Brioni is a highly regarded name. Hailing from Rome, the brand has been admired and respected for the top quality of its classic suits for decades; but today, the company is going through a serious crisis that started several years ago.
It’s disheartening to see one of the flagships of the Italian sartorial fleet tossed by the waves like this, and the storm shows no sign of stopping. It has become urgent for the captain – French group Kering – to react strongly and set Brioni on a serious course, lest the ship finally sink.
The latest news from Rome, Penne and Bergame, where the brand’s production units are located, is dire to say the least, including free-falling revenues, overproduction capacity (production itself has dropped from 70 000 pieces to less than 30 000 a year), not to mention the scheduled mass layoffs which will result in the loss of about a third of Brioni’s workforce, around 400 people.
The Brioni fiasco is becoming a serious political matter in Italy. High-ranking government officials took the case up with the State’s Ministry of Work and Economy and to the Parliament, while the trade unions keep calling for strikes, pointing out the allegedly “abandoned” state of the Bergame manufacture as an example of the company’s failings.
From the company’s side (or rather, from the cabinet in charge of handling crisis communication procedures) came a couple of less-than-convincing arguments to explain the sorry state of the legendary brand – none of which seem to reflect how strong the Kering group actually is, nor how powerful the name Brioni remains.
In the latest issue of French magazine Journal du Textile, Brioni’s management holds a “radical shift in the behavior of men, who now favor a less formal wardrobe than in the past” responsible for the sharp decline of the brand. The journalist in charge of the piece tries to explain the situation by pointing out what he identifies as a three major determining factors :
– Brioni’s dangerous attempts at diversifying its clientele – including a failed (but very costly) incursion into the women’s fashion market,
– The brand’s incapacity at seducing a renewed masculine clientele, drawn to a more sportswear and casual look, whom only managed to be turned off by Brioni’s premium pricing policy,
– A decline in revenue from Brioni’s traditional clientele, which is allegedly buying fewer classical suits than in the past.
Without delving deep into long-winded economical and strategical explanations, which aren’t the focus for this publication, I would like to nuance and simplify the above points and explain why, in my opinion, Brioni is in its current situation. We love Brioni for what the brand used to represent, and indeed can still represent in the sartorial universe.
So let’s get to the main point : if Brioni’s traditional customers were truly buying less suits than in the past, then how can other brands in the same market segment such as Cesare Attolini, Kiton, or even ISAIA, be enjoying near-constant growth ? How do we explain Zegna’s sustained economic figures, and the relatively smaller house of Cifonelli successfully launching a new high-end RTW line?
I believe the answer is fairly easy to grasp. Let’s start with a couple of pictures to illustrate.
Here is the image of Brioni conveyed at the end of the 2000’s :
And here is the image Brioni is conveying in 2016 :
The comparison is eloquent enough, but begs the question: who is Brioni’s current target clientele ? Or to rephrase : which target audience is Brioni attempting to appeal to today ?
When examining the target audience of Attolini, Kiton, ISAIA and Cifonelli, we find that:
– Cesare Attolini speaks to a classic, wealthy international clientele who is drawn to impeccable suits cut in luxurious fabrics— a clientele who usually doesn’t have the patience or time to wait months for suits to be made at a traditional bespoke salon.
– Kiton occupies roughly the same high-end spot as Cesare Attolini, albeit with an overall style that is less classic in spirit, yet still geared towards a generation affluent enough to afford their prices.
– ISAIA operates in a slightly lower price bracket than the above, and appeals to a typically younger clientele who can appreciate the brand’s bold colors, patterns, and casual sports jackets in quintessential Neapolitan styling.
– Cifonelli’s strategy is to create a RTW line which appeals to an affluent international crowd, sensitive to Cifonelli’s style of chic Parisian flair with more structured jackets than their Italian counterparts.
So whom does Brioni hope to appeal to with their ever-dwindling “classic” ranges, and new, extravagant collections which feature contrasting yokes and other such “stylistic treats” ? Is their target a newer, less traditional and less-established clientele ?
I’m not a big fan of modern marketing techniques like highly abstract catwalks featuring clothing exhibitions designed to go viral on social media platforms (as opposed to exhibitions designed to display clothes that are intended to be worn by the brand’s clientele). But I do understand this : by trying to appeal to everyone, you can end up appealing to no one.
And herein lies Brioni’s core problem : the brand doesn’t appeal to anyone anymore.
By going too-wide too-fast, Brioni is facing a double paradox :
– On one hand, Brioni is trying to appeal to a young and wealthy clientele who might identify with the brand’s T-shirts featuring oversized logos (see below). The problem is Brioni doesn’t have the same established clientele on this specific segment as, say, Dolce Gabbana or Gucci. This very specific crowd isn’t willing to buy a 550€ t-shirt with the logo of a brand which their dads and uncles wore in the past. Currently, the name Brioni still conveys a sense of stylistic conservatism, especially to the younger generation. To this generation, Brioni could even feel outdated.
– On the other hand, by trying to seduce a younger clientele, Brioni dealt a severe blow to the classical suit lover, effectively severing the dialogue with the aforementioned fathers and uncles who can’t recognize themselves anymore in Brioni’s current marketing campaigns. These people were Brioni’s core clientele and have been for decades – the precise clientele who used to love the brand for its discreet sophistication and the excellent quality of product. But now, in most collections, classic style and tailoring know-how seems to have been thrown out the portholes.
At PG, we know Brioni’s historical clientele as a core part of our readership. And we claim with certainty that these gentlemen do not buy fewer suits than they did before. However, they buy better suits than before, with unprecedented passion and education. These gentlemen simply buy their suits somewhere else rather than Brioni (e.g., at a traditional bespoke salon, or at other brands with whom they can still relate).
Brioni’s problem isn’t simply about brand positioning, it’s also about the brand’s identity.
We live in an age where marketing teams oversell catch-all terms which they have stripped and redefined as “values”, “craftsmanship”, “know-how” and “tradition”. Brioni does possess actual values and traditions, but it’s urgent that the brand gets back on track and firmly returns to what it does best : high-end classic suits for an ever-growing clientele in search of excellence and discreet elegance.
We acknowledge this short analysis may not be comprehensive, and may tend to oversimplify compared to other erudite professionals of the luxury world, but let me qualify that this writing comes from a heart who has revered and respected Brioni, deeply. It feels like an injustice to stand by and watch such a beautiful heritage dragged into the dirt by all-powerful executives who may understand focus groups, strategic plans and Excel spreadsheets, but still have much to learn about all matters sartorial.
Wake up, Brioni !