New Gucci designer debuts collection

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Gucci's new designer, Alessandro Michele, unveiled a parade of nostalgic, romantic pieces on Wednesday, at the most hotly awaited show of Milan Fashion Week, after designer Frida Giannini departed acrimoniously last month with her partner, chief executive Patricio di Marco.

Just a day after The New York Times published Mr di Marco's exit memo, Michele was keen to distance himself from the rumour mill. "There is no room for consolatory nostalgia," the press statement for Michele's new show said.

But he revisited the androgynous style that marked his men's collection, which he rushed together in five days last month when he took over from Giannini, with male and female models on the runway looking almost interchangeable.

He also delved into an imaginary attic trunk full of vintage treasures. There were Lurex skirts and sweater vests, pussy bow shirts and lace mini dresses and rabbit coats. It was all merchandised to the nth degree, with nerdy oversize tortoise shell eyeglasses, knit beanie hats and floral hair combs dripping wisteria.

Michele had spent the last 12 years working in Gucci's accessories department, the last three as associate director to Giannini.

Mr Di Marco and Giannini, one of fashion's most famous power couples and the parents of a nearly two-year-old daughter, were ousted from the company in December.

When Giannini was let go, after several years of mixed reviews and increasingly sluggish sales for a brand that is crucial to parent company Kering's bottom line, she was given the chance to bow out gracefully. She would be able to show her men's collection in January and her women's collection in late February.

But something seemed to go awry soon after the December announcement that she and Mr di Marco would be leaving.

On Dec 18, he delivered remarks to Gucci employees at a company cafeteria in Florence that made it clear he had been fired. Part of his speech was inspired from the memo he sent out to employees that day, which was defiant, self-congratulatory and, above all, bitter. He blamed his enemies at Gucci - he did not name names but referred to them as "nani" or dwarfs - who he implied had plotted his downfall.

"Against my will, I leave my cathedral uncompleted," he wrote in the nearly 3,000-word document, which was obtained by The New York Times and translated from Italian to English.

He also said: "It's a pity I won't be able to see how this beautiful story would have continued."

Within days of his departure, tension grew between Giannini and Gucci, according to two people directly familiar with the situation but who were not authorised to speak for the company. Barely a week into the job, Mr di Marco's replacement, Mr Marco Bizzarri, apparently found the situation untenable.

On Jan 9, Giannini, after more than 12 years with the company, was immediately dismissed. She left the building that day, assisted by a few colleagues who helped her carry out her belongings.

Gucci dominates Kering's luxury business. (Kering was formerly known as PPR and known before that as the Gucci Group.) Last year, Gucci had €3.49 billion (S$5.4 billion) in revenue. The next two biggest luxury revenue earners at Kering - Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent - brought in a combined US$2 billion (S$2.7 billion).

The company is nearly a century old, but it became a significant profit and revenue generator only in the last two decades. In the early 1990s, Gucci nearly went bankrupt.

Mr Domenico De Sole, former chief executive of the Gucci Group, quickly changed that with Tom Ford. As creative director, Ford infused Gucci with sexiness, minted fashion stars and built an empire.

When he and Mr De Sole left the company in 2004, Gucci was earning revenue of US$3 billion, up from US$200 million a decade earlier. Gucci Group executives got their first crack at a major succession plan. It failed. It split up leadership ranks and appointed three bosses: Alessandra Facchinetti headed womenswear; John Ray controlled men's; and Giannini led accessories. Facchinetti was gone by 2005, Ray in early 2006 and soon Giannini was the sole creative director at Gucci, producing both men's and womenswear.

When she took over, Ford's iconic sexy designs went by the wayside, but the money and profits kept pouring in.

In early 2009, Mr di Marco was appointed Gucci chief executive after having achieved considerable financial success at Bottega Veneta. Six months later, his relationship with Giannini became romantic.

When Mr De Sole was in charge of the Gucci Group, he prohibited employees from becoming involved with one another because he felt it disrupted business, according to two people familiar with the label when he ran it.

But Mr Robert Polet, then Gucci Group's chief executive, was more lenient. "They themselves were surprised that it happened and were slightly embarrassed about how to present it," he said in an interview. "But they made it work over time."

Not everyone felt this way. "You can't have the two No. 1s being an item," said Ms Mimma Viglezio, a former executive vice-president for global communications at the Gucci Group.

"It's bad for the employees. I got e-mails from people saying, 'We don't have anyone to talk to because they talk to each other.' And if one or the other wants to go because they've been hired by someone else, then they're both going. That's bad."

In 2012, Mr di Marco and Giannini had a daughter. It was around that time that Gucci's growth came to a halt.

Gucci's operating profit dropped by 6.7 per cent last year and Kering has had back-to-back years of falling profit.

In the interview process, Michele presented a plan that greatly diverged from Giannini's, with Mr Bizzarri telling the media that the selection of Michele was "based upon the contemporary vision he has articulated for the brand".

Giannini's story as creative director lasted eight years. Michele's began on Wednesday.

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