PARIS — Domenico De Sole’s Gucci loafers are big shoes to fill.

That’s the word from executive search firms, branding experts and other industry observers in Europe. They say Pinault-Printemps-Redoute has its work cut out for it to find a successor to De Sole, who steps down as Gucci Group’s president and chief executive officer come April 30.

Sources close to the French retail and luxury group, which owns 67.7 percent of Gucci Group, said PPR plans to focus on finding a new manager, or managers, before turning to replace Ford with new designers for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.

The committee to select their successors is being chaired by PPR ceo Serge Weinberg and its other members are François-Henri Pinault, chairman of Artemis, and Adrian Bellamy, chairman of Gucci Group’s supervisory board.

So which candidates might fit the bill? Here, based on interviews with headhunters, consultants and market sources, are some of the possibilities:

Rose Marie Bravo, ceo of Burberry, is widely considered the ideal successor to De Sole, but she has insisted she will not leave her current post.

Yves Carcelle, ceo of Louis Vuitton, heads up the world’s biggest luxury brand and is known as a superb manager who is strong at operations, finance and production. But whether he’s willing to bolt LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton for its arch rival Gucci is unknown.

Sidney Toledano, ceo of Christian Dior Couture, is a key protégé of LVMH chief Bernard Arnault and the architect of Dior’s expansion drive. He was recently tapped to oversee the strategy at Fendi, too. But there’s the same question over Toledano as over Carcelle.

Vittorio Radice, executive director of Marks & Spencer Home, is best known for transforming the dusty Selfridges department store into a glittering luxury goods souk. But some wonder if Radice, who received an estimated $1.9 million “golden hello” to join M&S last year, would exit so soon.

Andrea Jung, chairman and ceo of Avon, has broad marketing, product and leadership skills, having been a top merchant at Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin. She has a track record of product innovation, good taste, a sharp financial mind and is operations-driven.Roger Farah, president and chief operating officer of Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., possesses wholesale, retail and Wall Street experience. However, he is said to have a non-compete clause in his contract which prevents him from working at a competitor through 2006.

Alain Dominique Perrin, who is stepping down as ceo of Compagnie Financiere Richemont by year’s end, is a proven multibrand and strategic manager who built Cartier into the world’s largest jewelry brand. But Perrin, 62, is said to want to spend more time cultivating his vineyard in France and may not be keen to jump back into the luxury fray.

Giacomo Santucci, who joined in 2000 as managing director of the Gucci division and vice president of Gucci Group, is considered a leading internal candidate and recently, according to a Gucci spokesman, said he would remain at the group after De Sole and Ford leave. Previously Santucci had been commercial director of Prada Group. Another possibility is James McArthur, Gucci’s executive vice president and director of strategy and acquisitions. He is also president of the group’s emerging brands division, which includes Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga.

Patricia Barbizet, François Pinault’s right hand at his Artemis holding company, is known as a brilliant manager and has been named one of Europe’s leading women executives by The Wall Street Journal. But some wonder if she would have the breadth and experience to manage a multibrand organization like Gucci.

“In both the U.S. and Europe, the talent pool for executives in the fashion business is thin,” said Hal Reiter, chief executive of Herbert Mines Associates in New York. Not knowing the profile being sought by PPR, Reiter declined to suggest potential candidates. To be sure, he said it would be a challenge to duplicate the De Sole legacy.

Others agreed, although opinions varied widely on the ideal candidate to lead the next era at Gucci.

“To look at De Sole’s background, you would never think he would have been able to accomplish what he accomplished,” Reiter said, referring to De Sole’s legal training. “You can try to take someone from another field like that and do an on-the-job training program or take someone with a record of demonstrable success in the industry.”“The difficulty in filling many consumer fashion positions…is the interpretation that a chief executive officer must have had personal experience within the sector rather than a successful track record in turning around a business, or driving an already successful business further in growth and diversification,” said Elaine Hughes, principal of E.A. Hughes & Co. executive search in New York. “I look at executives today and say, ‘Let’s scratch the surface and see what is underneath. What is this person’s core competency?’

“The more [PPR] can identify Europeans with global experience, particularly in consumer products or fashion I think it is the first step in creating the next great team for Gucci.”

Stephen Cheliotis of Superbrands, a brand consultancy in London, said he thinks nationality is unimportant. “I think the key is to have a strong background working with an established brand or building on the values of an established brand. I don’t think they should get someone from P&G for the top job — luxury is a completely different beast from the mass market,” he said. “Ideally, they need someone from the fashion luxury sector — and that can mean from a shoe or a watch company, as long as it’s luxury. They need someone who knows the luxury clientele. I think Rose Marie Bravo is the most obvious candidate because of what she’s done at Burberry.” (Bravo, though, has insisted she isn’t interested in the job and wants to remain as ceo of Burberry.)

Edward Whitefield, chairman of Management Horizons, a London-based consultancy, agreed. “The person must come from a top, designer-branded business because there is so much judgment and taste involved in the job. They should be looking at managers from Hermès, Ralph Lauren, L’Oréal, Estée Lauder and Salvatore Ferragamo. The person needs credibility with the trade because the Gucci brand depends on selling to trade-oriented customers. The person should also have a European — rather than a U.K. or American — background. But there are very, very few precious cherries out there. I would say the pool is about 10 to 15 people at the most.”

Michael Appel, managing director of Quest Turnaround Advisors, cautioned: “Anyone of the stature, experience and business savvy that could fill this job will think twice about [what motivated] the departure of De Sole and [Gucci Group creative director Tom] Ford, and whether they would have real authority to run the business.”Luigi Pedrazzi, a headhunter with Milan-based firm Sintex, suggested that PPR might be best off getting someone who doesn’t work in fashion. One of the biggest problems with Italian ceo’s in the sector is that they tend to think in a provincial, Italian way that is not very international, he said, noting that French executives also tend to think in a rather insular way. This is a problem as the job calls for involvement in a variety of markets such as China and Japan, he noted.

“If I were to consult the company, I wouldn’t suggest that they limit themselves exclusively to the [fashion, luxury industry] but instead broaden their horizons and look to places like investment banks for people who have set up major partnerships that are international in scope.”

Staying internal and not seeking someone outside the company would be a mistake in his mind. “If the manager was really a good one he would have already been promoted. To promote him-her now would be a second-best possibility.”

Michael Boroian, managing partner at Sterling executive search firm, said it would be important to find someone who “can work in perfect cohesion with PPR’s senior management.” He added that “a proven track record at turnaround and reorganization” would be tantamount.

“You have to face that YSL is stuck and that Gucci has been on the decline,” added Didier Vuchot, chairman of Korn/Ferry in Europe. “This person must know how to dig a company out of a hole. There are probably a dozen or so people capable of the job.”

Armando Branchini, vice president of Intercorporate in Milan, said not to rule out the possibility that PPR would split up divisions in Gucci and find ceo’s to run each brand to decentralize management.

“It’s very important to get managers with an international vision and experience in luxury goods, not the mass market,” he said, warning that just general retail experience isn’t sufficient enough.

Carlo Pambianco, a Milan-based consultant, agreed that it was important to have fashion experience because “the person should come from the industry because you have to work with a designer and understand what a designer needs.”He said PPR would likely seek management internally. “They don’t want to run a risk and they need guarantees that it will work — you can only get that with someone you know already or with a manager from the outside with a proven track record like Rose Marie Bravo. The problem is that there aren’t a bunch of people like Rose Marie Bravo floating around in the market. So you have to make a few compromises,” he said.

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