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During his studies at the Università Commerciale Luigi Bocconi, Milan’s top college for economics, Maurizio Marcolin would pour over his textbooks with a certain vantage point — he had already experienced “the practice,” or how to do business, since he was a little boy.
That’s because since 1961, papa Giovanni and mamma Maria ran a successful and avant-garde namesake company that allowed their son to build a hands-on, in-the-trenches work experience.
“When I gave an exam, it was like repeating the story of my life, as if I had interned for 10 years. At dinner, we would listen to our parents talk about work, the factory, the production manager, the product guy and so on,” recalled Marcolin.
“Most evenings we ate bread and eyeglasses,” he quipped.
Figuratively, that may have been their meal, but eyewear certainly has been the Marcolins’ bread and butter.
As the style and licensing director of the $274 million family business, the soft-spoken Marcolin has rounded up a diverse portfolio of brands, including Tom Ford, Dsquared2, Roberto Cavalli, Diesel, Ferrari, Hogan, John Galliano, Kenneth Cole and Swarovski, their latest addition.
While Marcolin has wooed five new licensors in less than two years, he underscores how his mission today isn’t to add new names for the sake of the bottom line, but to complete the stable respecting his idea of an “eyewear atelier” that puts care, attention to details and manual labor into every frame.
“Obviously, Marcolin is a global company with many brands,” he noted, “but we want to give each one the right positioning and space in terms of market share, product and technology. And regardless of the economic climate, we will never, ever sacrifice the quality or image in the name of profit.”
Sporting a dapper double-breasted gray suit and windowpane checked shirt, Marcolin conducted the interview in the recently inaugurated Milan headquarters, housed inside a historic palazzo. Tempering the classical, stuccoed setting are modern showcases in wood and glazed glass that he designed.
In the beginning, Marcolin’s “gut instinct” was fundamental in scoping out new names with a solid core business and enough potential to succeed in the eyewear sector. A significant case in point is the Dolce & Gabbana license inked in 1995, when the fashion house didn’t have the buzz or powerhouse appeal it has today.
“It was a forerunning choice. I was in turbo drive back then, eager to sign new contracts. But today the approach is different because times have changed,” said Marcolin.
During his practice-makes-perfect learning curve, Marcolin admitted he learned to tame his instincts and zeal that characterized his early days in the company, now embracing new challenges in a more poised and reflective manner.
“I learned from my mistakes, because at times I was overcome by my enthusiasm. Now, I ponder with a different maturity,” he conceded.
Such wisdom helped the firm overcome a major setback — the loss of the Dolce & Gabbana license to Luxottica Group in 2004. To that end, spreading the wealth became essential, also in light of heady competition.
“The goal became to create a diversified portfolio because we didn’t want to put all our eggs in one basket anymore. To keep a balance, today no brand should surpass a 20 to 30 percent share of sales,” noted Marcolin, adding that the company today is more “stable.”
But he’s still eager to rise to a new challenge. Take Tom Ford, for example, who surprised everyone by making his solo foray in fashion with eyewear.
“Yes, we launched eyewear as the first fashion product for this designer but truth be told, Tom’s appeal stemmed from his reputation as one of the most talented creative directors in the world. Together, we managed to create a collection that was fresh, innovative, minimal, elegant and luxurious,” said Marcolin.
But, the pressure was on because if the collection flopped, it could have dampened the brand’s budding reputation. Instead, both the Whitney and Jennifer styles continue to be timeless bestsellers, exceeding sales forecasts and selling hundreds of thousands of pairs.
Thanks to a well-run organization and trendspotters who travel around the world to tap the market’s pulse, Marcolin is able to turn designer whims into reality.
“We’re chameleons and we adapt to our licensors. Some give us detailed briefings, others just a few notions that we complement, but we always interpret each brand to include iconic elements and new ideas,” said Marcolin.
In 1984, Marcolin crossed the ocean to spend three years at Marcolin U.S. His multiple experiences spanned packing boxes, strengthening the communications department and managing distribution. He also traveled to dip into the market to study its needs — and check out the competition.
“It became clear that there were different products, tastes and trends that were starting to differentiate the eyewear segment,” he said. “I started to understand that besides the product, you have to look at the market, you need to [have the company make sense] for the consumer and for the market, obviously within a company strategy.”
Two years later, he returned to Italy and set up a marketing department because in his view, the company was too pigeonholed in the production end. He segmented the collections by gender — men, women and children — and by look — romantic, urban chic, sporty and so on.
When he thought growth needed a stronger push, he embraced the licensing model, signing up Mila Schön and Lancetti in 1989.
Although glasses today are perceived sometimes more as an accessory than a medical device, Marcolin stressed that the brand extension isn’t always an automatic evolution and that there are examples of “successful brands that don’t perform as well with eyewear.”
Since Marcolin invests in technology and manufacturing techniques, especially for its tri-dimensional styles, the licensor’s business can’t be too small.
“We’re not here to do small pieces of art, but business, so in two years’ maximum, a line must swing to profitability,” said Marcolin.
Marcolin cites four strategic points a brand should have in order to develop a successful eyewear line:
• A precise strategic vision.
• A clear positioning for the consumer.
• Potential global growth.
• Licenses in other categories with coherent partners.
When their father, Giovanni, was plotting the company’s future and asked Maurizio and his twin brother, Cirillo, whether they wanted to carry on the family tradition, the answer was yes.
Moreover, Marcolin had a very clear picture of what side of the business he wanted to be on.
“I’ve always been very marketing-oriented. I love the product, design and aesthetic,” he contended.
“Marketing is a very abused word but what it really means is to follow the market to create business, expectations and needs.”
Fueled by the twins’ acumen, Marcolin picked up steam and succeeded in synchronizing the various departments — marketing, production, communications and advertising.
“It’s a dynamic process that needs constant fine-tuning,” Marcolin said, “but there’s still lots to do.”