Upon taking the reins earlier this year, Gucci’s new CEO Marco Bizzarri and creative head Alessandro Michele have sought to revitalize the venerable Kering-owned brand worldwide. However, one market in particular has already shown itself to be a clear priority—China.
The past few years have not been kind to Gucci in mainland China. The brand has been among the hardest hit by Xi Jinping’s marathon anti-corruption campaign, and the brand’s relatively slow pace of brick-and-mortar refreshes and product innovation has allowed smaller brands to make headway among younger consumers in particular.
Ahead of the release of Michele’s first collection as creative head, Gucci’s biggest success in mainland China this year came after the brand slashed prices to clear old inventory.
This doesn’t necessarily mean China has fallen out of love with Gucci. The brand remains highly sought after by Chinese tourists in Europe in particular. However, Gucci is definitely in need of a refresh in a challenging China market—which now is steered arguably as much by young, sophisticated consumers as the moneyed ultra-wealthy who fueled Gucci’s initial growth there in the 1990s and 2000s.
In a turn presumably meant to present a fresh face to the China market and introduce their new strategy for Gucci, Bizzarri and Michele have gone against the usual big-event-and-catwalk approach so beloved of major brands over the past 20 years and gone a much more artsy direction.
Running through December 16 at the Minsheng Art Museum in Shanghai, Gucci’s “No Longer / Not Yet” art exhibition, co-curated by Michele and Katie Grand, editor-in-chief of LOVE magazine, is a bold approach to re-marketing a brand with which China is very much already familiar.
Luxury-art partnerships are nothing new in China. Veteran China luxury-watchers will remember large-scale exhibitions like “Culture Chanel” and “Louis Vuitton Voyages” back in 2011, and going even further back, Cartier held a two-month-long “Cartier Art Treasures” exhibition at the Shanghai Museum in May 2004.
However, these exhibitions simply mined the archives of these luxury stalwarts, rather than introducing their brands in a whole new light. For Gucci, Michele and Bizzarri have the task of showing twenty- and thirty-something Chinese consumers that Gucci under their watch is a fresh, vibrant brand—and not the Gucci of their parents.
And even if it’s unspoken, “No Longer / Not Yet” is clearly aimed at young Chinese consumers—whose interest in art and art collecting has grown steadily over the years. The exhibition includes works by a range of artists, among them Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei, sculptor Rachel Feinstein, Neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, British photographer Glen Luchford, British musician and record producer Steve Mackey, British photographer Nigel Shafran, Chinese Op-artist Li Shurui, and British illustrator and artist Unskilled Worker.
The exhibition also includes a room designed by Michele, entitled “Gucci Tian” (i.e. “heaven”), which features what the SCMP called “a mirrored space featured wallpaper with oriental painting motifs, while an inner room held an old painting of an androgynous figure framed with neon lights.”
What essentially could be just a static museum piece celebrating brand history instead becomes a highly contemporary statement by Michele. For all the talk of brands needing to provide Chinese consumers with an “experience,” Gucci appears to have actually succeeded in doing it. (Or at least getting them to talk about it; the hashtag #已然未然# or “No Longer/Not Yet” currently has 6.4 million views and 3,490 discussions on Weibo and has been posted about by many—if not most—of China’s high-profile fashion bloggers.)
But beyond the philosophical language underpinning Michele’s motivations for the exhibition are a deeper truth: Gucci needs to find new ways to connect with Chinese consumers and—more importantly—get them to shop. As The Drum wrote last week of the Gucci exhibition, “Brands are beginning to understand and quantify that when shoppers fall in love with a brand through experience, their wallets open, even if they don’t buy that very second.”
This will certainly be the hope for Gucci, which definitely needs Chinese consumers to start spending more money at home rather than abroad or via daigou sellers. One of the main obstacles of this is that the exhibition—in contrast to a runway show or VIP event at a boutique—has no clear call to action. So young visitors may enjoy the experience, and post about it on Weibo and/or WeChat, and Gucci will bask in the buzz. But the structural issues crimping their sales in China—high prices, stores in need of a refresh, a consumer base accustomed to buying online or overseas—remain firmly in place.
That said, perhaps the lack of a clear consumer-facing message is the point, and that could mark the genius of the exhibition—that Gucci is, whether overtly or not, saying that it’s confident enough in its brand that it wants to immerse visitors in the arts—and tie itself to that intellectual, artsy experience—without any ulterior, hard-sell motive.