New Creative Directors, New Directions For Louis Vuitton And Gucci?

This week the fashion world was shaken when Louis Vuitton announced the appointment of pop icon Pharrell Williams as creative director of its menswear division. He will succeed the late Virgil Abloh, who passed away in November 2021.

In many ways, Williams is a perfect choice to step into Abloh’s shoes, both being Black Americans steeped in street culture and style. And his CV is longer than Abloh’s was upon his appointment in 2018.

But Abloh’s accomplishments were largely in the fashion sphere, having interned at Fendi before founding his hugely successful Off-White fashion label in 2013. On the other hand, Williams rose to fame in the music world and leveraged it into fashion.

The company described Williams as a “cultural global icon” and “visionary whose creative universes expand from music to art, and to fashion,” making him the ideal choice to continue Louis Vuitton’s status as a “Cultural Maison” and reinforce its values of “innovation, pioneer spirit and entrepreneurship.”

“His creative vision beyond fashion will undoubtedly lead Louis Vuitton towards a new and very exciting chapter,” said Pietro Beccari, Louis Vuitton’s Chairman and CEO. Louis Vuitton is the $20 billion crown jewel among $80 billion LVMH Group’s 75 luxury maisons. The company doesn’t report revenues for its LV menswear division separately.

The LV announcement comes on the heels of archrival Kering’s appointment of Sabato De Sarno as creative director for its flagship Gucci label, which at $11.2 billion is roughly half the size of Louis Vuitton and currently stagnating with only 1% comparable growth from 2021 to 2022. This led the company to part ways with the brand’s previous creative director Alessandro Michele last November after a phenomenal seven-year run in the post.

Whereas Williams is a fashion-industry outsider turned insider, De Sarno came of age in the fashion industry. He started his career with Prada in 2005, then moved to Dolce & Gabbana, finally landing with Valentino in 2009, where he apprenticed under creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli and rose to hold the title of fashion director for Valentino’s men’s and women’s collections. De Sarno’s appointment at Gucci is his big break.

Two Brands And Approaches, One Goal

Here are two heritage luxury brands, Louis Vuitton from France and Gucci from Italy, chasing much the same customers demographically in the same luxury sphere. Yet each company is taking radically different approaches in selecting a creative director.

De Sarno is the more traditional choice, and he will have overall greater responsibility for the future of the Gucci brand across all product categories.

Williams may be a bolder, out-of-the-box pick, but his span is across men’s fashion, a much smaller share of Louis Vuitton’s much larger pie where leather goods and accessories take the lead. Thus it has less to lose and more to gain by anointing Williams as Abloh’s successor.

Yet both men are charged with the same thing: to generate growth and profits in a luxury market that is under pressure from economic headwinds after experiencing explosive growth coming out of the pandemic.

“It’s a very complicated role that involves ‘squaring a circle,’” shared Carmine Rotondaro, currently the owner of Italian luxury house Collini Milano 1937 and formerly business advisor to the Gucci Group for 15 years ending in 2016.

“It’s a circle that contains the heritage of the brand and that must square with the requirements of growth imposed by the financial markets. These groups, with their dimensions of size, can’t afford not to deliver growth,” he continued.

Evolving Role Of The Creative Director

Traditionally, the creative directors of luxury houses have been responsible for delivering the goods that shape the tastes of the consumer.

“The creative director is not the one necessarily providing to consumers a product that they will like. It’s about educating the consumers about what they should like and showing the consumer that they need something else that they don’t have. Therefore, they shape the consumers’ tastes and create new needs,” Rotondaro said.

But today, it’s gone beyond just designing and presenting a new handbag or dress collection. It’s evolved into creating a lifestyle.

“The creative director of these giant luxury companies is not required to design clothes or accessories, nor to know everything about textiles and shapes,” explained Susanna Nicoletti, founder of Hangar Deluxe, a platform for innovation in the fashion industry and author of Luxury Unlocked.

“They are orchestra directors infusing the brand with their iconic vision, helping it to be cool and appealing to certain targets,” she said.

Pharrell Williams for LV seems to have the creating-a-lifestyle requirement nailed, given his extensive cultural roots across music, art and fashion. He received the Fashion Icon Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2015.

By contrast, Sabato De Sarno comes from the more traditional fashion-director school. During the Kering earnings call, Kering chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault explained the process of selecting the next Gucci creative director.

Describing the creative director’s responsibility across a three-sided triangle – product strategy, brand strategy and design studio – Pinault said candidates were asked to do several projects, including one where they looked across the Gucci archive to present their vision that blended modernity with the brand’s heritage.

“In terms of his capability to bring modernity to his creative vision on one side and to strengthen the fashion authority component was key. Being strong on the fashion component and building the timeless part was striking and made a big, big difference with the other candidates. We came to the choice of Sabato,” Pinault explained.

Creative Guardrails

The rise and fall of Alessandro Michele at Gucci, as well as the recent scandal involving Kering sister brand Balenciaga of conveying sexually-charged messages involving children in an advertising campaign, suggests the company gave its creative directors too much room.

Reflecting on how Michele shaped Gucci, Nicoletti said he chose “image disruption instead of consistent style and image, putting the brand’s equity at risk of exhaustion.”

It would appear that in selecting De Sarno without previous experience managing the creative direction of a brand the size and scope of Gucci, Kering leadership will give him more oversight. And it will be more vigilant to ensure the fashion heritage of the Gucci brand doesn’t get lost in what’s hot at the moment.

“In Sabato, Gucci is going for a cleaner, more essential style, focusing on staples, like the Gucci Kelly bag, and on an image that is more feminine than gender fluid,” Nicolleti suggested.

At the same time, the pressure will be on to revive growth since Kering as a whole, with its 11 luxury houses, generated about the same level of revenues last year as LVMH did with Louis Vuitton alone.

On the other hand, Williams at Louis Vuitton will have a more narrow focus in menswear and work alongside accomplished creative directors like Nicolas Ghesquière, who’s guided LV’s women’s collection since 2013. And he doesn’t have to change course, as De Sarno must, but follow in Abloh’s footsteps.

Because LV’s core business is accessories and leather goods, menswear is merely additive, not essential. “Louis Vuitton is certainly not expecting to have Pharrell for a long period of time, but Pietro Beccari’s expectations are clearly focused on creating iconic items and lots of noise around the brand,” Nicolletti observed.

“Vuitton is a gigantic leather goods brand that sells specific monogram products for men and women; the rest is lifestyle and a colorful way to keep the spotlight on. Pharrell perfectly embraces the iconic message of the brand, skipping the product management work that has nothing to do with the focus of his role,” she continued.

Buzz Versus Business

So while Pharrell Williams’s appointment is getting buzz and generating excitement both in and beyond the fashion world, De Sarno has a much bigger job with much more riding on his shoulders, which may explain why William’s first LV collection will show in June and we will have to wait till September to see De Sarno’s.

“Both are likely to be successful, but De Sarno at Gucci will need a balance between the right brain and the left to achieve growth, which is number one,” Rotondaro explained.

“The logical left brain will be needed to get the right product mix, hitting the margin targets at the right price points. The creative right brain will be needed to communicate a consistent image that is innovative and, at the same time, reflects the heritage of the brand, which is prestigious, exclusive and aspirational. It’s a very hard circle to square and combining the two is never easy,” he concluded.