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PARIS — “Let’s be clear: Only facts will tell,” said Serge Weinberg, chief executive officer of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute and interim president of Gucci Group. “At the end of the day, it’s about our customers’ willingness to buy our products. I believe in facts and figures.”

In an exclusive interview, Weinberg was responding to skeptics who question PPR’s ability to succeed in the luxury business. At present, some 29 percent of PPR’s profits stem from its luxury pole, a figure Weinberg said is Continued form page one

This story first appeared in the June 25, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

grow as losses at start-up brands ease.

“We want to grow the two businesses, retail and luxury, but luxury will grow faster,” he said.

As interim president of Gucci, Weinberg has kept a low profile and imparted little strategic information. At PPR’s annual meeting in May, he noted that watches, jewelry and home products were areas to develop at Gucci. He has also hinted that investment in emerging brands — Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga and Stella McCartney — would be kept in check by limiting retail expansion to major fashion capitals.

During the interview at his office here earlier this week, he would not discuss brand strategies, although he expressed repeatedly a particular fondness for Bottega Veneta, which is currently logging sales growth in excess of 50 percent.

“The challenge of luxury brands is to have really creative designs,” he said. “Also, I’ve asked all our brands to really pay a lot of attention to quality.”

Shedding some light on Gucci’s new life as a PPR subsidiary, Weinberg said he plans to continue providing financial results per major brand. PPR reports its first half sales July 20.

Many in the industry impart the end of the Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole era at Gucci with historical import — marking the closing of a chapter in the fashion business and a business strategy based on direct control and Ford’s star power.

But Weinberg said he is loathe to anoint it with any special import.

“One of the big errors in business is to be a theologist,” he said. And drawing conclusions from the exit of Ford and De Sole “doesn’t take into consideration that each brand has a specific DNA. Recipes do not exist in business. It would be too easy.”

Although some have suggested cost controls would be an important task for Gucci’s new ceo Robert Polet, who starts July 1, Weinberg said that is not the answer. “It’s not a cost story; it’s a sales story, being more successful in selling your goods. You can’t succeed in this business only by cost controls,” he said.

And Weinberg painted a positive picture of the mood at PPR in the post-Tom-and-Dom era, scoffing at those who suggest the competition is taking advantage of the turmoil.

“People are very focused on work and making progress. There is, in most [Gucci] companies, a big excitement,” he said. “I’ve found a lot of talented and dedicated people eager to show that the companies they’re in and the brands they work for are very strong.”

Although he declined to give figures, Weinberg cited strong reaction to the resort collections for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, designed by Alessandra Facchinetti and Stephano Pilati, respectively, both from its internal buying teams and wholesale clients.

“I think [the collections] were very strong,” said Weinberg. “Although it’s not such an important public moment in terms of the business, [it was important] for morale, in terms of testing the strength of the teams.”

Weinberg said Polet has met with most of the group’s designers and brand managers. “He’s been already touring a lot,” Weinberg said. “He’s a very easygoing, open person.”

Asked what Polet would do on the job in his first days and weeks, Weinberg demurred, insisting he would not set any directives.

“Already we’ve started working together on some major issues so he can really take the lead,” Weinberg said. He declined to elaborate on what those issues might be.

To be sure, Gucci has suffered a string of exits in the wake of Ford and De Sole leaving, ranging from Boucheron creative director Solange Azagury-Partridge to Toshiaki Tashiro, president of Gucci Japan.

But Weinberg downplayed the exodus. In the case of Japan, for example, he said the group ceo position would become less critical as brand chiefs are further empowered, as is the case across Gucci Group.

“The organization will adapt to take into consideration the needs of each market,” he said. “Because of the changes in the organization, some jobs have been suppressed and there have been very few resignations. Most of the departures have been happening at the corporate level and not on the operating side.”

As for the outlook, Weinberg said the prospects for luxury in the second half depend on the outcome of the U.S. election and “the international situation.” That said, he has few worries about Asia, although question marks still hang over Europe, which continues to experience low growth.

“It’s an improved environment,” he said, borrowing a famous phrase from Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan to reflect his guarded sentiment: “I don’t think we should be irrationally exuberant.”

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