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Ralph Toledano has an impressive track record helping designer brands achieve international prominence.
During his 11-year tenure as chairman and chief executive officer of Chloé International, owned by the luxury goods group Compagnie Financière Richemont, Toledano actually had three success stories with three creative directors, starting with Stella McCartney, then moving onto Phoebe Philo, and finally, Hannah MacGibbon.
According to sources, under his guidance, Chloé’s business catapulted to about $640 million in sales, including ready-to-wear and licensed businesses, and the brand grew in international stature and scope. Before Chloé, Toledano was ceo of Guy Laroche, where he discovered Alber Elbaz, and earlier was ceo of Karl Lagerfeld SA. At Chloé, he was succeeded by Geoffroy de la Bourdonnaye. And, earlier this year, MacGibbon was replaced by former Pringle of Scotland designer Clare Waight Keller.
Toledano was hired by Chloé in 1999 and given full autonomy to build what was then a very small business, which at the time had one store in Paris, and some wholesale accounts in Europe and the U.S. One of his biggest achievements was extending the Chloé brand to new categories. The company started producing handbags and small leather goods in-house. After the success of the Bracelet bag, Chloé introduced the Paddington, which became one of the biggest “It” bags of the time, and the foundation for an extensive leather goods line. The company sold several hundred thousand pieces annually. It also began licensing shoes, eyewear and fragrance. Toledano also began an aggressive international push. In addition to strong growth in Western markets, the Asian business was successfully established. A Chloé subsidiary in Japan was launched in 2002.
Asked what made Chloé thrive, Toledano said, “In my opinion, a combination of factors have made the success of Chloé: a strong DNA, great creative talent, design consistency, a clear business strategy, an excellent and stable management team, rigorous business execution, great team spirit, and the autonomy given by the Richemont Group.”
He described the expansion at Chloé as methodical. “First, we concentrated on Europe and the U.S., then focused on Japan, and in the last period, were very aggressive in Asia and more especially in Greater China. For St. John, we are definitely underdeveloped in Europe and the Middle East, which gives us major opportunities for growth, but our main focus will be Greater China, where we have already a very substantial business.”
Toledano said what he brings to St. John is his expertise in international business, brand extensions and management. “I’m both a numbers guys and a product guy. When people ask me what is my job, I would say, ‘I am a talent coach,’” he said. “At the end of the day, it starts with product. The whole thing is developing the teams and the partnership with a designer. It’s very personal. This is my main characteristic.”
Having worked with several creative directors, Toledano considers them real business partners. “I share with him or her the strategy of the company, explain the rationale of the business decisions, but also listen to his opinions, his point of view, his suggestions,” he said. “I see myself as a coach for creative people. I make sure that the creative director has the best possible team, that he works in a positive atmosphere, that he is happy with the working conditions and more generally, my role is to make sure that the problems he is faced with are solved as soon as possible.”
Toledano said he would never tell a designer what should be in the collection. He said it’s important to have a conversation with a designer, but you can never dictate which dress or which color they should put in the line. “You can have, and should have, a conversation about the main orientations. The ceo and chairman is the one who is responsible for the DNA of the house. This is the most important asset. You have to be very careful about that. You can’t go in and say, ‘take this fabric, or make three more dresses, or do this one,’” he said.
Comparing Chloé to St. John, he said Chloé is certainly “more fashion, but you still have a woman to dress.
“You have to understand that woman. There is something that’s very similar, when you talk about the needs. At the end the day, they are very similar. A fit is a fit. You can have the most fantastic dress and all the editorial in the world and all the advertising dollars, and you try it on, and the fit is not there, you don’t buy it. It’s as simple as that. There are very basic things that are the same, the color range, the weight of the fabric, whether it’s Chloé or St. John, you’re talking to a woman.”