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PARIS — “Money had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was about control.”
In those words, Tom Ford denied recent rumors that his salary demands were the deal-breaker that ultimately ended his and Domenico De Sole’s reigns at Gucci Group and with it, a dazzling 10-year moment in fashion. “We had always been very clear that it was important that we maintain control of the company…it’s clear to me that Serge [Weinberg, chief executive officer of Gucci’s parent Pinault-Printemps-Redoute] intends to control the company.”
Three days before presenting his eighth Yves Saint Laurent collection, his last under the auspices of Gucci Group, the man whose presence has dominated this collection season sat for an exclusive interview with WWD at the Yves Saint Laurent headquarters here, in the spacious office he will vacate on April 30, completion date for the now infamous Gucci Group put.
While honoring an agreement with PPR executives not to discuss the particulars of the contract negotiations, Ford maintained that both sides had agreed on the matter of money. “All I can say is the financial settlement had been reached,” he said. “Both Domenico and I agreed to take less than we had over the past five years. I was going to sign a seven-year contract. Domenico was going to sign a two-year contract.”
Ford also stated that two years ago, “it was approved by the board that I would replace Domenico as ceo” upon De Sole’s retirement. “Before this deal fell apart, that was the plan of succession. Then came the turn of events.”
WWD: Let’s start with the news of the day, the reports that your successors have been chosen. (Alessandra Facchinetti, Alfreda Giannini and John Ray at Gucci women’s, men’s and accessories, respectively, and Stefano Pilati at YSL).
TF: Well, first of all, we don’t have confirmation. With Gucci it’s a different thing than with Saint Laurent because it’s a very different idea of a business model. And I have to say reading all the press today the one thing that I take some issue with is this idea of “star system” versus “nonstar system.” The reality is when I started at Gucci I wasn’t a star. A star becomes a star because what they do sells and because they perform. So if any of the people that are put in charge at Gucci are successful, they will become stars.
WWD: Do you think they have the ability to become stars?
TF: Everyone at Gucci and all of my team I think are incredibly talented. The three people that have been mentioned are people I have worked very closely with. John Ray I have worked with the longest, about seven or eight years. He’s a terrific guy and incredibly talented. But the strategy is one that I don’t agree with at all. The strategy of three different voices working at one brand, I don’t understand that. It’s really that there is a point of view. There is a vision today that is a summation of the last 10 years of my saying yes to this and no to that. There is a personality. There is a point of view and it is consistent. You can like it or not like it, but it is a point of view. I was amused by Serge’s comments about Miuccia. [Weinberg said in The Wall Street Journal Europe earlier this week that “no one talks about Miuccia Prada. No one knows it’s she who designs the brand.”]
Quite honestly, I wasn’t amused, I was shocked. Unfortunately, I think that this is a very sort of clear indication of how naïve Serge is about our industry. Miuccia has a point of view, a vision with a purpose. Not only am I a great fan of what she does from a design standpoint, but a great fan in terms of the way she has been able to pinpoint her vision with Prada.
Which is also why, I have to say, I don’t quite understand a team strategy at Gucci. First of all, we have left out a few product categories here. I mean, what’s happening with watches, what’s happening with eyewear? What’s happening with jewelry, with home, with visual display? What’s happening with the ad campaigns? I mean, there are a lot of things that aren’t addressed by the people whose names have been mentioned.
It’s just a completely different business model, and I personally don’t think it’s an acceptable business model for a luxury fashion brand. I really think that a fashion brand has to have a single, focused point of view.
WWD: On Serge Weinberg’s comment about Miuccia — her point of view permeates through every corner of that company, but many people who buy Prada goods don’t know that.
TF: They’re still buying the point of view. And there are a lot of people who buy Gucci who don’t know who I am. That isn’t the point. There is a point of view, there is a focus, and that’s what comes from the designer.
You know, I’m afraid that, unfortunately, PPR sort of felt — maybe they misunderstood my role. I think that they really think that what I do is have my picture taken a lot and go to a lot of parties. I don’t think they understand the work that goes into designing collections.
WWD: Tell me about Stefano Pilati. Even before today’s unconfirmed reports, it was widely believed he would assume the Saint Laurent job.
TF: Stefano is someone at Saint Laurent who I have absolute and complete faith in. It takes a large set of skills to be a chief designer of a company. You have to be a talented designer but that’s only part of it. You also have to be articulate. You have to understand how to work with people. You have to have a vision and a point of view.
WWD: Do you see one of the three people mentioned as likely to take the Gucci positions as being one to take on a dominant role and set the direction for the brand in the future?
