In Roman mythology there is a God that would perfectly fit in the fashion industry – two headed Janus. This deity symbolised transitions and passages, the beginning and the ending, the past and the future. The fashion industry is a continuous rite of passage, a journey that reunites tradition and heritage with innovation, so Janus could be a perfect symbol for it.
Yet, in the last few decades, fashion has also meant a dramatic division between roles, with designers being hailed as Gods, quite often forgetting that specific products can only be developed when you are surrounded by talented teams and skilled artisans. Janus is still valid then, but in the modern industry one head may symbolise the powers behind a fashion house or a conglomerate owning and directing it and the other ordinary people who actually create and manufacture products for the industry.
At the moment the Brioni company is going through a Janus situation. The piece that follows analyses the two heads of this complex monster.
Part One - The Glamorous Head: The Quest for The Creative Director with the Midas Touch
Towards the end of March 2016, right before Easter, Brioni announced the appointment of a new Creative Director, Justin O'Shea.
There is a reason why his name doesn't ring a bell in connection with any specific fashion houses: O'Shea is not a tailor or a fashion designer with a traditional background and education in this subject. He was indeed global buying director and then global fashion director at Munich-based luxury e-tailer MyTheresa.com (acquired by American Neiman Marcus in September 2014). He previously worked with streetwear and denim brands in Europe and in his native Australia and for the Kuwait-based luxury retailer Al Ostoura, focusing on womenswear.
A quick Internet search will reveal a series of street style images showing bearded O'Shea immaculately clad in his three-piece sharp suits or donning a vest, revealing his sculpted body covered in trendy tattoos. In quite a few pictures O'Shea accessorises his look with Veronika Heilbrunner, style editor at Harpers Bazaar Germany (who in turns, accessorises hers with O'Shea...but that's another story).
O'Shea formally enters Brioni today - 1st April 2016 - in a way it all sounds like an April Fools' Day story. Why? Because it remains a mystery what O'Shea will bring to the company apart from a penchant for streamlined tailoring, tight suits and tattoos. Well, there is actually something that he will bring in: visibility and media revenue. His appointment has indeed raised questions that were mainly answered citing the numbers of his followers on his Instagram account (over 80,000 at the time of writing this piece). It looks like creativity has been exchanged with attitude and the cool factor and numbers are better than quality and than the content of your CV.
Yet he will be dealing with a very traditional and historical company. Founded in 1945 by tailor Nazareno Fonticoli and entrepreneur Gaetano Savini, who borrowed the name from the fourteen small islands in the Croatian part of the northern Adriatic Sea, Brioni was considered for decades a made-to-measure classic menswear jewel in the Italian fashion crown, a favourite of many actors and stars.
The company also opened in the '80s a tailoring school in Penne, where Fonticoli was born and where the Brioni Roman Style manufacturing plant was developed in 1959. The company went through very happy times when costume designer Lindy Hemming turned to it to create wardrobes for actors Pierce Brosnan and later on for Daniel Craig, as they starred in films from the James Bond saga (a marriage that finished when Tom Ford snatched the deal...).
Things changed, though, and, hit by the economic downturn and internal problems, Brioni was forced to shut its womenswear line. Bought by French luxury conglomerate Kering in 2011, it appointed a new CEO, Gianluca Flore, in 2014, and a Creative Director, Brendan Mullane who served between 2012 and February 2016. Kering hoped to increase sales, but it made the wrong investment choices, focusing on Eastern markets like Russia that were going through their own financial troubles.
You may argue that O'Shea reflects new choices and figures of creative directors: different appointments and comparisons with other fashion houses may lead us to mention Victoria Beckham, Christopher Bailey who is Chief Creative Officer and CEO at Burberry, Hedi Slimane's role at Saint Laurent (an adventure that officially closed today) or Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, better known as retailers and founders of concept store Opening Ceremony, and now co-creative directors at LVMH-owned Kenzo. But O'Shea's new role seems to be even more vague, a mix of buyer, model, brand ambassadors, and street style celebrity.
Yet you don't need a fashion expert to see that Brioni should have hired not a street style icon and buyer, but several experts that can help the company finding a new life.
It is highly unlikely that O'Shea will bring any kind of innovation to the current Brioni offer (the Brioni in-house design team and the house's design director will keep on playing their usual roles): his own style is pretty formal and he looks like a younger version and a more formal and contrived hipsterish copy of Nick Wooster (and we know that, while Wooster is a great buyer, his "collaborations" with menswear companies were more or less flops). O'Shea may be able to bring in digital numbers and digital followers for an Instagram Brioni account, but the problem is that those digital numbers may not become real, especially if you consider Brioni's market and prices.
Mind you, though, if O'Shea ever decides to challenge Brioni's design status and the boundaries of modern menswear and go to Penne to meet the finest craftspeople in the industry, he may not even be able to find them. Let's discover why.
Part Two – The Practical Head: The Perilous Power of Mathematics and Why Losing your Job is a Question of Gender in a Genderless Industry
In February Kanye West showed his Yeezy collection for Adidas at the Madison Square Garden in New York. A few weeks later, in March, another fashion-related event took place in a smaller stadium in Penne, Italy, and it wasn't a catwalk show.
