Ten — or even five — years ago, a single social media-fueled controversy could have signaled the end for Gucci. The Italian luxury fashion house, once at its peak during the hedonistic, superglam Tom Ford era from 1994 to 2004, had lost its way in every aspect of the business: There was lack of buzz, disinterest from consumers and disappointing sales.
But then came creative director Alessandro Michele in 2015, a no one who suddenly, seemingly overnight, became The One. In rapid fashion, he resurrected the brand, bringing it back to relevancy by spinning an optimistically eccentric, maximalist narrative. It felt like a much-needed breath of fresh air — and the numbers backed it up.
In Q4 of 2018, Gucci accounted for 80% of parent company Kering’s portfolio, with a sales increase of 24.2%, totaling $4.29 billion. Last year, it was reported that Gucci aimed “to reach 10 million euros in annual sales and replace LVMH’s Louis Vuitton as the world’s biggest luxury label.”
Fashion watchers have celebrated Michele’s rise. Jared Leto, muse and friend of the label, called him the “Steve Jobs of fashion” for his boundary-pushing creativity. In four years, he’s become an invincible force who can seemingly do no wrong — so much so that even when his missteps are put in the global spotlight and garner a sweeping backlash on social media, Gucci continues to be in demand.
“For a brand, reputation is at risk whenever there is a backlash on social media. The consequences can potentially be significant, and it can take years to recover,” said Chris Gee, managing director of digital strategy at PR firm Finsbury. “It appears that Gucci has built a tremendous amount of brand affinity with its customers, which has so far allowed it to navigate these firestorms with minimal apparent reputational damage.”
The first major controversy to hit the brand with Michele at the helm was when he sent a Gucci-branded puff-sleeved jacket down the cruise ’18 runway — a piece that riffed on a design by Daniel Day, or “Dapper Dan,” a Harlem-based designer who, ironically, made a name for himself in the ’80s and ’90s for masterminding counterfeit creations from designer logos.
“For me, we can talk about appropriation a lot,” Michele said to The New York Times about the presentation. “I didn’t put a caption on it because it was so clear. I wanted people to recognize Dapper on the catwalk. It wasn’t appropriation; it was an homage to me.”
In the end, he reached out to Day and forged a partnership, resulting in the reopening of a Gucci-endorsed Dapper Dan atelier and a collaborative menswear capsule for pre-fall ’18. It was a smart move: Not only did Gucci placate its most critical attackers but also made a loyal ally.
Which brings us to the second backlash. In February, the brand issued an apology for selling an $890 wool balaclava sweater with red lips surrounding a cutout, which to many conjured blackface. Day was especially irate.
“I am a black man before I am a brand,” he wrote on Instagram. “Another fashion house has gotten it outrageously wrong. There is no excuse nor apology that can erase this kind of insult. The CEO of Gucci has agreed to come from Italy to Harlem this week to meet with me, along with members of the community and other industry leaders. There cannot be inclusivity without accountability. I will hold everyone accountable.”
Following the meeting, the company released a statement that claimed full accountability and announced the initiatives it was implementing to promote diversity and inclusivity in-house, including the creation of a global director for diversity and inclusion and a multicultural design scholarship program.
And with that announcement, Gucci, for all intents and purposes, was back in fashion’s good graces. It helped, too, that Naomi Campbell was vocal about her support. “I think it’s ridiculous for people to say they were burning their [Gucci] clothes. Don’t burn your clothes. It wasn’t intentional,” the supermodel said to The Washington Post.
Gee explained that part of Gucci’s ability to bounce back is its history. “Sometimes it comes down to how much goodwill [brands have] established prior to the firestorm, as well as the nature of their response,” he said. “Another factor is whether a brand has credible, influential partners [like Dapper Dan in the Gucci controversy] who are able to speak on their behalf during a firestorm.”
The biggest proof that the controversy had passed came at this month’s Met Gala. As co-chair and co-sponsor of the event, Michele walked down the pink carpet with Leto and Harry Styles by his side — along with about 20 more celebrities all decked in head-to-toe Gucci, including Karlie Kloss, Ashley Graham and 21 Savage. And if the blackface debacle was still on people’s minds, there was no sign of it on the internet, which is something Snoop Dogg called attention to a few days after the event.
“Is the ban off or not?” the rapper demanded to know in an Instagram video. “Y’all gotta let me know, because I got a lot of s**t in here that I ain’t gave away yet.”
But despite the diversity measures Gucci has put in place, the company was accused of racism again this month for selling a polarizing $800 Indy Full Turban that resembles a dastaar, a religious article of clothing for Sikhs, who often face discrimination for wearing such turbans in real life (and in fact, Michele says he drew inspiration from “the Sikh turbans of a New York taxi driver”). Consumers were first incensed by the turban when it appeared on the spring ’19 runway last winter on the head of a white male model, and criticism reignited last week when shoppers spotted it on the Nordstrom website.
Nordstrom pulled the turban from its site, but Gucci has yet to release a statement in response to the vitriol on social media.
Gee cautioned that such a tactic is risky for companies. “The worst thing [a brand] can do is try to stonewall or ‘weather the storm,’” he said. “Sometimes brands think that if they say or do nothing, the firestorm will go away. The conversation will inevitably go away, but the damage to their brand could last much longer than if they had dealt with the issue effectively.”
Up until this point, Gucci’s handling of its transgressions — a quick and transparent response, claiming accountability and placing safeguards — has helped them avoid the sort of serious business blowback that befell Dolce & Gabbana. But Gee recommended that the company take meaningful steps to prevent future offenses, because there are only so many free passes before consumers have had enough.
“I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a concerted effort to understand how they can make structural changes to avoid these issues moving forward,” Gee said. “No one wants to continue to have these issues.”
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