TF: I really couldn’t answer that question because I am no longer a part of all of this, so I don’t know if PPR even wants one of these designers to take the lead.
WWD: Have you been consulted in any of this?
TF: No, not at all. I have not spoken to anyone at PPR since negotiations broke down in September or October.
WWD: At a press conference Thursday, Serge Weinberg said Gucci Group might look at franchising stores and licensing, possibly as a way to offset costs.
TF: First of all, it’s interesting that you would even say “offset costs.” Gucci is in the strongest position in the history of the company. Within the fourth quarter we had several consecutive number-one grossing days in history, and the first quarter of spring we have had double-digit growth in every single country — 25-plus percent growth in America; 25-plus percent growth in Asia; more than 10 percent growth in Japan, and we have 13 percent growth in Europe, which is suffering at this moment in time. So Gucci is in the best shape it has ever been in. I am very proud that we are leaving the company in such good shape.
What happens in the future will be fully the responsibility of those who will be in control. Right now, in terms of staff, in terms of talent in the company in every level — unfortunately, quite a few of those talented people have announced or will announce that they will leave — that we are a very well-run organization. Given the strength of where the Gucci brand is, I would not understand selling an entire license or franchising. Gucci was a bankrupt company, or nearly bankrupt, employing that strategy. But I didn’t hear what Serge said.
WWD: What about the state of Saint Laurent?
TF: Saint Laurent is in a different financial state than Gucci. The press keeps talking about Saint Laurent not being profitable. I mean, it’s not supposed to be right now. When we acquired Saint Laurent, we knew it was going to be a long-term project. Because of the value of the Saint Laurent name, we decided to position it alongside Chanel and Dior, and to compete at that level, which meant a certain number of stores, beautifully done, in the right locations. It means expensive fashion shows, it means operating at a level at which we had not yet come to in terms of volume. It was an investment in the future, and I have to say I feel very proud of what we’ve done there, going from 163 licenses to the three licenses that we have now.
WWD: You said it was an investment in the future…
TF: And we told the press, too. I mean, the outside world knows that we aren’t supposed to break even until 2005, or be profitable before the end of 2005.
WWD: Would you have broken even in 2005?
TF: I can’t answer that. Yes, it’s possible. I have to say that it’s true that Saint Laurent has made a slower turnaround than we expected and then, a lot of things have happened. I mean Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq and SARS…I mean, it’s a different environment.
WWD: Do you think you were given a fair shake at Saint Laurent in terms of the time and also in the press?
TF: Yes. We had, I don’t know, three or four really big hits at Saint Laurent and I was really pleased with those collections. I think that once the announcement was made that we were not staying the press made the fact that Saint Laurent is not profitable a focus. But as I said, that was the plan.
WWD: What about the sense of where the company wants to go now with Saint Laurent?
TF: I don’t know. Unfortunately, I have to say I’m really and completely out of this game at this point. I couldn’t tell you what the plans are for Saint Laurent. I couldn’t tell you what the plans are for Gucci. And everything that we are even talking about is purely hearsay because I haven’t had any direct conversations with anyone. I do know that certain assistants thought they were in the running for certain jobs and never heard anything until they read it.
WWD: Do you resent it that some members of your staff choose to remain with the company?
TF: Not at all! Absolutely not! In fact, when things change, it’s often bad for some people, but it’s also an opportunity for other people. I’m a realist. There are so many people in this company with kids and families, and they need their jobs. I would like to see most people stay as long as they are well taken care of and they are happy.
WWD: After your spectacular final Gucci show, you said a show is not just what you deliver, but also what people bring to it. You said you felt people really wanted to love Gucci, and may not feel the same way about Saint Laurent.
TF: It’s true. It’s always been harder for me in Paris — it’s a different audience. I haven’t necessarily had the support I’ve had in Milan. But I’m not complaining about it. That’s life.
WWD: Will you talk about the future — after Sunday?
TF: It’s so funny, people keep asking me what my future is, and they don’t really believe me when I tell them that I really haven’t made any decisions. My first reaction, for someone who is used to working as hard as I am, is total panic. I was pushing myself to have an answer quickly, but what I’ve decided to do now is not think about it for at least a few months. There are certainly things I’m interested in. There are certainly things that I would not rule out. I am very serious about wanting to make a movie.
WWD: As a director?
TF: As a director. It’s true that I’ve signed with CAA [Creative Artists Agency]. I am actively looking for a project. Whether I’ll ever find it, I don’t know. I know it sounds sort of silly.
I understand what a tough business it is; I understand the pitfalls of it. But it is something I’ve always wanted to do, and you don’t often get the chance in life to make a career change at 42. I hope I have the strength to do that. I’m also being offered, uh, very interesting positions in fashion. I have been approached about everything from opening my own company, which I don’t really think I would do, to buying another company and restructuring, to working for one of our competitors as a sort of creative director for several of their brands.
