Sign of the times - The Forecast 14 - Magazine | Monocle

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When is it the right time for a luxury fashion label to part ways with its past and embrace a new look? Can heritage be disregarded in the search for modern currency? Until recently, the answer has been a definitive “no” for most of the fashion industry’s historic houses, whose businesses have been built on century-old foundations. 

It’s a formula that has fared them well. Take Parisian maison Chanel, which hasn’t veered away from its black-and- white branding and double-C logo since it was founded as a small hat shop by Gabrielle Chanel in 1910. “We want to ensure that our 100-year-old iconic house continues to thrive and stays a beacon of inspiration for the next 100 years,” says Leena Nair, Chanel’s global CEO, during the announcement of the company’s most recent revenues, which jumped 17 per cent to $17.2bn (€16.3bn) in 2022. A result, according to Nair, of continuously reinterpreting heritage rather than veering away from it.

Similarly, fellow Parisian brand Hermès has built one of the most resilient businesses in the fashion market by staying true to its horse-and-carriage emblem, orange branding and classic Birkin and Kelly bag designs. “They have embraced that orange colour for so long that no one else in fashion can use it,” says Leslie David, whose Paris-based design studio helps brands to shape their visual identity. “I don’t think that historical brands should change these elements. Even when a new creative team enters the business, it should treat the branding as a monument that requires respect. In France in particular, we tend to be very protective of the historical brands that we have grown up with. There is a comfort in longevity.”

“In France we tend to be very protective of the historical brands we’ve grown up with”

But as the wheels of the fashion industry turn ever faster, the financial stakes become higher and the competition stiffer, many fashion brands have given up on the power of consistency in favour of regular facelifts. It’s a way to cut through the noise and command attention, even if it is the short-term kind. By 2018, for instance, a host of luxury labels – from Celine and Saint Laurent to Burberry, Balenciaga, Berluti and Balmain – had adopted modernist, sans serif typefaces, spurring a homogenisation across the luxury market. “Modernism is always a safe place to hide out,” says Hannes Famira, a graphic designer who has worked with the likes of Celine and Helmut Lang. “Design trends swing back and forth but a logo should express the distinguishing qualities of a label and in my eyes, rebranding according to trends does the exact opposite.”

Burberry’s new flagship
Celine’s stripped-back logo
Gucci’s new Ancora branding
The Ancora palette on the runway
Ferragamo’s Peter Saville-designed wordmark

The sans-serif wave marked a shift in the industry when creative directors – including Hedi Slimane at Celine and Riccardo Tisci at Burberry – became superstars and were given full control of the brands they were leading. It was also a time when streetwear infiltrated the mainstream – and to achieve that look, brands needed to embrace brasher logos, suitable for splashing over T-shirts and hoodies. “Logos increasingly turned into seasonal marques that would get disposed of at the end of a creative director’s tenure,” says Famira.

But today, as consumers grow tired of homogenous branding, and fashion houses reclaim their own power, there has been a fresh round of luxury rebrands, focused on a return to heritage. “It’s now clear that focusing exclusively on a sans serif typography was a passing trend that led to a dry standardisation,” says designer Gregorio Poggetti. This is why Burberry has reinstated its equestrian motif and a more decorative logo; Bally revisited its Swiss heritage and a 1930s logo by architect Robert Mallet-Stevens (an attempt to lure the streetwear crowd by hiring Los Angeles-based Rhuigi Villaseñor lasted just over 12 months); and Gucci marked its return to classic design with new deep-red branding – a hue similar to the red lacquered lift that Guccio Gucci used to work in as a porter. These ambitious rebrands are both risky and costly. “If the reinvention is drastic the old inventory probably has to be liquidated, [without guarantee] that the proposed identity will stick,” says Luca Solca, head of luxury-goods research at investment firm AllianceBernstein. 

The brands that took the leap this year did succeed in creating excitement: people rejoiced at Burberry’s return to Britishness and felt a strong sense of anticipation when Gucci splashed its new burgundy branding across Milanese trams this autumn. Yet the ultimate litmus test of success will be next year, when the dust settles and products hit the shop floor. Experts are mostly optimistic about what’s to come. Retailers are buying into the new Gucci and planning ambitious launches in the new year; Harrods’ Simon Longland, for instance, says that despite industry murmurs, the new collection, designed to be “worn and lived in” is highly anticipated by customers. Solca also called Burberry’s about-turn “appropriate” and bound to yield results, despite some inevitable confusion caused by frequent changes in creative direction. 

In the longer term, the ultimate measure of success will come down to individuality. This is why Loewe has stayed at the top of its game throughout various trends; its anagram logo is one of a kind and is often reinterpreted on accessories without veering too far away from the original motif. “For too long, luxury houses have been dominated by our frenetic information culture, chasing immediate results and experiencing real identity crises,” says Poggetti. “Moving forward, brands should be known for setting trends, not following them.”

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