By  on January 13, 2005

MILAN — Prada Group plans to run Jil Sander just as if nothing has changed — even though everything has, now that the namesake designer has left once again.

Just days before the last men’s wear collection bearing the German designer’s stamp hits the runway, Jil Sander chief executive officer Gian Giacomo Ferraris said he’s striving for creative continuity, along with a bigger accessories business, and, further down the road, the profitability to show for it.

“We are very energized to continue,” said Ferraris, the man Jil Sander handpicked to run the company only six months before she left it for the second time.

“Our task is not to make the same error that was made the first time,” he said, recalling the slump in sales and turmoil that resulted when Sander departed the first time in 2000 and was replaced by Milan Vukmirovic.

Ferraris admitted that Prada fumbled in hiring Vukmirovic and altering the brand image entirely. Vukmirovic’s retro-techno-rocker style never won over retailers or customers and Ferraris said he’s determined not to repeat that rocky experiment of years past.

On Wednesday, Ferraris indicated that this time, the company will rely on an in-house team of longtime Sander collaborators for creative direction. These designers, who returned with Sander when she came back in May 2003, will craft the fabric Sander selected before her November departure into the women’s fall collection that shows next month.

He’s also determined to get the company back into the black while continuing to lift sales. Ferraris revealed that Sander’s return propelled a 13.8 percent jump in full-year 2004 sales after revenue lost nearly 10 percent a year earlier, falling to 125.7 million euros, or $163.4 million at current exchange. But the Sander ceo is less bullish on a 2005 without the namesake designer. Ferraris initially forecast flat growth for the year, but later through a spokesman clarified that the company foresees a single-digit jump for 2005. As for fiscal 2006, management wants to generate a profit on the operating EBITDA level, which includes some one-time items.

“I contacted more or less every client and the majority of them…[begged us] not to change the product, not to change the image. This is my goal now,” he said, characterizing this second departure as less traumatic because Sander’s closest collaborators are staying on, including her longtime assistant, Akito Okuda.Ferraris said he didn’t want to identify other design team members and that he’s not pinning his hopes on “one wonderful, expert genius,” but rather a collaborative success. Still, he said he’s sure a “leader” will eventually emerge from the group.

“[Sander] was aware that she had to build back a team, and immediately after coming back, she did that,” Ferraris said, adding that he himself also will play a role in guaranteeing continuity. The manager has 10 years of product-oriented experience — he worked at Jil Sander as an industrial director overseeing the entire production process at the house from 1995 through 1999. He then went on to Gucci Group, where he was director of apparel operations until Sander hired him back as ceo last year.

Although industry expectations are traditionally tepid on designer teams, some noted that Prada has little choice but to maintain the status quo at the brand. The approach echoes Gucci Group’s decision to promote three in-house designers to replace the void created by Tom Ford’s departure at Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

“They couldn’t have done anything else. It’s the right thing to do. But it’s clear that we need to see results,” said Armando Branchini, vice president of luxury goods consultancy InterCorporate.

Paola Leoni, managing director of Milan-based ASI Consulting, agreed. “If you hire externally a designer with a strong point of view, you risk losing the brand’s identity,” she said. Still, Leoni highlighted that Jil Sander is different from Gucci since it has fewer iconic images to reinvent.

“What is the heritage that they can leverage? That’s the question,” she said.

Ferraris said he maintains a friendship with Sander and characterized the departure as a friendly one. “Amicable means that there was no fighting,” he said, simultaneously denying speculation that the split was sparked because Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli was looking to use cheaper materials in the Sander collection.

“This is not true at all. [He was] never interfering in the decisions of Jil Sander,” Ferraris said, although he admitted that he has a hard time pinpointing just went wrong. “At a certain moment, it’s time to leave,” he said.“The message of Mr. Bertelli is high respect for Jil Sander. Personally, I think I am a friend of hers. Sometimes when we have problems, we call her,” he said. But when pressed further on the nature of the communication, he said they didn’t talk “from a business point of view.”

When asked whether he believed ongoing speculation that Jil Sander could buy back her namesake label, Ferraris said only Sander and Bertelli could comment on their own intentions. A Prada spokesman later denied the buyback theory.

Ferraris didn’t outline a very specific game plan for growing sales, but he did stress that accessories and product innovation are priorities. With the retail strategy under review, the only store openings confirmed for the moment are for two more shop-in-shops in Japan, one in 2005 and the other in 2006, he said. A few new fragrances are also on the way.

Ferraris said it’s time to leverage Prada’s accessories know-how into larger shoe and bag sales for Jil Sander. The German designer had said she always wanted a larger accessories presence, and that desire was one of the motivations behind her linkup with Prada in the first place. Ferraris said accessories make up about 15 percent of Jil Sander’s sales, but the goal is for the category to reach the 30 percent threshold in two years.

“We have to change our product mix to be closer to our competitors,” Ferraris said, adding that Jil Sander isn’t trying to emulate the likes of accessories giants Gucci or even parent Prada. Ready-to-wear will stay the core business, he said, more like a different kind of fashion empire. 

“Our DNA is an Armani DNA,” he said.

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