LONDON — During Robert Polet’s crash course on luxury, one of his favorite discoveries plumbing the Gucci archives was a decades-old ad slogan: “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”
A leather plaque bearing those words is one of the prized possessions of the new Gucci Group chief executive, who joined the world of luxury from Unilever’s frozen foods division in July.
“We used to have them in our stores,” Polet said, gesturing to the sign in the corner of his sleek brown and white office on Grafton Street here. “In the world of brands, it’s about longevity. A brand is a personality. It lives on generation after generation, so you have to understand the past.”
During an exclusive interview on Tuesday, Polet spoke frankly about his acclimatization to the industry, even confessing initial doubts about the multibrand business model he inherited from his predecessors, Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole.
“It was a question on my mind,” he said. “But I came out being a firm believer in having multiple brands. One of the compelling reasons is the talent management aspect: the opportunity to promote people within the group, giving them the opportunity to work on different brands. You can cross-fertilize skills. It creates more professionalism, more enthusiasm and, in the end, better products than if you were a mono brand.”
But don’t ask Polet to identify which of Gucci’s nine brands speaks to him the most. He said that would be tantamount to asking which of his two teenage daughters is his favorite.
“I attach the same value and affection to all of them,” he demurred.
As energetic and upbeat as he was earlier in the day when he presented his strategic plan to about 300 analysts and journalists at the British Museum, Polet reiterated in the interview his bullish outlook for luxury goods after three years of uncertainty engendered by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, SARS and the Iraq war.
“We see growth picking up again,” he said, noting that he recently received a text message from a regional manager in Asia reporting the biggest-ever daily take at its Hong Kong store: $650,000. “I love getting messages like that,” Polet beamed.However, he allowed that the strong euro looms as a chief obstacle to surmount in the year ahead. “We are all very much sensitive to the further development of the exchange rates,” he said.
Polet expressed relief over having finally unveiled his strategic plan, acknowledging that the outside pressures were sometimes distracting. He was alluding to persistent skepticism over whether he or Gucci parent Pinault-Printemps-Redoute fully understands the intricacies of luxury and fashion.
“The only way to prove this is to perform,” he said. “And we are all looking forward to rolling up our sleeves and exciting our consumers with desirable brands and a continuous flow of exciting products.”
For his part, Polet said the skills he acquired at Unilever managing brands like Popsicle and Klondike have, surprisingly, transferred easily to fashion.
“I have spent 26 years managing brands. I’m a brand man. It’s what fascinates me: creating concepts and building brands,” he said. “What gives me a kick is achieving impossible things together with people and seeing the twinkle in their eyes when they achieve it.”
Polet said his most important revelation about the fashion business is the importance of “intuitive creativity,” that rare talent that allows people to make desirable products that consumers didn’t even know they wanted.
“Luxury brands need to be managed for their aspirational positioning and for their exclusivity,” he explained. “When you don’t have those two elements, you are in trouble.”
A Dutch national born in Malaysia, Polet and his wife, Caroline, recently moved permanently to London, with their 11-year-old dog now en route from Amsterdam (one of his daughters will remain in Asia to study, while the other is continuing her schooling in the Netherlands).
And yes, Polet said he is loving his new job — and the industry. “What I find fascinating is the energy and speed with which we bring out new products under these brands,” he related. “You get pulled into it instantly: this drive to stay ahead of the curve, this bubble of constant innovation. I find it invigorating.”
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