By  on March 8, 2005

PARIS — The house of Valentino needs design continuity, not necessarily a marquee name, once its founder decides to retire.

That’s how major American retailers reacted to Monday’s revelation that the Rome-based house, owned since 2002 by Marzotto SpA, has begun looking for a successor to Valentino Garavani.

“They have an incredibly successful formula right now,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, echoing the opinion of most of his peers. “I don’t feel they need a big name to come in and revamp what’s successful.”

In a statement, Garavani’s business partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, gave no time frame for passing over the design reins, and added: “Until we find the right successor, Valentino and I will work as always.”

Giammetti declined further comment, and a Valentino spokesman described as speculation a report in the International Herald Tribune suggesting Garavani’s swan song would be his couture collection next January.

According to sources, the house has held exploratory talks over the past two years with many designers, including Tom Ford. And Matteo Marzotto, Valentino’s chief operating officer, was spotted taking in a number of Paris shows last week, including Balenciaga, Chloé and John Galliano.

Sources suggested Balenciaga’s Nicolas Ghesquière and Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz could be potential candidates for what would be one of the plum jobs in international fashion, given Valentino’s famed couture atelier. But Damiano Biella, who was named Valentino’s studio director in 2003, is also considered by some to be a formidable internal contender. Formerly creative director at Carolina Herrera, Biella is credited with bringing strong merchandising skills to the house.

To be sure, retailers are not seeking radical change in the design department.

“We would hope that whoever takes the job could really continue in the tradition of Valentino,” said Joseph Boitano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue. “It just needs to continue to grow and modernize as he’s done the last few years.

“I don’t think it’s essential to have a major name,” he continued. “It’s such a strong brand and has such a strong image and reputation.”Burke said Bergdorf’s Valentino business has been “extremely successful, especially in the last two years. We’ve seen a young, affluent customer gravitating to it.”

Barbara Atkin, fashion director at Toronto-based Holt Renfrew, said the brand owners might consider Alexander McQueen or the Dutch duo Viktor & Rolf to “speak to a new generation of women.”

Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, applauded Valentino for planning succession well in advance, rather than a “helter-skelter” scramble at the last minute.

“I’m a retailer. We’re not looking for a change and a new story to write about. We’re looking for beautiful clothes for our customer,” she said. “[Valentino] needs someone who’s solid, who knows how to build a collection of beautiful items, with things that coordinate with it and, of course, lovely evening dresses.”

Pressed for a suggestion, Kaner said New York’s Derek Lam might be up for the challenge in a few years, as she considers a “feminine sensibility” a prerequisite for the job.

Michele Norsa, managing director and chief executive officer of Valentino SpA, could not be reached for comment.

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