WWD: Would you consider that?
TF: All I can say right now is that because of everything we’ve been through, because of all the emotional wear and tear, I know myself very well, well enough to know I’m not thinking clearly. One [opportunity] may not preclude the other. I may do several things.
WWD: So, then, you’re not convinced that you are finished designing right now?
TF: I’m not ruling anything out. Right now I would say I’m not going to design anymore. What I’ve been through has been quite rough and I’ll have a few months off and then … I love fashion. I mean, fashion has been very good to me and I can’t put fashion down and I love what I do, so who knows? A few months of distance and maybe I’ll feel very different. I really, really, truly do not know. All I know is that I need to get to my ranch in New Mexico and spend three or four months riding my horses and just being alone.
WWD: You said you have been approached by people in the industry. Has Bernard Arnault approached you?
TF: No comment.
WWD: Lawrence Stroll?
TF: No comment.
WWD: Any other no comments?
TF: I’ve talked to a lot of people. I think it’s very important to do that when you are making a change. I think it’s important to keep an open mind, especially for me at this stage.
WWD: Talk was floated that you might eventually replace Domenico as ceo.
TF: It wasn’t so much floated; it was approved by the board that I would replace Domenico as ceo [upon his retirement.] And I was asked to replace Domenico by François Pinault.
WWD: So how did you get from that point only two years ago, to the approach of your very last show?
TF: That’s a very good question. I have to say that up until two weeks before this deal fell apart, Domenico and I thought that we were negotiating in good faith to continue the plan — the plan of succession that had been very carefully laid out by the board for us.
WWD: It seems so incredible …
TF: It seemed incredible to us, too, which is why we never expected it to happen.
WWD: You won’t discuss what went on during the negotiations?
TF: No, I don’t really want to discuss it. It’s over, it’s done. I don’t know what the point of discussing it now is. We had always been very clear that it was important that we maintain control of the company.
WWD: If your understanding was with François Pinault that you were putting a succession plan in place, then in your view it was Serge Weinberg who had a different idea?
TF: Yes. It’s clear to me that Serge intends to control the company.
WWD: One rumor is that you were in negotiations asking for major money — $100 million.
TF: All I can say is that the financial settlement was done. We agreed to something for the next seven years. What I would have been paid for the next seven years would have been substantially less than I got for the previous five. Domenico also, but he was going to sign a two-year contract.
WWD: Why were you willing to do that?
TF: Because I love the company. I believe in it.
WWD: So money really had nothing to do with the whole thing?
TF: Money had absolutely nothing to do with it at all. It really was a question of control, and fortunately or unfortunately, I realized that I have nothing to learn about luxury from Serge Weinberg. I actually said this to Serge in a meeting and I think that put the nail in the coffin.
WWD: That was about the same time François Pinault was saying you were going to be the next ceo?
TF: Yes. I think Serge does a fine job at what he does, but he has absolutely no experience in the luxury industry, in the fashion industry. But PPR paid a lot of money for Gucci. It’s their company and they can run it as they choose.
I have absolutely nothing against Serge as a person. I like him a lot. But I think that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. The path Serge will choose will be his own, and I wish him the best of luck. It’s not the path I would have chosen.
WWD: On your succession plan, you would have removed yourself from the design process?
TF: If I had stayed, Stefano would have been the person for Yves Saint Laurent. At Gucci, I had not yet finalized my successor.
WWD: Were you surprised when Alexander McQueen turned down the job at Saint Laurent?
TF: I was surprised because I had initially heard he was accepting it. But I’m very happy for him because I think it was absolutely the right decision. He’s a great designer.
WWD: Have any of the designers you brought in — McQueen, Stella McCartney or Thomas Meier — expressed concern to you about what’s going to happen next, or have you talked to any of them?
TF: Of course I’ve talked to all of them because they are all very good friends and I talk to them quite often. Again, at this point in time, I mean, I’m really out of the picture.
WWD: Do you think PPR wants to build strong relationships with those businesses? Do you think they are interested in selling anybody?
TF: I have absolutely no idea. I certainly hope so, and I have to say that is probably the one thing I am deeply sad about: we brought all of these people into the company because we believe they would all become very successful businesses.
WWD: What is your relationship with Domenico?
TF: Things are wonderful. Our relationship hasn’t changed at all. We still talk on the phone 10 times a day. Believe me, it’s become even stronger because we both still have the same goal. We have the same goal in leaving. Our number one goal right now is to take care of everyone that we can around us, which is harder and harder because there is less and less control. But you try to be supportive.
