Gucci Hires Behind-the-Scenes Designer From Valentino as Creative Director

Gucci has named Sabato De Sarno, a close associate of Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli, its new creative director. He will present his first collection for Gucci at Milan Fashion Week in September, the brand said in a statement released Saturday morning.

Rome-based De Sarno joined Valentino in 2009 after holding positions at Prada and Dolce & Gabbana. Since rising to the role of Valentino’s fashion director, overseeing its men’s and women’s ready-to-wear collections, De Sarno has become a fixture at the brand’s events around the world, but remains unknown to the fashion-consuming public.

De Sarno has “vast and relevant experience,” Gucci chief executive Marco Bizzarri said in a statement. “He will lead our creative teams with a distinctive vision that will help write this exciting next chapter, reinforcing the house’s fashion authority while capitalising on its rich heritage.”

The move sees Gucci-owner Kering once again elevating a behind-the-scenes figure to lead its flagship brand. De Sarno’s predecessor at Gucci, Alessandro Michele, who departed the brand last November, was an unknown veteran of Gucci’s studio before leading its historic expansion alongside chief executive Marci Bizzarri.

Kering has been under pressure from investors to identify a successor to Michele, whose hit maximalist aesthetic helped the brand nearly triple annual sales to around €10 billion and quadruple profits since 2015 before growth slowed.

Gucci took a heavier hit than most during the pandemic and has continued to grow more slowly than rival megabrands like LVMH’s Louis Vuitton and Dior. Gucci’s fourth-quarter sales are likely to have fallen 14 percent on an organic basis, according to estimates from UBS, its momentum insufficient to overcome industry-wide challenges including severe coronavirus disruptions in China.

The value of Kering’s shares are currently down 17 percent year-on-year, compared with an 8 percent increase at LVMH and 9 percent lift for Cartier-owner Richemont.

The brand recently promised investors to stay in the spotlight with a full return to the fashion calendar — showing its collections 6 times a year — making the creative vacancy even more urgent to fill.

In recent years, Kering has honed a powerful playbook for revamping its brands by betting big on the visions of disruptive designers, amplifying their creations with a unified, fashion-driven message across products, store decor, advertising and social media content. The approach helped the group’s labels, including Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Balenciaga, to stand out amid the luxury sector’s ultra-classic branding, fuelling rapid growth and turning previously unknown creative directors like Michele, Daniel Lee and Demna into design stars.

But during luxury’s post-pandemic growth spurt, many consumers have gravitated to classic items from blue-chip brands at the expense of more fashion-driven propositions, making the way forward for Gucci unclear: While Michele’s eye-catching products and kitschy styling still power a €10 billion business, lacklustre growth rates suggest consumers are less interested in the brand’s aesthetic, despite it spending around €800 million on marketing last year.

At an investor day last June, Kering said it was working to retool Gucci’s brand message, reinforcing the more timeless elements of the brand’s backstory to complement its fashion-driven offer. The push is meant to stabilise a company that has grown reliant on designer-driven reinventions to fuel growth, and allow it to raise its prices in order to depend less on entry-level luxury consumers. Last year, Gucci hired a new general manager, Maria Cristina Lomanto, to retool the brand’s merchandising and reinforce its high-end offer.

Still, a low-key, transitional menswear outing in Milan earlier this month showed just how much Gucci has come to depend on Michele’s idiosyncratic touch: the studio-designed collection that the brand presented was rich in elegant tailoring and saleable shoes and accessories, but struggled to project a clear message about what the brand stands for.

Under De Sarno, who will oversee women’s, men’s, leather goods, accessories and lifestyle collections, Gucci is likely to keep the focus on stabilising its brand image with a more classic identity — while simultaneously working to reinvigorate fashion excitement.

“Gucci remains one of the most iconic, prominent and influential luxury houses in the world,” Kering chairman François-Henri Pinault said. “With Sabato De Sarno at the creative helm, we are confident that the house will continue both to influence fashion and culture through highly desirable products and collections, and to bring a singular and contemporary perspective to modern luxury.”

As a first-time creative director, De Sarno’s aesthetic universe is hardly a known quantity. The designer’s Instagram page references artists including Lucio Fontana, Jim Goldberg and John Giorno alongside photos of his dachshund — offering just a few clues.

In terms of product, the designer’s 13-year tenure at Valentino could support Gucci’s upmarket push — the house shows two haute couture collections per year, and often carries over high-end details to its ready-to-wear offer, including ostrich feathers, crepe couture embellishments, sequins and brocade.

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