By  on September 11, 2006

PARIS — Olivier Theyskens won’t show his first collection for Nina Ricci until next March, but he’s eager to take on a French house that already sends his poetic imagination soaring.

Ricci will officially announce today that Theyskens is its new artistic director, effective Nov. 1. This confirms an exclusive WWD report on Aug. 30 that he was zeroing in on a Ricci deal. Theyskens succeeds Lars Nilsson, who resigned last month for personal reasons, with plans to return to the United States.

Terms of the contract were not disclosed, but Mario Grauso, president of Puig Fashion Group, said the firm sees large growth potential given Theyskens’ design prowess. Grauso plans to expand Ricci’s market profile with select flagships, a new shop-in-shop concept and eventual expansion into new product categories and possibly price tiers.

For his part, Theyskens declined to give any hints of what might come down the Ricci runway come Paris Fashion Week next spring, but he promised designs consistent with a brand that is “synonymous with beautiful refinement.”

“For quite a while, I had a feeling there were quite a few values in this brand which are common to me, too,” he said. “We are speaking about a symbol of refinement, grace and femininity and also an idea of freedom. These are a few very inspiring things.”

In his first interview since Proctor & Gamble shuttered the Rochas fashion business last July, Theyskens told WWD he understood the corporate logic of that decision, while staunchly defending his three-year stint at the house, which earned wide acclaim, if not commercial traction.

Looking rested, happy and full of energy, the 29-year-old fashion wunderkind said he has already moved on from the setback at Rochas and is eager to enter a new chapter — or perhaps something bigger — in his career.

“I sometimes have the feeling of opening a new opus in life,” he said with a laugh.

Dressed in a thin gray T-shirt, white pants and suede sneakers, his long black hair in a ponytail, Theyskens talked in an animated fashion about Ricci.

“I’m totally excited about it. I’m very happy. It’s an honor,” he said. “I would like to see it become a symbol of beauty, of femininity and grace. I want to make it a brand with true values, an iconic brand. And I want to have a lot of girls fall in love with it!”While Theyskens has a cursory knowledge of the Ricci house, founded in 1932 and acquired by Spain’s Puig family in 1997, he said many elements speak to him, from its famous and perennially successful L’Air du Temps fragrance — “I love the bottle,” he enthused — to the fact that its founder was female.

“I am a true fan of French fashion. Also, I love to evolve,” the Belgian designer said. “It’s very interesting for me to be in a house where the name is from a woman. I like it. It’s intriguing and inspiring. It’s what I do: work on femininity.”

While Theyskens describes himself as someone who sketches “all the time,” he said he is primarily at the conceptual stages in defining his vision for Ricci. “My mind is working. I am a very sensitive person, a very intuitive person…I have to make a lot of room for that.”

His immediate priority at Ricci will be ready-to-wear, but his role as artistic director will give him purview over perfumes as well.

Given that Ricci just had a major fragrance launch — the romantic and youth-oriented Nina scent, housed in an apple-shaped flacon — Theyskens’ input won’t be required immediately. But with a new Ricci scent scheduled for 2008, the designer relishes the opportunity. “The perfume world is very inspiring for me,” he said.

Theyskens is also keen to conceive and direct an advertising campaign, something he has yet to do. Although collaborators have yet to be defined, the Ricci spots will be seen in September 2007 magazines, Grauso said.

Breaking his silence about the closure of Rochas for the first time, Theyskens spoke in calm, measured tones. “Personally, I’m very sad that such a brand with such a name disappears so suddenly from the fashion scene,” he said. “At the same time, I did everything I could to show them it was not the thing to do.”

But Theyskens added he understood that P&G, specialists in fast-moving consumer goods, was not interested in, nor focused on, the luxury fashion business and thus made a “very pragmatic” decision to concentrate on its Rochas beauty holdings. “I understand totally they have their own reasons,” he said.Still, the designer described his Rochas years as a “rich” experience, during which he learned to work with larger teams and discovered the incomparable quality and savoir faire of French clothing ateliers.

In the wake of the Rochas closure, some observers suggested the brand did not move beyond a niche positioning and was focused too heavily on extravagant and expensive eveningwear.

Theyskens countered that his initial concentration on an exclusive product was deliberate but that his fashion offering had in fact become much wider. Unfortunately, P&G did not have the “skills and expertise” to turn it quickly into a financial success, he said.

“It was a brand that came from zero to become one with one of the biggest potentials for the future,” Theyskens asserted.

To be sure, the designer was a darling of retailers, Hollywood royalty and legions of editors, who praised his ethereal gowns and slouchy pantsuits. Earlier this year, he was bestowed the International Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Born in Brussels, Theyskens leaped onto the international fashion scene in 1998 at age 21 when he dressed Madonna in a striking black satin coat with hook-and-eye closures for the Oscars, and she anointed him her new favorite designer. He was immediately dubbed a Goth hero and a rising star, considered a front-runner to succeed Alexander McQueen at Givenchy in 2001. Instead, Theyskens joined Rochas in 2003, putting his signature collection on hiatus.

In an interview Friday, Grauso disclosed he’s had his eye on Theyskens for many years, impressed by not only his theatrical and powerful runway shows — long a highlight of Paris Fashion Week — but also his wide-screen brand vision that produced “beautiful, creative and real clothes.”

Grauso said Theyskens would be given creative freedom to express himself on the runway and that rtw would be the immediate priority, but “Olivier sees a lot of categories, and we’ll let him tell us where he wants to go.”

Theyskens arrives at a profitable fashion house and one with strong momentum. Grauso declined to give figures but said rtw sales had “more than doubled” in the past three years. The Ricci collection is sold in about 50 U.S. doors and about 100 in Europe and Asia, Grauso said. Puig’s key retail partners in America include Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Barneys New York and Bergdorf Goodman.Grauso said Theyskens’ arrival would signal no major changes in management or the pricing positioning of the collection. Ricci’s president, Christophe Hebre, joined the firm last October from Rochas, where he was instrumental in recruiting Theyskens.

Accessories currently represent less than 10 percent of the Ricci business, and Grauso said he spies a “large opportunity” for the brand to grow in handbags and shoes, categories for which Theyskens said he has many ideas.

At present, Ricci has one company-owned flagship on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, which Theyskens will ultimately make over in his image. “We would love to have a New York store in the near future, and we’d like to develop a shop-in-shop program in the near future,” Grauso said.

With Theyskens on board, Ricci now ranks as a key growth priority for the Puig Fashion Group, which also includes Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne. As reported, Paco Rabanne did not ship its fall/winter collection and has been winding down its high-cost Paris operations.

“We have decided to take a step back from the Paco business, and we are eliminating the collection piece,” Grauso said, officially confirming the retrenchment for the first time. “We’ve decided to focus our resources on Carolina Herrera and Ricci. They’ve shown clear signs of being able to grow.”

However, he noted that Rabanne’s creative director, Patrick Robinson, would remain with the brand to oversee licensed products such as watches and eyewear as the company scouts for deals in other categories, possibly in apparel (albeit not in the designer zone).

Paco Rabanne’s male-driven fragrance business, which is “healthy and growing,” is unaffected by the changes, Grauso noted.

Looking ahead, the executive said Ricci’s future growth drivers could include a second rtw brand. “I think Olivier’s spirit would translate into another price tier, but it’s not an immediate priority,” he noted.

For his part, Theyskens is champing at the bit to design all sorts of products for Ricci.

“Everything a woman has on is something I love,” Theyskens said, smiling. “Nina Ricci is a great brand for everything that is feminine, from lingerie to dresses. It’s a very good thing to find this alchemy.”

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