Fashion is all about making a big entrance and upstaging your rivals. That’s exactly what François-Henri Pinault did this morning. He diverted attention from the catwalks of Milan, where fashion week is in full sequinned swing, to Paris by announcing that Gucci, Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Brioni will no longer use animal fur in any of their products from autumn 2022.
The billionaire chairman and CEO of Kering, the French luxury goods conglomerate that owns the brands, tells me in an exclusive interview before today’s announcement: “The world has changed, along with our clients, and luxury needs to adapt.” Chewing his French vowels in his office in Paris, he says: “The time has now come to end the use of fur in all our collections.”
Kering’s brands will continue to use leather, unlike some designers — which will come as a relief to those who cannot resist a pair of traditional horse bit loafers. “When it comes to leather, we’re talking about the byproduct of the food industry, so it’s a completely different approach,” Pinault says. However, he adds that Kering is “researching and investing heavily in research and development on a mushroom-based or laboratory grown ‘leather’.”
Today’s fur-free move is the latest in a decade-long effort by Kering to become the greenest luxury goods firm on the planet with the highest animal welfare standards, to try to appeal to a new generation of more eco-aware consumers. The group has already introduced environmental profit and loss (EP&L) accounts that put a financial value on the company’s environmental impact. “It’s important to show you can run a good business and, at the same time, protect people, animals and the environment,” says Pinault, 59, who is married to actor Salma Hayek, with whom he has a 14-year-old daughter. They spent much of lockdown at their house in north London.
When it comes to creating all new products, “we are thinking of sustainable material, sustainable craftsmanship, the lifecycle of the product, when we conceive the product, not after it has been created,” he says. Kering “will clean up the supply chain by tracing all our raw materials to be able to choose the right ones. We are implementing a leather tanning process without heavy metals.”
Fashion brands need to “rebalance volume and value” so that they “are not always pushing for more volume by trying to sell at the lowest price,” he argues. “Having products that are respectful of the environment, at a certain price, will teach customers it is not just about price but about value but also about longevity.” Translation? Price rises are likely.
Kering is researching and investing heavily in a mushroom-based or lab-grown ‘leather’
In another bold move Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele has pledged to reduce the label’s shows from five a year to two “to slow down the pace” of the industry and reduce travel and carbon emissions. Before lockdowns, many big brands were staging up to eight shows per year, rather than simply showcasing the usual spring/summer and autumn/winter collections. There will be no double G logos on the catwalk in Milan this week. Instead, the brand will reveal its latest collection in Los Angeles later this year.
Gucci could soon also offer re-sale of pre-owned clothing — something big brands have long resisted as too costly and distracting from their core business of creating “the new, new thing”.
Pinault says: “We are thinking about the possibility to recycle and resell your product. Maybe in the future we will offer to identify the product, give you an appraisal of the value of the product, and if you want to sell the product, do it for you.” A pilot programme is under way at Alexander McQueen with Vestiaire Collective, and at Gucci with TheRealReal. Ramping up use of energy from renewable sources is also on Kering’s to-do list.
Put together, the moves amount to the biggest revolution at Kering that anyone can remember. And it goes beyond its stable of brands. Pinault was the driving force behind the creation of the Fashion Pact in 2019, a global coalition of companies in fashion and textiles that have committed to addressing climate change, biodiversity and marine conservation. The pact has over 60 members, one third of the $1 trillion fashion industry. Getting rid of chemicals, single use plastic, and microplastics are among its goals. “We need to have a collective approach, if we really want to change things to have an impact” Pinault says. “Same ambition, same target, same timetable. It’s a moral obligation for each of us.”
Not everyone agrees with him on fur. Some brands still use it. Will the holdouts join Kering? “It depends where they’re coming from, the importance of that material. I’m pretty sure that if it’s not done yet, it will be done in the near future,” Pinault says. His moves are not just the result of a moral shift. There is a strong business case for sustainability and circularity. Unsold stock that built up in lockdown exposed the darker side of the industry — in a race for market share many brands over-produce. The result is a cycle of early full-price sales, followed by deep discounting and then, for some brands, the burning of stock. That’s devastating for brand equity and public image, not to mention the environment.
What’s more, the second-hand market, pioneered by resale sites — such as Depop in the UK, Vestiaire in France (in which Kering has bought a five per cent stake), TheRealReal in the US and YCloset in China — is booming. It is expected to grow faster than fast fashion. Analyst Karl-Hendrik Magnus, at McKinsey, says there are rich rewards for brands that combine their emotional appeal with environmental and social responsibility, calling it “a huge opportunity for this industry to reinvent itself.”
Kering’s latest results show what can be achieved. In the first half of this year the group’s consolidated revenue was €7.7 billion, up 53 per cent on the same period last year. Gucci alone posted revenue of €4.47 billion, up 50 per cent, returning to its pre-pandemic level. It looks like the brand’s 100th anniversary this autumn will be a cause for a lavish — but sustainable — celebration.