WWD: When we spoke about a year ago, you said that while you and Domenico were planning for Gucci’s future, its strength was still fragile.
TF: The strength of Gucci is still very fragile. Because it is a company built on partnerships. People at Gucci don’t work for people; they work with each other.
WWD: Could it fall apart?
TF: Of course it could. It’s a very strong company, and if it does fall apart we won’t see it for two or three years. It will continue to run to the outside world.
WWD: What will it take to make it stay together and strengthen?
TF: A strong leader, a strong leader who is respected.
WWD: Creative leader or a strong leader in the ceo position?
TF: Both, and you need to have both. I think the key to success in any fashion company is the bond between the business brain and creative brain. They have to be one and the same person or they have to be absolutely loyal to each other to be partners.
WWD: What do you think is your legacy to fashion?
TF: You talk about the star system at major brand houses … but that’s not true because Karl [Lagerfeld] did it first. But I certainly seemed to have started a trend for designers coming to old houses, you know, Marc [Jacobs], John Galliano, Alexander McQueen — those were things that happened after we turned Gucci around.
WWD: Two days and counting for your final show for Saint Laurent. How are you feeling now as apposed to when you were about to present the Gucci collection? Does the end seem even more real now?
TF: Oh, it has always been real. I’m probably more nervous at this point because I still don’t have most of the clothes. When you are presenting your final, final show, you want it to be as good as it can possibly be. So the fact that I still don’t have a lot to look at is very disturbing.
WWD: You said you approached the Gucci show as a new designer might, coming in and looking at an archive. How did you approach Saint Laurent?
TF: This one I did not approach as a final show. I approached it as a continuation of what I’ve been working on at Saint Laurent. For the first collection, which was not well received, I just wiped everything away. Then each season I started to layer and mix elements of Saint Laurent in each season, layering them and trying to reinvent them for a modern contemporary woman.
WWD: This season’s layering …
TF: This is another very famous Saint Laurent theme that I have yet to tackle. It’s a continuation of what I would have done had I stayed. I am not treating it any differently than any other Yves Saint Laurent show.
WWD: Are you ready for the time you’ll have after this show?
TF: I’m ready for the time, I’m ready to get out of here. It’s a weird thing when you know you are leaving a place but you haven’t yet left. It’s a weird sort of limbo.
WWD: How much consolation is there that you are walking away a very rich man?
TF: Money, believe it or not, isn’t money to me. It’s freedom and is, of course, a great consolation that I am able to walk away. That’s one of the things I worked hard for all these years and so that is terrific. However, I am a little tired of listening to people talk — or reading about people talking about — how much money I make. I made a decision to go on and become a creative director. It’s my taste I brought to Gucci, as a part of Gucci history … the main part of Gucci history may get swept away. It is how I grafted my personality on to that brand in lieu of having my own brand. It was a conscious decision and I was well compensated for it. However, I am not nearly as rich as most of my contemporaries, not contemporaries necessarily in age but in terms of, you know … I’m sorry, but Donna Karan made a lot more money when she sold to LVMH than I did. Giorgio Armani, OK, has been doing this for a long time … Prada…I mean, in terms of sort of the major top 10 designers on a world scale — I am not talking about it in terms of press recognition necessarily, I’m talking about in terms of volume and brand success … I am not one of the richest.
WWD: Well, perhaps ‘poorest’ is the wrong word.
TF: Yes. I am absolutely satisfied. I am not complaining. But it is so funny that I have made an enormous amount of money — for what? For investors — starting with Investcorp — I have made a lot of people much richer than I am. I knew what I was doing and I am very happy to be in the position I am. Maybe that will be my next job. I’ll be an agent for fashion designers because you could just have any of them call me — I’ll negotiate their contracts.
WWD: Monday morning…I guarantee…
TF: I know! Call me!
WWD: From Sunday to April 30, what do you do?
TF: I’m going to continue to work, to shoot the campaigns, Gucci with Mario [Testino], and Yves Saint Laurent with Craig McDean.
WWD: Talk about the campaigns. Are they going to punctuate your departure? Are they more significant than other campaigns that you have done?
TF: No and yes. I mean they are significant, but I am used to working on so many things that I never think about anything in advance. I think about it in the back of my mind for a long time, but I don’t really make a decision until I get right on my calendar. I have already thought about the Gucci campaign: I want it to be a very simple, clean, iconic campaign, much like the very first campaign we shot. Very clean, beautiful clothes. I really want to showcase the clothes, the product, beautiful women, beautiful clothes….I’m a commercial fashion designer. I never pretended to be anything other than that.