By  on May 9, 2006

PARIS — Fierce.

That is how headhunters describe the level of competition today among fashion and luxury firms for scarce management talent, with some predicting an inevitable and growing influx of executives from other industries.

Although past years saw an intense battle for star designers among warring luxury players, the front has now shifted to securing executives who can drive businesses to profitable growth, search specialists agreed.

"They're demanding more talent and edgy talent to lead their brands," said Beatrice Ballini, who does executive searches for Russell Reynolds Associates. "What you really need nowadays is a powerful vision of where the brand needs to be five or 10 years down the road, and that is only something a top chief executive officer can have. It is seen as vital."

The duration of some key searches alone — approaching six months for the head of Prada USA and longer than that for Marc Jacobs, while LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton also is said to be quietly searching for replacement ceo's for its Kenzo and Donna Karan businesses, according to sources — reflects the needle-in-a-haystack task today's recruiters often face. Then there are the high-profile searches for replacements for Paul Charron, who is stepping down as chairman and ceo of Liz Claiborne at the end of the year, and for Richard Cohen as ceo of St. John.

"There's a tremendous amount of competition to find the best talent," said Maxine Martens, ceo of New York-based Martens & Heads. "People have become more bottom- and top-line focused. It's very competitive out there and it's very hard to make money. What all brands need to realize is they need stewards of the brand."

"It's a pretty small pool of really talented people," Ballini agreed. "Every time we open a search, the usual names get mentioned and discussed."

She and other headhunters declined to give names. But according to market sources, the crop of usual suspects includes the likes of Gucci's Mark Lee, Samsonite's Marcello Bottoli, Valentino's Graziano de Boni, Celine's Serge Brunschwig and Versace's Giancarlo Di Risio — plus four executives recently snapped up: Patricia Malone by Christian Dior, Giacomo Santucci by Malo, Kim Winser by Aquascutum and Mindy Grossman by IAC/InterActiveCorp.

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