Last week’s unexpected appointment of Pharrell Williams as Louis Vuitton’s Mens Creative Director sent waves through the fashion and luxury industry as the hiring of the multi-hyphenate Williams, puzzling many who wondered why a formally trained designer wasn’t hired instead.
But the warmly welcomed move signified how much culture dictates relevance in today’s industry, and how much a creative director of a global powerhouse brand like Louis Vuitton needs to sit within the intersection of fashion, music, art, and design and command the attention of consumers in an already noisy environment, driving forward conversations about where brands should be.
That being said, what seems to matter more than anything in the world of fashion and luxury at the moment, is shifting away from focusing too much on the very successful and yet overwhelming personal vision of a creative director as seen at Gucci, and moving towards putting the world of the “brand first,”: meaning that no matter the vision, the brand and what it represents must always come first.
Brand management is always the most delicate part of the relaunch of a brand. As seen at Kering, after several years of quick and relevant growth in terms of revenues and visibility, 2022 was very challenging: the slowdown at Gucci and the departure of Alessandro Michele on one hand, and the scandal that involved some Balenciaga campaigns highlighted the fact that branding and customer loyalty was very likely taken for granted. As a result, Gucci Chief Executive Marco Bizzarri declared that now Gucci was “brand first.”
What that means for the Italian fashion house remains to be seen as it will take time to rethink the vision of Gucci that Alessandro Michele left behind. Will it take the form of the Gucci family brand or its Tom Ford era? Either pose a risky challenge for its new creative director Sabato De Sarno, who will present his first collection in September 2023.
But brand first doesn’t mean a lack of creativity. Take Prada, which made the Lyst Index’s hottest brands once again, or Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama’s second collaboration together.
Prada is a brand that relies on very powerful branding, that is very smartly executed, neither overwhelming nor boring, and always able to put some spice into its collections but without exaggerating its message. It remains consistent to its DNA and brand values and as such is one of the few timeless and cool fashion brands that is always on the next generations’ radar, as well as the previous ones.
Likewise, Louis Vuitton, which launched its second collaboration with artist Yayoi Kusama at the beginning of 2023. From 3D billboards to traditional advertising with supermodels like Gisele Bundchen and Natalia Vodianova, to an app that integrates gaming and augmented reality to the colourful and joyful store windows, the Louis Vuitton and Yayoi Kusama project has launched the brand into a different space compared to many of its competitors.
These examples demonstrate how in today’s world, you need to take a longer-term view on managing your brand’s evolution. And whilst there will be trials and errors trying to preserve your brand identity in both the short and long term, it can be done.
Pharrell William’s appointment, while significant, represents just one branch of a global powerhouse brand’s strategy. LVMH’s management has never placed the success of the entire brand into one creative director’s hands. Instead, Louis Vuitton can count on Nicolas Guesquière, Women’s Creative director, the recently appointed Pharrell Williams, Francesca Amfitheatrof as the helm of watches and jewellery as well as the brand consistent focuses on the “Art of Living” and “The Art of Travel.”
Brand first is a message that has to be consistently delivered following some key DNA brand elements. Take the Tiffany Blue, the art collaborations of Vuitton, the brand identity of Prada, the Cartier Panthére, the Chanel Camelia, Matelassé, and Tweed. They are all elements of storytelling that goes deeper into the heart of the customers and the passion of the matter. They dive into clients’ emotions and never stray too far away from what are the key features of a brand, even if the brand is being provocative or irreverent.
We can see that with brands like Celine and Loewe have also benefited from the brand first concept, by creating a cool timeless approach that is also distinctive and recognisable. Hedi Slimane and J.W. Anderson have understood that the most successful approach for contemporary creative directors is all about discretion, vision, and an enhanced understatement.
Niche brands like Loewe have also succeeded in achieving the greatest visibility in events like the Superbowl halftime concert a few days ago, where singer Rihanna sported red stunning clothes designed by Loewe creative director J.W.Anderson and wisely took advantage in communicating that to all its database via a newsletter the morning after the show.
The challenge of the fashion and luxury industry in 2023 will be to develop successfully the “brand first” approach, which future-proofs companies from crazy short-term ideas and harmful eccentricity of a personal point of view of a temporary creative mind.
Brand first cannot be just a claim. It has to integrate into the communication strategy a very deep and well-thought, timeless, smooth brand strategy. Brand first is a long-term choice, it’s about embracing evolution and change, avoiding disruption, and trying to keep the brand heart always beating and rocking. The brand visionary is an acrobat that always makes the effort to evolve without destroying.
As Pharrell Williams said: “In order to do great things you must be unafraid to recreate yourself. You can’t do that holding on to a glory of yesterday.”