Workers from the Penne-based Brioni plant gathered at the local stadium to discuss the situation at their company. Due to the brand's manufacturing overcapacity, Brioni's French owners Kering announced they intended to find a new balance between workforce and production volume and would cut jobs in their factories, particularly in the Abruzzo region.
Strikes, debates and demos followed and the workers, accompanied by the trade union representatives and the mayors of the main towns surrounding the Brioni plant, met with the authorities of the Italian government and local authorities to ask them to find a solution and avoid losing 400 jobs. One banner proudly carried by some of the workers was written in French and, directed to Pinault, it stated "Brioni wants to live".
"When you sit at key meetings with the company, you often find yourself listening to reports full of numbers, but you naturally wonder if they ever think about the fact that behind those numbers there are real men and women living their own personal dramas," Domenico Ronca, secretary of the Filctem (Federazione Italiana Lavoratori Chimica Tessile Energia Manifatture; The Italian Federation of Chemical, Textiles, Energy and Manufacturing Workers)-Cgil trade union states.
There's dramas also in the Penne region, where a Brioni worker (who wishes to remain anonymous) recently lost her house and started sleeping in her car. "There is no alternative job market and reality for these workers in this area, so losing a job here can have dramatic consequences, even though the loss of jobs at Brioni will have a more serious impact on women," Ronca explains.
Fashion may be opting for the "genderless" trend, but losing your job in this industry may still be a gender issue: there are indeed more women in the Brioni workforce than men, which means that, in case of job losses, they will suffer more "casualties". "Most of these women aren't old enough to retire, but they're not so young to find new jobs, so they would be stuck in a rut," Ronca highlights. "You see, quite often companies boast they do have an ethical code that covers basic issues such as child labour, but the code at times turns into an invisible hypocritical shield against real problems, and never ends up protecting real jobs, especially when your main aim is maintaining your profits high and keeping the shareholders happy."
Yet the sharehoders are very distant from these realities and they don't understand that developing your brand on an ethical path means really "caring" (excuse the pun on the name of the French conglomerate..) for all your workers and relating to them.
Since 2009, as revenue dangerously dropped Brioni lost over 275 jobs in Penne, without counting another 54 jobs suppressed in other sites. Brioni's recent crisis was attributed to rising wholesale price, and to the fact that, because of the rouble's collapse, Russian consumers and tourists didn't spend as planned in Western Europe and the Middle East. "Brioni used James Bond as a marketing strategy and that was perfectly understandable, but, after they lost it, and since Kering bought it, they never managed to come up with other solid plans and they committed a series of terrible mistakes, ending up changing in two years three production managers," Ronchi says. "Besides, they plan to fire people, but they have distributed financial rewards to managers, something that makes you naturally wonder how can this be possible, do you get given a monetary reward for cutting jobs?"
Though humanely this may not be too understandable, this is more or less what happens when the the classic M(erger)&A(acquisition) strategy developed by big conglomerates takes place: usually the next stages after the acquisition consist in refining production, boosting the sales, but cutting the human cost – in a nutshell, M(erge)&A(cquire)&F(ire).
Yet this may not be possible in Brioni's case. "Kering doesn't understand one key element," Ronca says, "Brioni is not unique because it's a luxury niche brand, there are indeed a lot of other luxury labels in Italy and in the rest of the world. It is unique because it has developed a specialised tailoring system. While a tailor makes an entire suit from scratch, cutting the fabric, sewing everything together and doing the fittings, at Brioni each worker is specialised is a single stage, so the artisan who makes a buttonhole is an artist specialised in that element of the suit that is therefore elevated to an art. People working at Brioni and in the luxury market can't afford what they make, but they have great skills, history and culture on their side."
According to Ronca the brand will only exist if Kering decides to keep the high quality level, but you can only maintain it when you don't fire people, "You can't think you can lose quality, reduce your workforce to a few hundreds and still keep on producing that kind of luxury product," he comments. In a nutshell, defending all the workers is a social and productive factor: "Brioni makes sense if it continues to have 1,200 workers, otherwise its prices will drive it out of the market."
Kering doesn't seem to have understood this trick (or doesn't want to understand it), but workers will keep on fighting: after recent meetings they decided they will accept a reduced working schedule (32 hours) and they are open to a voluntary mobility procedure. "They will lose part of their wage, but they will accept it as long as they can avoid being fired," Ronca states. "But Kering will have to realise they can't get away by telling the workers they have to reduce jobs as they sell less, since other luxury brands increased their sales even during the crisis and Kering are responsible for the marketing strategies adopted so far. The workers are making enormous sacrifices; if people at Kering don't understand it, they are utterly selfish."
The media revenue generated by the interest in the new creative director? "Smoke and mirrors," according to Ronca.
Maybe he is right: as things stand, there is a terrible mathematical discrepancy with digital numbers rising and workers perishing, in a nutshell Brioni is on the lookout for new, cool and hip digital followers, but it should actually refocus on its real consumers and above all deal with its real workers. Looks like Kering may need more than just a whiff of Brioni's 1959 "Good Luck" eau-de-cologne...
Images of Brioni workers on strike in this post courtesy of Domenico Ronca.
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