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The Price of Maintaining a Brand

The Price of Maintaining a Brand

Photographed by Mary Germilhac of Ella See, Alayna Jones, Josh Richards, Chimazu Ndukwe, Elxavier Caldwell, Noelle Banks, and Charlize Wright
Styled by Jack Turpen
Directed by Joelle Beauchamp
Hair and Makeup by Lauren Elgert
Journalist Assist: Jessica Schocke
Style Assist: Charlize Wright
Hair and Makeup Assist: Kristina Wise
Photography Assist: Riley Fernandes

By Ashley Chase

How much are you willing to pay for your favorite brand? How much are you willing to pay for this brand when they completely change their identity? How much are you willing to pay for brands that fail to uphold standards of diversity within the fashion industry? At what cost is the price of maintaining a brand too much?

After seven years, Alessandro Michele departed from his position as the creative director of Gucci. During his time at Gucci, Michele transformed Gucci from a “fading symbol of noughties glamour into a purveyor of eccentric inclusivity that embodied the wider cultural conversation around gender, sexual identity, and race” (Paton & Friedman, 2022). Although Michele gained loyalty and attention for his creative and colorful works, this success did not last forever. The growth of Gucci began to slow, and Michele’s offering began to “elicit yawns” due to brand fatigue (Paton & Friedman, 2022). According to Kering, the luxury corporation that owns Gucci, they are “looking for a change of pace” for Gucci. The first collection released by Gucci after Michele’s departure was their Fall 2023 menswear collection in Milan. Jing Daily described this collection as “toned down palettes and a focus on timeless staples” (Bargereon, 2023). However, Gucci may have toned down this collection too much with Chinese social media platforms stating that this Gucci collection did not look it even came from a luxury brand. Many were saying that this minimalist collection looked like something from Zara, The Row or Celine. Some comments on Gucci’s Instagram posts included “Is it Gucci or Zara” and “This is not Gucci” (Villamonte, 2023). How can a brand charge so much when they cannot even maintain their image? How can a brand expect customers to invest so much in their clothing when they cannot even maintain the look of a luxury brand, let alone maintain Gucci’s infamous identity? Gucci’s new creative director is Sabato de Sarno, who has previously worked with Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Valentino. Sabato de Sarno’s first Gucci collection was reminiscent of his career and aesthetic at Prada with more classic, minimalistic, “plain” pieces (Cartner-Morley, 2023). What does it say about Gucci’s identity when their collection has a Prada aesthetic? Part of the problem lies in the fact that this is not the Gucci that the new generation grew up with. The young adults that fell in love with Michele’s Gucci do not want to see a brand that resembles Prada. How does Gucci balance the redirecting of their brand without completely overturing the loyalty they gained from Michele’s eccentric looks?

What is the overarching thing that the fashion industry is severely lacking in, and has been ridiculed upon for years? If your answer was diversity, especially when it comes to leadership positions, you were correct. While 82.7% of fashion designers are women, of the top 30 luxury brands, only 8 of the 33 creative directors are currently women. Another thing that the patriarchy has managed to take from women: leadership of the industry that they dominate and keep alive. If not the fashion industry, where can women find control and leadership? Additionally, there are only two male people of color in these roles and only one woman of color in a creative director role (Francombe, 2023). However, that is a discussion for a different article. The departure of Sarah Burton as the creative director of McQueen shows that, unfortunately, the diversity of leadership positions in the fashion industry is quickly decreasing. This was further exemplified by her replacement, Seán McGirr, unsurprisingly, a white male. Sarah Burton had been the creative director of McQueen since the death of Alexander McQueen in 2010. Burton was an extremely important figure of female empowerment in the fashion industry, which she expressed through her collections. Sarah Burton’s clothing empowered women, stating that her creations function as “kind of shopping list of essentials for powerful, contemporary woman” (Giampaolo, 2023). Poetically, Burton’s final collection was inspired by “female anatomy, Queen Elizabeth I, the blood red rose and Magdalena Abakanowicz, a transgressive and powerfully creative artist who refused ever to compromise her vision”. This collection effectively portrayed the message that Burton and McQueen have always focused on: sensuality is armor, empowering women to be aware of their own sexiness (Tashjian, 2023). An even more important theme underlies this already powerful statement – women are not sluts for dressing sexy, confidence is not narcissistic, and one can find empowerment through their physical self. As stated by Harper’s Bazaar, Burton had the ability to dress women to be their own heroes (Bobb, 2023). This is an extremely important idea in a patriarchal society that views women as in need of a male savior. Sarah Burton’s last collection gracefully summarized her intent on empowering women everywhere. Additionally, Sarah Burton showcased the beauty of strong and diverse women by featuring pregnant women, plus-size women, women at the beginning of their career, and women who have reached unimaginable heights as models. The inclusion of diverse populations, such as pregnant and plus-size women on the runway is a tremendously important change that needs to take place. These populations have been severely underrepresented on runways and in the industry in general, further damaging women’s self-image. This leads one to wonder, is the lack of body diversity in female runway models due to the unproportionate male leadership in the fashion industry?

