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Olivier’s Next Gig: Nina Ricci Said Close to Signing Theyskens

Belgian designer Olivier Theyskens, out of a job after Rochas closed, is zeroing in on a deal to become the creative director of Nina Ricci.

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PARIS — From Rochas to Ricci.

Less than six weeks after Olivier Theyskens found himself out of a job with the shuttering of the Rochas fashion house, the Belgian design star is zeroing in on a deal to become the creative director of Nina Ricci. This confirms a report in WWD Aug. 23.

According to market sources, the contract could be finalized within a week, putting Theyskens at the helm of another French house with couture roots, a substantial perfume franchise and a fledgling fashion business.

Neither Nina Ricci officials nor the designer could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Theyskens, 29, will succeed Lars Nilsson, who resigned after a three-year stint at Ricci to return to the U.S. It is understood Nilsson is close to securing a new fashion post in New York, but he has declined all comment on his intentions. Nilsson did not return phone calls on Tuesday.

However, Oscar de la Renta executives denied last week that Nilsson is joining the company, despite speculation that is where he is headed.

Meanwhile, Theyskens, whose delicate and ethereal gowns for Rochas made the fashion pack swoon, is likely to be hailed as a strong match for Ricci, a brand synonymous with the innocent and romantic femininity exemplified in photos by David Hamilton, who lensed Ricci campaigns in the Seventies.

Founded in 1932, Ricci was deemed an unlikely house for resurrection when the founding family sold the business in 1997 to Spain’s Puig Group. At the time, its ready-to-wear designer was Myriam Schaefer and its couturier Gérard Pipart, a 30-year veteran of the house. (Couture was stopped in 1998.) More recently, James Aguiar and Nathalie Gervais had sought to rev up Ricci’s fashion department.

Theyskens likely will show his first collection for Ricci in March for the fall-winter 2007 season. In the wake of Nilsson’s exit, announced last week, Ricci said it would not stage a fashion show during Paris Fashion Week in October. However, a spring-summer 2007 collection will be presented to buyers and press, done by the remaining team, which includes studio director Vanessa Bellanger, an alumna of Polo Ralph Lauren and John Galliano.

Since Proctor & Gamble said last month it would close the money-losing Rochas fashion house to concentrate on its profitable fragrance business, the rumor mill has had Theyskens headed to work at such venerable houses as Valentino in Rome and Oscar de la Renta in New York.

However, Barcelona-based Puig, which also owns Carolina Herrera and Paco Rabanne, has long had Theyskens in its sights.

Eyebrows were raised in March when Mario Grauso, president of the Puig Fashion Group, was spotted in the second row at the Rochas show in Paris. At the time, Grauso dismissed speculation as to why he was there, saying: “Olivier’s a friend. He asked me to come to his show. I admire his work.” Grauso could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.

According to sources, Puig had been mulling an acquisition of Rochas, whose fragrance business, centered in Spain and France, closely matched its market expertise. Theyskens had been spotted in the corridors of Nina Ricci as early as the spring as Puig pursued acquisition talks with P&G.

Ultimately, P&G opted to hold onto the Rochas perfume business, with scents such as Poupée, Alchemie and Lui generating annual revenues estimated at $45 million to $75 million, while closing the fashion house, believed to generate losses of about 7 million euros, or about $8.9 million at current exchange, a year.

A fashion wunderkind, Theyskens leaped onto the international fashion scene in 1998 at age 21 when he dressed Madonna in a striking black satin coat with hook-and-eye closures for the Oscars, and she anointed him her new favorite designer. She again donned his gowns for the VH1 Awards in New York later that year.

Theyskens was immediately dubbed a Goth hero and a rising star. The name of fashion’s new hero was soon on everyone’s lips, and he was considered a front-runner to succeed Alexander McQueen at Givenchy in 2001. Theyskens joined Rochas in 2003, putting his signature collection on hiatus.

He replaced Peter O’Brien, who had been brought in four years earlier to revive Rochas rtw. Fashion operations had ceased in 1955 following the death of founder Marcel Rochas.

Theyskens immediately established a sophisticated couture look for Rochas with his debut collection, which featured dramatic “hunchback” gowns and bustier dresses that enveloped the body like a cream puff.

Theyskens made Rochas into one of the torchbearers for what has become a new refinement in fashion, lifting inspiration from the world of Paris couture and blending it with a modern point of view. But ultimately, it was considered a niche label, known for extravagant gowns that could cost as much as $35,000 at retail.

“What I feel modern is to make clothes that have poetry and inspiration,” Theyskens said in a recent interview. “Modernity is an attitude and an approach to fashion. What is most important is that the personality of the designer come out in the clothes.”

Theyskens will join a house perhaps best known for its hit fragrance, L’Air du Temps, which was introduced in 1948 and remains a perennial favorite. The scent, whose name has a double entendre, comes in a bottle capped with forms of two interlocking doves. The company keeps the fragrance at the top of its charts by frequently tweaking L’Air du Temps’ advertising campaign and refreshing its flacon.

Parfums Nina Ricci’s newest fragrance, called Nina, continues in a romantic vein. It comes in an apple-shaped bottle reminiscent of the flacon for its 1952 scent Fille d’Eve. The entrant is meant to broaden the brand’s core audience to a younger demographic, ages 18 to 35.

Parfums Nina Ricci is part of the Puig Prestige division, which counts among its brands and beauty licenses Carolina Herrera Perfumes, Paco Rabanne and Comme des Garçons Parfums. Those fragrances, together with the Prada Fragrances and Skincare Business plus Puig Beauty, comprising mass market brands, rang up sales of 894 million euros, or $1.11 billion at average exchange rates, last year. This was an increase of 1 percent on 2004.

Puig’s beauty business has hit some snags of late. Early last year, Puig said it would scale back its Paco Rabanne and Nina Ricci prestige fragrance and cosmetics businesses in France by cutting 125 jobs there. The company said two years of negative results in the country caused it to reorganize the business. Puig regrouped all of the brands’ national production into its factory in Chartres, France, after closing a second plant in Ury, France.

On the fashion side, however, Ricci has gaining fashion momentum and credibility. In recent years, its airy, delicate dresses and feminine sportswear have been embraced by New York socialites, and fashion sales have been growing rapidly, according to the company. In the spring, Nilsson took the fall 2006 collection on the road, staging fashion shows and making personal appearances to raise visibility for the brand in the U.S., Japan, Germany and Spain.

Already the darling of the magazine and retail elite in America, Theyskens should give a jolt of visibility to the Ricci brand, bringing his flair for theatrical runway shows.

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