Established in Rome in 1945, Brioni had always been the go-to brand for moneyed business men, past and future presidents, captains of industry and international royals. It would be fair to say that, among menswear cognoscenti, Brioni was (and is) legendary.
This was luxury before luxury became a thing. Expensive, aspirational and renowned for their outstanding level of tailoring expertise (with all the history and heritage to match), aficionados could spend hours discussing the minutia of the house’s buttonhole technique.
Visually, the Brioni brand conjured up many powerful images: La Dolce Vita, Roman Holiday, continental tailoring, the birth of the cool, Mr Miles Davis in his sharp sixties suits and Bond, James Bond, when he needed to stay sharp but unstructured, his movement unrestricted so he could jump, roll and fight the villains, emerging immaculate as always.
Brioni Means Italian Style
And while Brioni may have become slightly staid over the years, it didn’t matter because Brioni wasn’t fashion; this was innate Italian style. Classic, conservative, safe, and eternally elegant, the reputation for quality was untouchable, unimpeachable.
Even basics like a Brioni shirt was the stuff of legend, spoken of in awed tones within the industry as knowledge was passed from elder statesmen of style to younger wannabees. Brioni tailoring may have been traditional but the cut, the fit, the quality was beyond the pale — style unbeholden to fashion that was never “in” nor “out.”
Bought outright in 2012, by the owners of Gucci, PPR boasted that it was the No.1 Men’s brand in the USA. It only took a few years before a decision was made by the group now known as Kering, to reinvent the brand’s image deciding that now was the time Brioni needed to be brought up to date to appeal to a younger, “cooler” customer.
Brendan Mullane, the first creative director hired by Kerring, had a background at Givenchy and an enlightened childhood growing up in early 80s Britain. The signs were good.
Interesting pieces were appearing in colourful, classic shapes with bold patterns and cloth choices, but at the beginning of 2016, revolution, not evolution, was the decision someone had made for Brioni. All of a sudden it was out with tradition and in with what can only be called Nu-Rocker.
Enter The Rocker
Tattooed, bearded, permanently in shades, no design experience or experience running a brand, or any experience of substance in menswear, Justin O’Shea was made creative director and handed the keys to the Brioni kingdom tasked with total creative responsibility.
While no one doubted O’Shea was a revolutionary choice, it shocked the industry. O’Shea might have been a pony tailed, three piece suit wearing street style star, but the creative director’s previous day job was as head buyer for a German-based womenswear, online retailer called My Theresa.
O’shea also had a taste for heavy metal music and he somehow managed to convince Kering of his vision to remake the storied house of Brioni into a brand with a heavy metal edge – the antithesis of their traditional customer.
Handed the keys, given complete creative freedom and brimming with confidence, O’Shea took an axe to the dark red Brioni script above the door and painted it black. The new black logo in gothic script was a statement pointing to dark days ahead.
Rock stars, Metallica, a band considered ridiculous by anyone other than serious fans, were hired to front the new Brioni campaign and, by this point, everything felt so wrong it was hard to even think about the clothes.
A Series of Bad Management Decisions
The legendary house had fallen. Brioni had been slain, not by the changing of the times, nor by savvy competitors, but by their own management decisions — a series of massive own goals that will likely be taught someday as a Harvard Business School case study.
Interestingly, at the launch of the new Metallica campaign, not a critical peep was heard from the mainstream fashion press when the team at Brioni unveiled what must have been a proud moment for themselves.
But understandable. Nobody wants to spoil the party when juicy advertising budgets are there for the taking.
Unsurprisingly, after only less than six months the revolution was extinguished, the rebel O’Shea chased out of town, his brief era seemingly marked with an Instagram posting of what looked like a Brioni branded coffin placed in a store window.
That said, the company is now being careful not to make any rash decisions moving forward. As of today, the gothic script is still up on the Brioni website as is the Metallica campaign imagery.
Brioni Will Survive Just Fine
Brioni, left in a pile of ashes, is now needing to be reincarnated. In disarray, where do they turn now and what direction will they take?
It will be interesting to see, but with a brand history as strong as Brioni’s this latest episode will only seem like a tiny bump in the road. The company still has their legions of trained craftsmen and more than 70 years of Italian style to fall back on.
As for O’Shea? He now tours the world with Metallica as a personal stylist. ML