Out of the Bag: The Rise of Accessory Designers

Why do the creative directors of leading luxury fashion brands like Gucci, Valentino and Marc by Marc Jacobs all have a background in accessories design?

Hail To The Queen Diana textured-leather shoulder bag | Source: Marc by Marc Jacobs

LONDON, United Kingdom — Frida Giannini of Gucci, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, Katie Hillier of Marc by Marc Jacobs and Stuart Vevers, formerly of Mulberry and Loewe, and, now, at Coach. Four creative directors with wildly divergent aesthetics — and yet they share one key characteristic: before becoming creative directors at some of the industry’s top brands, they built their careers as accessory designers.

Before being appointed creative director, Giannini was Gucci’s head of women’s accessories and, previously, its design director of handbags, having joined the company from Fendi, where she was designer of leather goods. Likewise, Chiuri and Piccioli worked in Valentino’s accessories department for over a decade, before replacing Alessandra Facchinetti as co-creative directors in 2008. And before assuming the post of creative director of Marc by Marc Jacobs, Hillier built her reputation consulting on accessories for Stella McCartney, Salvatore Ferregamo, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Victoria Beckham.

But why did parent company Kering give an accessories designer creative control over all the product lines at Gucci, its most profitable brand? Why did Marc Jacobs charge an accessories consultant with defining his secondary, at such a crucial time for his label? And why is an accessories design duo leading Valentino’s evolution from red carpet atelier to bona fide luxury house?

Growth Drivers

The rising importance of accessories as a highly lucrative revenue stream has a lot to do with it. “I was very lucky to be involved in the accessories side of the business when it blew up,” Hillier told BoF. “There have been many, many more opportunities open to me because I was doing accessories and it was given so much weight within the business. I am not sure that I would have gained that amount of knowledge being in ready-to-wear design. Being involved in the accessories business, you learn about all this other stuff — how brand building works, how the industry is growing. I think that with most companies now, you will find that their main revenue [driver] is accessories. So putting somebody in charge that has a very good understanding of how that works is shrewd.”

“As leather goods have become the driving force of the actual business of the fashion industry, having a thorough understanding of this has been crucial to the work I’ve done as a creative director,” echoed Vevers.

Indeed, in recent years, “accessories and, in particular, leather accessories, have grown faster than the broader luxury markets,” said Luca Solca, a luxury analyst at Exane BNP Paribas in London. A November 2013 BNP Paribas report entitled “Category Dynamics,” found: “Different product categories have seen materially divergent fortunes in the past ten years. Leather, and handbags in particular, has been the rising star, moving from 18 percent of the personal luxury goods market to 27 percent. Conversely, two categories have contracted: fashion from 29 percent to 26 percent and fragrances and cosmetics from 26 percent to 20 percent. We calculate that in-season, full-price sell-through is 50 percent for ready-to-wear and 90 percent for leather and hard luxury.”

“The obvious answer to the question would be: you make more cash with accessories,” Laudomia Pucci, image director of Emilio Pucci, told BoF.“However, [more cash] isn’t really the right answer — the right answer is a little bit trickier,” Pucci explained. “Expansion is what is important nowadays. Today, when you are talking of expanding your own retail network — in South East Asia, Japan, South America, the Middle East, Russia — you are talking, first and foremost, to many different kinds of cultures, different kinds of women, different users. And, today, with many women, especially in those markets, the first thing you notice is their shoes, handbag or sunglasses.” Indeed, not only are accessories a major growth opportunity in less mature markets, but in countries with distinct cultural dress codes, like the Gulf States or India, for example, accessories are easily and universally acceptable.

What’s more, fashion apparel and accessories is the fastest growing e-commerce category in the US and the second largest after consumer electronics — and it’s worth remembering that accessories are far easier to sell online than clothes. “With accessories, you are not talking of sizes anymore, unless you are talking about shoes and that is another matter — it is much easier to sell a bag online than ready-to-wear,” said Pucci.

Distilling Brand DNA

But the importance of the accessories market is only one part of the reason why so many of fashion’s top creative directors have accessories backgrounds. Accessories designers also often have the best grasp of how to take the DNA of a brand, distill it down to its core elements and translate that into this down into product.

Giannini’s luxed up Gucci bags, with their embossed leather logos and pyramidal shapes strike the perfect balance of Italian bravada and elegant craftsmanship that is at the core of the brand, while Chiuri and Piccioli’s use of clean lines and dainty studs immediately conjures up the new Valentino’s blend of restraint and strength.

“[Branding has] been part of the heritage of leather goods, as a hallmark of quality, whether a bag is branded with a logo or the shape itself becomes recognisable enough to be a brand signature,” said Vevers. “Branding has generally tended to be more important in accessories.”

“Bags go through very long processes,” said Hillier. “Is it right for the brand? Does it represent the brand? Is it the right price point for the brand? All of those things are factored into this one little thing on a table which should normally be, well, [laughs] pretty simple.”

In fact, knowing how to express a differentiated brand DNA within the constraints of a bag design is a complex challenge — and one that is increasingly relevant across product categories as competition mounts.

“There aren’t that many handbag shapes that you can actually do,” said Hillier. “There is a clutch, there’s a duffle, a satchel, a hobo and there is a tote bag. But how it is crafted, how it is finished on the inside, is really complicated, and sometimes stifling, but then that is the challenge.”

Impact on the Industry

The rise of accessory designers to some of fashion’s top creative roles seems to be having a knock-on effect across the industry. Indeed, the recent appointments of Darren Spaziani (Proenza Schouler’s former director of accessories design) at Louis Vuitton, where he has been tasked with creating a new line of luxury accessories, and Elena Ghisellini (the woman behind Givenchy’s popular Pandora and Nightingale bags) at Pucci, where she is now heading the handbag division, have generated much more buzz than similar appointments in the past.

“Normally, we don’t speak too much about designers under the creative director,” said Pucci. “I am happy to speak about [Ghisellini] because I think she is very very good. But it’s more the fact that we thought it was important to progress in a more technical design manner for the accessories, becoming more coherent.”

“But, in general, I fear for the young talent — the young bag designers, shoes designers. After two to three years, I would prefer to have my product speak for me. But the pressure is there; they have to keep up the momentum and maybe they go up against creative directors too early.”

Hillier has a different outlook. “What I think is pretty cool about accessories designers being given big positions is it gives weight to another part of the industry. Look at Nicholas [Kirkwood] who is doing incredibly well and just had investment from LVMH. It’s the next tier of investment for those big companies. And it allows opportunity and different visions and different brands to come through.”