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In December 2014 Marco Bizzarri and François-Henri Pinault, scion of Kering, the French luxury dynasty, met at a Hong Kong hotel to discuss a task that many in the fashion world would have considered to be impossible.

Mr Bizzarri was running the luxury, couture and leather goods division of Paris-listed Kering at the time but was on the verge of being named as Gucci's chief executive, and tasked with a major turnround of the 96-year-old fashion house.

He was to take over the brand after two years of declining sales, which prompted the departure of Patrizio di Marco, his predecessor, and Frida Giannini, the creative director. Gucci had "lost all that feeling of fashionableness", the 54-year-old Mr Bizzarri says from his all-white office in Gucci's Milan hub.

What followed was a rebirth of a magnitude not seen in the fashion world since, well, the last time Gucci was resurrected. In the 1990s, designer Tom Ford had transformed it from an outmoded leather brand into an edgy label known for sharp stilettos, sheer lace and risqué adverts. Mr Bizzarri, for his part, has captured an entirely new zeitgeist by serving fashion lovers who are shunning the mega-brand look for something more individual that stands out on Instagram and Snapchat.

"With François-Henri we decided Gucci needed to become a fashion icon again," says Mr Bizzarri.

"[It] needed to be like it was again during the period of Tom Ford, not the same look - but the same profile," he says.

You cannot make radical changes and [at the same time] be listening to everyone.

Mr Bizzarri achieved a Ford-like renaissance with the high-risk appointment of Alessandro Michele, Gucci's new creative director. Mr Michele, a long-haired Italian with a penchant for wearing candy-coloured embroidered suits, was working in Gucci's handbag department at the time. His name was not even on the shortlist of candidates to replace Ms Giannini. Mr Bizzarri met him by chance over coffee at an employee get-together in Rome.

Working together, the pair resurrected Gucci at astonishing speed. The chief executive pushed out Mr Michele's first collection just nine days after his predecessor's exit. Unlike Ms Giannini's feminine dresses with sharp silhouettes, the new direction was a riot of kaleidoscopic granny knits, ruffled, pussy-bow blouses and big glasses.

The Gucci look, as Vogue wrote approvingly was for a woman who "looks as though she's picked out her clothes at estate sales and vintage stores, and mixed them with handfuls of heirloom rings and . . . fur-lined horse-bit loafers".

The buzz turned into sales. Gucci's like-for-like revenue rose 12.7 per cent in 2016 compared with the previous year, exceeding €4bn for the first time, according to company data.

The wider luxury industry is showing lacklustre growth of between 1 per cent to 2 per cent on a constant currency basis, according to industry lobby Altagamma. Chinese and US shoppers have pulled back over economic uncertainty, while fears of terrorist attacks have hit luxury tourism and shopping in Europe.

Mr Bizzarri describes Mr Michele's appointment as a "kind of magical thing. It was risky, of feeling and emotion, but born from a strong knowledge of the sector," he says.

The Gucci chief has a reputation among peers as a strong manager of creative talent. He looked beyond the shortlist prepared for him, he says, because he wanted a creative force who was rich in ideas but scant on attitude. Mr Michele, he says, has remained "very normal, and humble" despite his success.

"Creative directors can be egocentric, they say. I decide, they shout at people and harass," he says. "I don't want that. If you have a culture of respect creativity flows. You create this energy and then people have more desire to take risks."

Mr Bizzarri says the biggest risk he has taken in the past two years was spending "billions - not millions - of euros" investing in the company.

The money was spent on putting the new range into Gucci's 500 stores in a matter of weeks and after the first catwalk show, as well as overhauling the group's communications strategy and the look of its shops.

In the Gucci office, a richly coloured painting of Mr Bizzarri and Mr Michele, looking like two figures in a stained-glass window, leans against one wall. Mr Bizzarri is wearing his signature outfit of a lean-cut, three-piece black suit. But here Mr Michele's handiwork is evident, too: woven into the black tie is an embroidered golden bee, one of the stylised flora and fauna that featured in his breakout show.

"I have had my head under water for a year - finally I am having fun," says the 6ft 3in Mr Bizzarri, with a big laugh, his long legs stretched out before him. "There is an atmosphere in the company of great energy, and big smiles. You can really see it and breathe it."

He cannot, however, sit back and relax yet.

His looming challenge is to maintain Gucci's momentum in a fashion environment where social media is not only pushing trends more quickly and influencing them in unpredictable ways. It is also influencing millennial women to buy more outfits - spending less on each - so that they have new clothes to show off in selfie shots.

Mr Bizzarri is focused on keeping the group fast and flexible to meet the demand for new looks. The chief, who began his career as a strategy consultant at Accenture in 1986, has ensured data on what is sold in stores goes straight back to production units, so more of what customers like gets made.

Once a social media laggard, Gucci was among the first to Snapchat its shows. Yet while some retailers race to pander to the whims of influential fashion bloggers, he restricts his time on social media. "At a certain point you have to stop reading social," he says. "You cannot make radical changes and [at the same time] be listening to everyone."


This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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