrary pairing with a young and buzzy designer. “It’s a genius idea because both brands are within the same group, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened with more Kering labels.”

“It’s a sign of the times, an evolution, young people want new things to differentiate themselves, there’s more and more research and communication. A few years ago, who would have imagined Chiara Ferragni joining Tod’s as board member?” he said, referring to the recent appointment of the digital entrepreneur. “Content constantly evolves, young people are thirsty for news, the mobile phone is a window on the world and everyone is always at the window.”

The COVID-19 pandemic “has closed an era and opened another one, with new revolutionary phenomena taking place, and fashion reflects what will happen in the future.” Di Sarli also underscored that “there is a great communication project behind this launch, it takes very little to make a mistake, but they are genius at communicating and have caught our attention.”

Rebecca Robins, chief learning and culture officer at Interbrand, also pointed to the element of novelty. “Collaborations are taking new shapes and forms in the industry, from the open collaboration model of Moncler Genius, to the co-creative leadership at Prada. Both brands are well known for ‘iconic’ brand tangos, most recently with Gucci x The North Face, and Balenciaga x Crocs. It’s not a surprising move for Gucci, as a brand that’s been breaking boundaries and defining its own rules and playbook for some time, with Alessandro Michele even creating his own lexicon for collections.”

Collaboration might not be the right word for this current Balenciaga/Gucci combination, said Jenn Szekely, managing partner at Coley Porter Bell (U.S.), but “where we are in today’s market a collaboration can be a desirable thing for customers of these brands. The key is to make sure it is a 1+1=3 equation, where they offer something unique that captures the essence of both brands, instead of a copy and paste, and then they will create real desire and command a price premium above their current price points.”

Szekely said that, from a branding perspective, “we are getting more and more inquiries to help companies determine the optimal relationship between two brands as these partnerships proliferate. There a variety of ways these brands can go to market (co-branded, one leads versus the other, one is an ingredient within another) and determining the right go-to market approach is a critical part of launching these collaborations.”