By  on September 2, 2011

PARIS — Opting for a hidden talent to ramp up development at Azzaro, the Paris-based house has tapped Mathilde Castello Branco as its new creative director, WWD has learned.

Previously, Castello Branco, 39, worked at the elbow of Alber Elbaz at Lanvin. The Franco-Brazilian designer started at Azzaro on Thursday and is to unveil her first designs in January for pre-fall 2012.

She succeeds Vanessa Seward, an assistant to house founder Loris Azzaro who took over the design reins following his death in 2003. Seward generated buzz by revisiting such iconic eveningwear styles as the Three Rings dress and by enlisting a string of collaborators.

But Castello Branco’s creative purview is broader, spanning licenses, including men’s wear and fragrances, the latter produced by Groupe Clarins.

Born in São Paolo to a painter mother and an engineer father, Castello Branco moved to Paris at age 20, studying design and fashion at the École Duperré and the Atelier Chardon-Savard. Her first job was at Hermès when Martin Margiela was at the creative helm of women’s ready-to-wear and she moved to Lanvin just before Elbaz arrived in 2001.

On Thursday, wearing a roomy black Jil Sander shirtdress, her hair pulled neatly into a high bun, Castello Branco said she started her Azzaro education over the summer, flipping through a visual archive of more than a thousand dresses on an iPad.

“I saw a lot of sensuality, a lot of glamour, and a lot of life in those dresses,” she enthused.

The soft-spoken designer characterized sensuality and chic as the two main ingredients for winning style. “I don’t want fashion to be only for women or only to please men. I want them both to be happy,” she said.

An unabashed fan of the dress, Castello Branco said she wears one “maybe 363 days of the year” and has been known to belt up a coat and wear it as a dress. She said she loves fashion periods that exalted the waist, including the beginning of the century and the Fifties, and that she likes to “play with length.”

The late actress Romy Schneider is a key female icon, treasured for her mix of charm, class and a touch of drama, Castello Branco said.

Founded in 1967, Azzaro quickly became known for glamorous and body-hugging gowns worn by the likes of Claudia Cardinale, Raquel Welch and Sophia Loren. Over the last decade, stars including Nicole Kidman and Penélope Cruz have worn Azzaro on the red carpet. In 2006, Reig Capital, an Andorra, Spain-based private equity firm, acquired Azzaro with the intention of broadening its retail reach and adding lucrative product categories such as leather goods, footwear and costume jewelry.

Castello Branco arrives at a time of strong momentum for Azzaro. Chief executive officer Nathalie Franson said company sales to the end of July are up 35 percent versus a year ago. She said the brand would guard its luxury positioning, with dresses retailing from 800 to 10,000 euros, or $1,140 to $14,280 at current exchange rates.

Azzaro operates freestanding stores in Paris and London and wholesales its collections to about 100 retailers, with Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the Middle East its three largest markets, Franson noted.

The brand plans to present its spring 2012 collection, designed by the studio, on Oct. 2 at its just-refurbished flagship store on the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. It will also host a party Oct. 4 at the Jeu de Paume for the launch of an Assouline tome by Jéromine Savignon on the storied Paris house.

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