Karl McKeever Column April 2017

Could VM fall out of fashion?

If spring counts as the season of optimism and a time to refresh, then Gucci’s latest collection by its creative maestro Alessandro Michele is a zinging shot of bright, bold, playful fashion that will surely lift our mood. By continuing to buck the usual neutrals that have clothed our stores in recent times, Gucci continues to lead the way.

Michele is often likened to the women he champions: daring, curiously compelling, and with a streak of mystery and eccentricity. Since taking the role in 2014, he has been credited with the brand’s full-blooded return to form after a period of stagnation that followed the departure of Tom Ford in 2004. He is nothing if not a trailblazer and under his tenure, the brand has become known for its riots of clashing colours and patterns, all demanding attention.

But, most importantly of all, Michele’s creative vision has transformed the commercial performance of the company, which saw its revenue jump by 21 per cent in the last quarter of 2016, underlining the importance innovative ideas play in generating strong sales.

As well as overhauling clothing collections, Gucci has also given its stores a makeover, although interestingly, this has been achieved without expensive refits. Instead, it has harnessed the ‘soft power’ of VM, implementing new schemes and finishes on top of existing architecture to deliver a fresh and presumably cost-effective retail transformation.

With its daring design aesthetic, Gucci has become hugely popular in the Far East, particularly in Hong Kong, and on a recent visit I witnessed first-hand the brand’s powerful narrative. Young fashion lovers have been quick to embrace statement pieces from the latest range in a way that you do not see in the more conservative European and US markets. It has not gone unnoticed by other leading brands either — Prada’s remerchandised stores now look remarkably similar to Gucci’s.

And, as we all know, where designer fashion leads, it is only a matter of time before high street stores follow. In the coming months, we will no doubt see Gucci’s take on Chinoiserie patterns, ruffles and bold florals find their way into Mango and Topshop’s latest collections, albeit in more wearable styles.

It might be relatively straightforward to incorporate design elements into clothing but it is more difficult when it comes to store environment. For a long time now, retailers have relied on neutral, minimalist spaces with limited product colours and when they have struggled to re-evaluate their approach to visual merchandising, they often resort to simplifying the range. The result is that VM becomes almost mechanical and easy to implement, with little expertise and knowledge within the store teams.

This is the opposite of Gucci’s design narrative, which thrives on being brave and playful in its use of colour and pattern. However, rolling out similar concepts on the high street could be risky and you have to question whether some VM teams out there would be ready for such a challenge.

Creating more colourful stores adds another level of complexity when it comes to the coordination and presentation of this season’s must-have look. It further reinforces the need for retailers to make continued investment in refreshing and developing in-house VM capabilities across its store teams. This will become all the more apparent if a brand simply tries to shoe-horn a radical new collection into the existing layout without considering the way in which contrasting prints and silhouettes could look too busy for the average shopper.

Retailers who have been content to play it safe in recent years may well find the influence of Gucci pushes them to be more experimental. You only have to look at the way the brand’s social media presence has grown in recent years to see how unafraid it is of reaching out to that younger, affluent audience. Its Instagram page, for instance, emulates the style and humour of a streetwear brand, making it more culturally relevant to a new generation.

Although some brands are not brave enough to fully embrace the ‘Gucci factor’, or may simply consider it a seasonal novelty, VM training in how to successfully push the boundaries would be beneficial. Clashing products work in the right environment, but only if carefully displayed so teams could adopt a ‘boutique’ approach to layout or replace side-hanging racks with front-faced ones to showcase products more effectively. It’s worth noting that for high-volume stores this may create problems with stock density so a balance must be struck.

Under Michele, Gucci has demonstrated the commercial value of disrupting tried-and-tested narratives, whether it is through challenging our notions of gender or rejecting the idea that collections ‘tell a story’ each season. I have little doubt that his influence will quickly filter down and have as big an impact on the high street as it has on the catwalk, injecting a renewed sense of energy, vibrancy and playfulness into what fashionistas will be wearing in the months ahead. How well the look will be executed in store on a busy Saturday afternoon, however, remains to be seen.

Karl will chair the VM Conference at Retail Design Expo throughout the day on 9 May, before taking to the stage between 3.55pm-4.25pm, when delegates will be able join the international retail expert for a workshop where he will explain how brands can best measure the impact VM has on improving retail performance. For more details, visit www.retaildesignexpo.com

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Michelle Kyle
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