Generic Gucci
The Once-Pioneering Design House Has Lost Its Focus and Flair

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 27, 2008

MILAN, Sept. 26 Gucci has lost its panache. The label that once sent shivers through the fashion industry is transforming, with an almost urgent haste, into just another company hawking handbags and shoes to those more interested in a brand name than great style.

The spring 2009 collection that designer Frida Giannini put on the runway Wednesday was dominated by palm tree prints, thigh-high caftans and shrunken pantsuits in shades such as sea foam. The shoes had high, mean heels. And there were several striking handbags, such as a satchel in deeply textured snakeskin.

On the runway, Gucci has always underscored the importance of its eveningwear, separating it from the rest of the collection by a dramatic pause and a few seconds of darkness to serve as a visual palate cleanser. This time, there were flowing caftans that looked matronly even on a 6-foot model who is all legs and poutiness. The jersey slinks were more tempting, particularly one in lilac with a low-slung, open back.

But a good evening gown and a not-bad safari suit are not enough to save a ready-to-wear collection. The complaint has been the same since Giannini became creative director in 2005: The collection lacks a strong, clear point of view. Under the direction of her predecessor Tom Ford, the collection personified sex -- sweaty, aggressive and unabashed. Giannini made it clear that she was not interested in continuing in that vein, which makes sense. She wanted to make Gucci her own. So what does she stand for? And why should a customer pay thousands of dollars for it, especially when the U.S. economy is in the tank? This is not a small issue for a company that generates close to a quarter of its revenue in North America.

Often the garments on the Gucci runway failed to exude the exceptionalism that should distinguish a luxury label from a mainstream brand such as Zara, Club Monaco or J. Crew. But to be fair, perhaps it is not that Gucci has failed to rise to the rigors of a luxury label. It may be that mass-market merchandise has gotten especially good. J. Crew is manufacturing its cashmere sweaters in Italian mills, and the Gap has Patrick Robinson -- formerly of Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and Paco Rabanne -- designing its sportswear. To paraphrase designer Michael Kors: If you're going to put a $1,000 price tag on a pair of trousers, there'd better be voodoo in those pants.

There was no voodoo on the Gucci runway. But the problem with the label goes deeper than a few ill-conceived frocks. And it is particularly disheartening because of the company's history.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gucci was a shell of a company. The knock-offs of its handbags sold by street-corner vendors were virtually indistinguishable from the bags sold in its shops. All of them lacked finesse and sophistication and were overwhelmed by tasteless logos. The company had fallen into such dire straits that it could barely pay its bills.

Gucci made a remarkable turnaround under the leadership of designer Ford and chief executive Domenico de Sole, becoming a billion-dollar, publicly traded brand defined by slithering sex appeal. It built up a deep store of goodwill within the industry because of its ability to nudge fashion in new directions and bring sizzle to the enterprise, which also brought customers and investors.

The company's formula for success was based on keeping an eye toward long-term success. De Sole closed well-performing but embarrassingly dowdy stores. Ford produced highly edited and focused runway presentations. And both men understood how to balance the smoke and mirrors of fashion marketing with the nitty-gritty of moving the merchandise.

Ford and de Sole left the company in 2004, forced out in a tug of war for control with the company's owner, PPR. Since then, Gucci has dismantled its reputation for womanly sizzle -- a sensibility with many admirers but admittedly limited commercial appeal. Even under de Sole and Ford, shoes and handbags were responsible for the vast majority of revenue. Giannini, whose background is in accessories at Gucci and, before that, Fendi, has continued to place the sales emphasis on leather goods. She has made the ready-to-wear, which defines the overall image of the company, vaguely girly, rocker, mod, tomboy, whatever. It changes with the wind.

Worse, a serious case of the uglies has struck Gucci boutiques, which are dominated by merchandise covered in logos and Gucci horse bits.

Financially, Gucci continues to do well. In 2007, revenue was 2.18 billion euros (about $3 billion), up 11 percent from 2006. That may be the result of an increase in the number of stores from 219 to 233. Opening stores can increase sales, but de Sole advised caution in that regard just days before stepping down as the company's CEO. In 2004, he told The Washington Post:

"You need huge discipline with stores and communications. Image is very important. When you're successful, everyone wanted to carry Gucci. I only sold to Neiman's, Saks. . . . You can get drunk with sales."

