FLORENCE – “We know what needs to be done and we just have to do it.”
Understated yet sophisticated, very direct and eloquent, with a subtle sense of humor, Micaela Le Divelec Lemmi appears calm and undaunted by the task of steering Salvatore Ferragamo back to the growth path. Meeting exclusively with WWD at the company’s frescoed headquarters in the 13th–century Palazzo Spini Feroni here for her first solo interview, the newly minted chief executive officer relies on clarity of intent, the brand’s values, and confidence in the team as she sees the first signs of improvement at the company, which in the first half saw a 23.1 percent drop in profits to 59 million euros, on the back of a 6.2 percent decrease in revenues to 674 million euros.
Le Divelec Lemmi first arrived at the brand in April as general director and was appointed ceo at the end of July, succeeding Eraldo Poletto, who left to join Stuart Weitzman. She hails from Florence and from another company based there, Gucci, which she joined in 1998, rising through the ranks to become executive vice president and chief consumer officer.
Her new role makes her one of the few women at the helm of a publicly held company with sales of over 1 billion euros. But rather than talking about her accomplishment, she points to the “incredible” job done by Wanda Ferragamo, the wife of the late Salvatore Ferragamo, who built and consolidated the group with the help of her three daughters as much as her three sons.
Her understatement typifies her overall approach: Le Divelec Lemmi wants her actions to speak louder than her words. Still, there have been plenty of words circulating recently about the company, which continues to be haunted by ongoing rumors of the Ferragamos possibly selling their stake, which she believes to be unfounded and harmful to business.
Here, Le Divelec Lemmi speaks to WWD ahead of the brand’s coed fashion show to be held Saturday in Milan, designed by Paul Andrew and Guillaume Meilland, who are in charge of the women’s and men’s divisions, respectively.
WWD: What attracted you to Salvatore Ferragamo?
Micaela Le Divelec Lemmi: I am Florentine, as you know, and I have always had a deep respect and attachment for all those brands and companies that have represented Italy’s excellence in the world. As a Florentine I have always looked at Ferragamo with great interest and what has always most impressed me is that, beyond its Italian tradition and the fact that it is precisely part of the country’s excellence and culture exported to the world, the company is entirely Italian — 360 degrees. The property is Italian, production and headquarters are Italian, and culturally it is a company that is still very connected to the territory, Tuscany and Italy in general, at a time when our country, too, is going through quite a delicate transition tied to a critical economic situation and political tensions that make us wait and see what happens. To bring this message of Italian excellence to the world, we must take some responsibility. I see Ferragamo has strong and tangible values that are under everyone’s eyes and I see a particular quality that I am aware of even more so now — that the brand is looked at with respect and benevolence. Of course, over the last few months it is watched with even more attention from a certain part of this world, but the brand has never showed arrogance and aloofness, despite it being a luxury label, and for this reason, I identify with it and with how the family has maintained a continuity of message through the years, preserving its values and the brand’s consistency.
WWD: Why do you think the brand elicits respect? Do you think it also stems from the reputation of the family and their approach to business?
M.L.D.L.: Also because of its history. This is a company that has created and built very strong partnerships for years, first by its founder and then with great dedication by Mrs. Ferragamo and her family, building long-lasting relations. Here, when you talk of partnership, it is meant in the real sense of the word, meaning working together with a common goal to preserve and make the brand bigger and more renowned.
WWD: Do you think the image of the brand is intact, despite some missteps?
M.L.D.L.: The brand is uncorrupted. There was never a strong discontinuity over time, so that it comes quite naturally to make it contemporary by looking at its values. It’s not easy, I am not saying that. There’s work to do and I am here for this, but there are values that emerge spontaneously as if the brand could talk and transmit certain messages through the family.
WWD: In your first conference call with analysts at the end of July, you spoke of how the brand deserves respect and you expressed your confidence in the team. Could you please elaborate? What do you think needs more focus? What are the first steps to be taken?
M.L.D.L.: After the initial approach in the first months to understand the structure [of the business] and the history of the brand itself, I felt there was a need to redefine and convey clear objectives. I think the team has potential, and that it is necessary to add injections of expertise and specific functions in some key roles that are not entirely covered. I believe in the existing talent, also of the younger generations within the company and in the potential of the second [management] lines. There is a strong sense of belonging also in the younger generation here that will factually contribute. I don’t want to pass judgment on what has been done before. I think it’s necessary in any organization to clarify the goals and to know where people are going so that they should all be able to all point in the same direction.
WWD: Going back to that first call, it came a few minutes after you were revealed as the new ceo. It could be daunting to talk to analysts, but you held your own, you sounded self-assured and you spoke with clarity. Was that not a first for you?