As a beautiful ending to her last McQueen show, Burton dedicated her last bow to Alexander McQueen, stating that “his wish was always to empower women”. The startling question that now remains in everyone’s mind is who will uphold these values of empowering women? Of course, the solution that would be most sensible would be for McQueen to hire a female creative director to uphold the values of female empowerment. Dishearteningly, the exemplary Sarah Burton was replaced by Seán McGirr, meaning that all the brands owned by Kering have white males as creative directors. As stated by the Washington Post, “why are women still subjected to the concepts of male designers, especially when so many of them seem to have no special understanding of what women want or need, or how they live?” (Tashjian, 2023). Will Seán McGirr be able to continue the longstanding tradition of female empowerment at McQueen or will this value soon disappear without Sarah Burton? How will this change the look of McQueen collections that powerful women have come to love?

The game of musical chairs within the creative director roles of the fashion industry continues with the departure of Jeremy Scott from Moschino after 10 years (Paton & Friedman, 2022). Scott was known for adding “ironic postmodern pop humor” into Moschino’s clothing, which helped the brand become more relevant. Scott’s addition of pop culture, such as McDonald’s and Barbie, resonated with the younger generations on social media (Freidman, 2023). His pieces also become the favorite of many celebrities, such as Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry. Scott’s clothing was unique in its sense of humor and fun. Some suspect that Scott’s departure could be due to the shift in the mood of the fashion industry from theatrics toward more “timelessness” (Freidman, 2023). Yet, if every luxury brand turns toward “timelessness”, the brand identities become more converged and less unique. If every brand focused solely on being “timeless”, how does any brand stand out? How does any brand cater to those individuals that prefer bold clothing over classy? Is this teaching younger generations that it is better to fit in than to stand out? How is being like everyone else better than being unique and creative in your own way?

Chanel did not as recently experience a shift of direction, as Virginie Viard took over after Karl Lagerfeld’s death in 2019. However, Viard’s work has received mixed reviews and, at some points, heavy criticism for not living up to the standards of Karl Lagerfeld. Viard’s Fall 2020 RTW collection was heavily critiqued by many in the fashion industry. The Fashion Daily Weekly harshly stated that this collection “feels like a pale imitation of what the house was under Lagerfeld” (Manning, 2020). Others critiqued this collection for the “unnecessary repetition” of various pieces, such as the same boots being shown with every look. Many also disliked the silhouettes in this collection, stating that they seemed ill-fitting and boring (Gelhoren, 2021). Another harsh review from Charles Manning at The Fashion Daily Weekly stated “If you told me it was made by a first-year design student on a budget who used to work at Hot Topic, I’d believe you” (Manning, 2020). This critique summarizes the consensus about Viard: her collections do not live up to those of Lagerfeld and today’s Chanel pales in comparison to what it used to be. Some also question Viard’s taste after she had models wear colored leggings under every look in the Pre-Fall 2021 show. Many described this as “confusing and off-putting” (Gelhoren, 2021). In these criticisms, we see an underlying issue of loyal followers feeling they have lost the Chanel that they fell in love with. Will Chanel be able to regain their beloved image created by Lagerfeld? Will this require the departure of Virginie Viard from the creative director role? The game of musical chairs continues, leading the frustrated bystander to question: at what cost? At what cost do these brands maintain their image and identity? Who is paying more: the brand that cannot maintain their own image or the consumer that continually falls victim to the ever-changing brand they were once loyal to?

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