Gucci will doubtless continue to turn up in red-carpet photos as celebrities are plied with free handbags and one-of-a-kind gowns. The company may continue to do just fine financially by selling double-G logo wallets to tourists, expensive handbags to soccer moms and classic loafers to those who appreciate their comfort. The Gucci bottom line is not in danger.

But the Gucci legacy that had been reclaimed, the la dolce vita part that had placed the company at the forefront of the fashion pack has been lost again.

Dsquared2, Dolce & Gabbana

Echoes of the old Gucci sensibility drifted down the runway at Dsquared2 on Thursday in a show inspired by "Charlie's Angels." The designers, Dan and Dean Caten, focused on the silhouettes and styles of the 1970s, from three-piece suits and flared jeans to A-line skirts with kick pleats. Frankly, it was the best the '70s have ever looked.

The models' hair, set in soft Breck girl waves, bounced along as the models walked the runway in jean blazers, denim skirts, a crisp white halter dress with gumball buttons, a gray pantsuit with a silver vest and an especially glamorous white jersey gown cinched with a gold patent-leather harness that caged the torso. It was a collection that made fashion fun, but one could also imagine wearing virtually any of the blazers and trousers to an office and feeling polished but not dull.

There was nothing, nothing, nothing dull about the Dolce & Gabbana show Thursday. Not from the front-row celebrity lineup that included Matthew McConaughey, who stars in an eye-catching fragrance advertisement for the brand, to the cowbell-shaped shoulders on the jackets coming down the runway.

The advertisement is mostly about McConaughey and his naked chest, which one assumes has been doused with eau de Dolce. The collection was a marriage of pajamas and baroque style. (No, I'm not making this up. The designers said this is so, and we've got pictures of pajama tops and brocade bell-shaped skirts as proof.)

The slinky blouses looked dramatic juxtaposed with the ornate skirts that were often pinched to the side like a ball of taffy that someone had given a yank. There were luscious jackets with circular sleeves and shoulders that rose up high enough to brush the earlobes.

The colors were magnificent, and the richness enticing. The odd shapes were startling but not off-putting. If you came upon these jackets in a boutique, you'd try them on. You'd twirl in the mirror. And you'd probably put them back on the hangers. But still . . . something would have struck a chord. Perhaps it's the idea of combining extremes: a skirt that's a bacchanal of color, texture and shape, with a languid top meant for bed. And while most folks will never wear those particular clothes, they can be inspired by them.

Fendi, Versace

At the Fendi show later that day, designer Karl Lagerfeld focused on full skirts and waists cinched tight with belts that appeared to be 10 inches wide. The skirts -- and, in some cases, dresses -- were often made of lacelike fabric with geometric cutouts, translucent materials and other fabrics covered in crushed silk flowers.

It was a pretty, genteel collection from a house that specializes in handbags and furs and whose ready-to-wear often looks like a stepchild. This time, the collection had a joyful sensibility.

The season closed with the Versace presentation Thursday night. The collection recalled one of the most memorable dresses created by the late Gianni Versace: the gown worn by actress Elizabeth Hurley that was seemingly held together by giant safety pins. The beauty of the scandalous dress was that it revealed nothing while making the revelation of everything a constant threat.

The collection presented by his sister, Donatella Versace, who now heads the label, used zippers as both functional closures and decorative flourishes. They provided a similar peekaboo effect. On her daytime dresses, which the rest of the world would wear for cocktails, the zippers were open and sculpted into the shape of hearts.

In celebration of the house's 30th anniversary, the signature Medusa head was incorporated into illustrations by Julie Verhoeven. In the resulting prints, the heads have been re-imagined in pastel shades and cast against a fanciful backdrop that is more Alice in Wonderland than Gorgon.

The print is used on short dresses with sculpted skirts that stand away from the body as well as on gowns encrusted with crystals at the bodice. It is a collection that speaks to the Versace style, not as it was but as it has evolved in the hands of Donatella Versace. It is proof that just because a house has moved on from its past, it doesn't have to lose its panache.

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