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Gucci in transition: The debut of Sabato De Sarno and the birth of a new luxury icon

By Jule Scott


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Gucci FW23. Credit: Spotlight Launchmetrics

The debut of Gucci's new creative director Sabato De Sarno is considered one of the most eagerly awaited events of Milan Fashion Week. Not least because the fashion industry has had to wait almost eight months to finally catch a glimpse of the vision of the man who succeeds Alessandro Michele. De Sarno's first offering for the Italian luxury fashion house will now walk the runway on Friday, but early indications of the potential journey of the brand as a whole are plentiful - thanks in no small part to fundamental changes within Gucci's parent company Kering.

An anniversary year marked by change

"We are not in a transitional year by any means," Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault told Vogue Business magazine in February, after the release of fourth-quarter results. Nevertheless, the year so far has proved to be a thoroughly transformative one for the French luxury goods group. While at the beginning of the year it was emphasised that the then Gucci CEO Marco Bizzarri would by no means have to leave the fashion house with the designer he had once chosen, Alessandro Michele, Kering revised this decision in July and so Bizzarri - directly after De Sarno's debut - vacated his post on 23 September.

His position - unlike Michele's - was to be filled immediately, albeit temporarily. Jean-François Palus, the current managing director of Kering Group, took on the role to "strengthen Gucci's teams and operations as the fashion house regains influence and momentum, and to prepare the leadership and organisation for the future," according to a July announcement. The manager, who has been described by Kering CEO Pinault as his right-hand man and daily sparring partner, will move from Paris to Milan to run the local business.

But that's not all, because not only at Gucci, but also at the top of the parent company, a lot is changing in this historic year for Kering. About 60 years ago, the group, then called Établissements Pinault, was founded by François Pinault, the father of the current CEO and specialist in the timber trade. Two years later, after the acquisition of the French department stores' chain Printemps and snapping up a stake in the mail order company La Redoute, the group became the retail company Pinault Printemps Redoute (PPR), making the transition to a luxury conglomerate. The name change to Kering came in 2013 - a milestone that the company celebrated that year with, among other things, a 30 percent stake in Valentino, its own coffee table book and numerous events. In addition, the anniversary brought some changes at the top, which were particularly evident in the appointment of co-CEOs. Francesca Bellettini, the boss of fashion house Yves Saint Laurent, was appointed deputy CEO of Kering, as was Kering's chief financial officer Jean-Marc Duplaix.

"We are building a more robust organisation to take full advantage of the growth of the global luxury market," Pinault said in July.

Gucci as the epitome of luxury?

With these words, Pinault defines not only the future of Kering, but also for Gucci in particular. That the luxury conglomerate would want to take full advantage of the growth of the global luxury market seems logical, but therein lies the problem, for although Gucci was once considered one of the industry's greatest success stories, most recently under Michele the label struggled to capitalise on the post-pandemic upturn.

Under the leadership of Michele and Bizzarri, Gucci managed arguably one of the most successful turnarounds in the history of the luxury industry from 2015 to 2019, driven by maximalist rebranding and nostalgia. The brand's sales doubled to almost 10 billion euros during this period, while Gucci's profits quadrupled - but the pandemic brought this success story to a halt, with 2022 results falling short of expectations. The designer's maximalist vision had seemingly reached its zenith.

Now the stakes are high for Kering - but more importantly for Gucci - as continuing to lag behind the competition, particularly the equally French luxury goods group LVMH, is hardly a permanent state for the company and so it is the chosen creative director De Sarno who is to help the Italian fashion house to a new lease of life.

De Sarno: Gucci is an opportunity to fall in love with fashion again

Since Michele's abrupt departure last November, Gucci has been kept running by an in-house design team. This practice is not uncommon, often seen as a kind of fashion interlude before a new creative director takes over, especially if he or she is expected to make an aesthetic U-turn - and there have been plenty of indications of one abound.

Sabato De Sarno, ph Riccardo Raspa Credits: Courtesy of Gucci.

De Sarno's task is to "write the next chapter of Gucci, strengthening the fashion authority of the house while benefiting from its rich heritage", said outgoing Gucci CEO Bizzarri at the end of January. At the same time, Pinault stressed that under its new creative director, Gucci will "influence fashion and culture through desirable products and collections" and offer "a unique and contemporary vision of modern luxury". Between the lines, then, one could already read the desire for a more luxurious and timeless positioning after years of excess and extravagance under Michele.

The first steps in this direction have already been taken with the introduction of "salons” - exclusive boutiques for the super-rich of the brand's clientele - as is the case with traditional brands like Chanel and Hermés. The brand's Instagram account was also stripped of Michele's eccentricity as well as his muses like singer Harry Styles. What remained on social media was a message from De Sarno himself, as Gucci represented "the opportunity to fall in love with fashion, ancora". Ancora, a versatile Italian word that can mean both "continue" and "once again", seems to be the designer's first direct message to the industry and the brand's disciples. However, it is now also up to him to make fashion fall in love with Gucci "ancora".

Who is Sabato De Sarno?

Like Michele, Gucci did not choose De Sarno as a name with media impact, but rather an industry insider. Now the designer, who grew up in Naples and has so far been one of the more quiet creators in the background, will step into the limelight himself for the first time. His curriculum vitae is not to be ignored, for with stations at Prada, Dolce & Gabbana and most recently Valentino, where he was responsible for the creative direction of womenswear and menswear under creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli, the fashion designer has already passed through three of the most renowned Italian fashion houses.

Under De Sarno, who will be responsible for the women's, men's, leather goods, accessories and lifestyle collections, Gucci will presumably focus on a classic identity, but even he does not seem entirely free of nostalgia. The few glimpses he has given so far of his vision for Gucci are strongly reminiscent of the Gucci of the past, not the recent one under Michele, but that of the Tom Ford era. In an interview with Vogue Business, De Sarno reminisced about the first Gucci piece he ever owned - a dark red velvet jacket by the US designer with a black collar. His first jewellery campaign for the Italian fashion house was also reminiscent of early 2000s Gucci. While on the one hand, this was reflected in the return of top model Daria Werbowy, who, after numerous campaigns, is for many synonymous with Phoebe Philos’ Celine, but had also been the face of the Florentine fashion house's AW04 collection, it could likewise be seen in the modern glossy look of photographer David Sims and the simple but unmistakable sensual staging of the product - the first that De Sarno presented.

Die neue Gucci Jewelry Kampagne. Bild: David Sims / Gucci

Some designers are artistic, others are technical. De Sarno, unlike his predecessor Michele, belongs to the latter category, Vogue Business reported. According to the industry magazine, the designer chose to train at the Istituto Secoli in Milan because the school was the most technically demanding and he wanted to learn practical skills. These skills eventually led to an internship at Prada, which in turn led to a full-time position at the company, where for a time he was responsible for patterns. Coats were highlighted in the profile on the designer, and the publication revealed that they are highly likely to be seen on the runway. His Gucci debut is expected to begin with a coat that is minimalist in cut and construction, wrote journalist Nicole Phelps, who visited De Sarno in his atelier, and also promised the already prominent comeback of the brand's Jackie bag, albeit in soft leather, "to make it more suitable for everyday wear", as well as the classic Bamboo bag.

It's a creative direction that, while not yet officially confirmed, would fit well into Gucci's aspirational vision as a timeless luxury brand, and so it stands to reason that it is consumable luxury and timeless fashion that De Sarno will serve up at his Gucci debut on Friday.

This article originally appeared on FashionUnited.DE. Translation and edit by: Rachel Douglass.

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