MILAN — “Buy the building.”
The expression stands for thinking outside the box and it was instrumental in “unblocking” Sabina Belli’s modus operandi. Pomellato’s chief executive officer in her recently published book shares this pivotal moment when an unnamed “great visionary” she reported to at the time taught her to go beyond preconceived limitations.
After putting together a series of options, spreadsheets and calculations with her team in order to find a way to overcome a steep rent increase in a prestigious store location, Belli was left speechless when the alternative was offered to her. “Why don’t you buy the building?” she was told.
“This option opened up incredible horizons, it authorized the possibility to think big,” said Belli, speaking from her light-filled office at Pomellato’s modern and sleek headquarters here, with a view on the garden and small pond placed within the gates of the property. “It helped me imagine what I couldn’t think possible. We all limit ourselves and as women even more so — and often ambition is seen as a fault.”
Belli is eloquent and frank, yet soft-spoken. She is elegant and — after years spent in France, has a “je ne sais quoi” chicness, wearing a dark blouse lit up by colorful Lurex threads under a tailored suit, her hair silvery. Pomellato’s new campaign bows today. The campaign pays tribute to International Women’s Day and, at a time when women’s rights and inclusivity are at the forefront, Belli, one of the rare women ceo’s — she states less than 5 percent in the world — with her book responds to a question she is often asked: “How did you do it?”
Although she admits she would have chosen a different title if it had been her decision, the book, “D Come Donna, C Come CEO” (in English, “D as Woman, C as CEO”) is a dictionary of sorts. As she says in the preface, Belli organized her thoughts for simple, non-didactic reading, finding solutions through common sense during a career spanning 35 years, one that began in advertising at Ogily & Mather and Young & Rubicam.
She joined the luxury division at L’Oréal Luxe in 1991, first as product manager for Helena Rubinstein and then international brand manager for Giorgio Armani fragrances. In 1996, she moved to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, where her roles included international brand director for Christian Dior Parfums, international brand manager for Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin and brand executive vice president of Bulgari. She joined Kering, which controls Pomellato, in April 2015 as general manager of the brand and at the end of that year was promoted to ceo.
For its new digital and video campaign, dubbed the Pomellato Sisterhood Initiative, the company has teamed with Jane Fonda, Peyton List, Chiara Ferragni, Vera and Viola Arrivabene, Delfina Blaquier, Helen Nonini, Emma Weymouth, Scilla Ruffo di Calabria, Caroline Daur, Wakeema Hollis, Zhang Jun Ning — and men, as well, such as Jamie Campbell Bower and Ozwald Boateng — to convey a message of inclusiveness and sisterhood. Belli herself appears in the campaign, which is directed by Igor Ramirez Garcia-Peralta. “There is no script and each individual shares knowledge and personal experiences,” the ceo explained. This follows the #PomellatoForWomen campaign in 2017, which marked the brand’s 50th anniversary, and promoted female leadership and natural beauty.
Here, Belli speaks about material and mental freedom, creativity, her new book (which will soon be translated into French) — and how she did it all.
WWD: What prompted you to write the book?
Sabina Belli: I still can’t consider it a book and it’s not a professional claim — it’s simply a way to share my experiences with women — woman to woman. I did not censor myself — it’s a sincere transcript of what I think and have experienced. I still feel that today there must be a right to say what one thinks and believes.
WWD: You yourself admit that you are privileged, you had the opportunity to study and work for some of the best companies in the world and you now are part of Kering, which is sensitive to women’s issues. Do you see concrete changes happening for women?
S.B.: Yes, absolutely, women are at the center of Kering and close to [chairman and ceo] François-Henri Pinault, and Pomellato was founded in 1967 — at the onset of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Generalizing, there are more opportunities for women now, but on condition that they want them. They’ve asked me often, “How did you do it?” There are perhaps some recipes, but one must ask oneself, “Do you really want it?” Wanting means there are choices to be made, on the organization of your life, your time, your family. You can see these changes, but then there are differences in different parts of the world.
I have experienced life in Italy, in America and in France and I see how women who work and have a family are more supported in France by a network of social help, kindergartens etc. Social representation of women in France is also very different, compared to the mother figure in Italy, for example, who in the evening has to have a warm dish on the table for the family.
Freedom for women is also economic freedom. You’d be surprised to know that there is still only a very small number of women who have credit cards or a bank account and who manage their money. And this is economic violence, having to depend on the husband’s management of money.
When you think of women’s conditions, you think about violence and cultures where women are less free, but here, on this street, there are women who suffer. Statistics say that one out of three women are victims of domestic violence in this world. There is a lot of talk about diverse cultures but there is also such a difference in the lives of women that one cannot even suspect because these women don’t talk about it or show it.
In this era of Instagrammed perfection, how can one person say she lives in hell when she goes home at night? That for me is the real inclusiveness, worrying about these people who have to manage terrible things hidden behind their daily activities.
WWD: And Pomellato employs many women.
S.B.: Yes, 74 percent of employees in Pomellato are women. Pomellato has been caring for women since 1967, it’s made by women for women and managed by women, so the circle is complete. We don’t want to give lessons, but speak up on issues that are dear to women. The women in the campaign all collaborated out of friendship. You can see it’s spontaneous, there is even some hesitation when they speak, it’s authentic, not too elaborate. Our ambassadors are real women, who have had an inspiring life path and are points of reference for women.
WWD: How do you choose your team?
S.B.: The team is like an ecosystem that allows reproduction. If everyone is the same, it’s not fertile. I need to be surrounded by people that are very different from me, who complement me, and I must allow them to express themselves, so that I am not trapped in reflections of myself.
WWD: Pomellato launched the new Brera collection during Milan Fashion Week, revisiting the brand’s staple chains, which will be available starting in May. What other projects do you have lined up for the year?
S.B.: We will innovate our Nudo, Sabbia and Iconica jewels with new settings. Our creative director Vincenzo Castaldo works with 100 master goldsmiths. We will also review the Ritratto collection we launched for our 50th anniversary with mineral stones. In nature, these are not unlimited and we will further develop the pieces in the second half of the year with the idea of unique or limited pieces.
WWD: There’s much talk in fashion about capsules and collaborations. How do you feel about this?
S.B.: We don’t believe in collaborations or capsules. We work for eternity, for jewels to keep and pass on. They are keepers not ephemeral.
WWD: How are you building your store network?
S.B.: We recently relocated our Paris and London boutiques on Rue Saint-Honoré on the corner of Place Vendôme and on New Bond Street, respectively, which both contribute to prestige and visibility. At the end of last year, we inaugurated a boutique in Los Angeles on Rodeo Drive, which is strategic. In June, we will open in Tokyo, and there are plans to open five stores in China, as well as one in Singapore.
WWD: How did you make your choices throughout your career?
S.B.: It’s a conjunction of different things and the sliding doors, the formidable opportunities life offers, the coincidences, destiny if you want to call it so — and sometimes a guardian angel that opens a door or allows you to see that door. You think rationally, you line up all different parameters but sometimes you just have to say “so what?” and [see things from a different perspective and open up to new opportunities].
Also, I really believe that in the world of luxury, you need to be emotionally involved, there must be affinity with a category of product. I would have serious problems working as a spectator. You can’t only have a business eye — emotions, lateral thinking, creativity is what makes the difference in developing a business. Cosmetics, perfumes, wines, jewels, I’ve been lucky to be part of the best of it all and I loved and appreciated them personally and that gave me the motivation to overcome fatigue, limits and sacrifices.