M.L.D.L.: I had met with analysts in my previous experiences in some situations that were a little more formal, when the team for each area would lay out the goals, but certainly that call at the end of July was the first such moment. I never directly interacted with analysts before.
WWD: And the fact that the numbers were not good must not have been easy.
M.L.D.L.: No, the numbers were not very good. But it’s important that we have clear ideas, to roll up one’s sleeves, work with the team in the same direction and manage priorities. There are many things to do and one must not lose concentration so as to bring the first results that can inject some confidence in the team, which has gone through a moment of strong transition, and then be credible to the outside world.
WWD: And what do you make of the ongoing rumors about a possible sale by the Ferragamo family? Does this complicate your work?
M.L.D.L.: There’s always some speculation, especially when companies like these are in the eye of the storm, and ahead of the fashion show. It’s quite normal, we know it’s also a way to draw attention or to speculate. I believe circulating these rumors does not help or give stability to the company. Also because the family is really actively participating, we are working together to revisit the brand and its codes in a contemporary way.
WWD: The fact that chairman Ferruccio Ferragamo took on the interim ceo role was also a sign of this interest, I imagine?
M.L.D.L.: Exactly, and I believe this came at a cost for him, returning to deal with issues that he had not managed for a long time. Hats off to him. I have only admiration for Mr. Ferruccio and all his family.
WWD: You are one of the very few women executives leading a public fashion company with sales above 1 billion euros. How do you feel about that?
M.L.D.L.: Surely this company appreciates and enhances diversity more than others, if you think of the incredible work done by Mrs. Wanda in primis and her daughters [the late Fiamma and Fulvia, and Giovanna Ferragamo]. Women managers are really rewarded here — in some companies there’s a lot of talk about this but it’s not really translated into reality, but here this is a fact. I did not find any kind of reservation toward me as a woman. I’d like to tell you an anecdote because I was thinking about this over the past few days. Frankly, I think perhaps things don’t happen by chance. I graduated with a degree in marketing, researching apparel companies and possibilities to approach production in an innovative way. I interviewed Giovanna Ferragamo, as Salvatore Ferragamo was one of the cases of my thesis. I don’t think she remembers, but obviously I do and very well [laughing].
WWD: How was that meeting?
M.L.D.L.: It was very pleasant, she was so nice, she explained how she worked, how she would start to frame the collection, the research of materials, the shapes, the importance of continuity in the message of the brand, and how personal intuition is a fundamental element. In theory my teacher actually wanted me to explain the contrary, how mathematical and innovative models could be applied to creating the apparel collections. I arrived at the conclusion that perhaps the luxury sector was not mature [in that sense] and that the innovative component derived from the creative mind rather than from imposing mathematical models.
WWD: You started your career in finance, didn’t you?
M.L.D.L.: Yes, after my degree, I went to work in an auditing firm building experience in the banking sector for six years. My background is in finance and that was a moment when consultancies were growing exponentially and jobs in specific companies in the finance sector mainly involved accounting activities. I wanted to measure myself with companies of a different nature and understand what contribution I could have made. After six years, I had the opportunity to join the finance area at Gucci in Florence. It was only Gucci at that time [and not Kering Group], it was the Domenico De Sole and Tom Ford period and right after the Asian crisis, Avvocato De Sole thought there was a need to control costs. That became my job and I ended up never leaving fashion, staying on for 20 years. And I must say that for a woman it’s difficult to leave fashion. I always thought that even though the numbers are the other face of fashion, the measurable side of the performance of a company, surely it’s more fascinating to check the numbers of a fashion company rather than those of a firm that makes bolts [laughing] — with all due respect, but once you have savored certain dynamics, it’s difficult to leave.
WWD: Did you have a mentor as you progressed in your career?
M.L.D.L.: I had a very diversified working path, and while I have worked for 20 years in the same company, with all the managerial changes within the firm and the group, I don’t have the feeling of having worked in the same company and surely not for the same boss. I think I learned a lot from each for different reasons, and I especially learned a lot from my colleagues. I have always believed that every day you learn something from any colleague, whatever their role. I covered very different roles and responsibilities and in some cases without having a background [for them], so measuring myself with colleagues that had different points of view really enriched me. That said, the learning curve never ends.
WWD: You said you are hiring and filling new positions. What are you looking for?
M.L.D.L.: You may think it’s strange, but normally I look for characteristics that are different from mine and I look for a challenge — someone that is different. I am intrigued by people who test me, both managerially and intellectually. This ends up being hard and tiring because I don’t seek yes-men but people with whom I can measure myself. It’s a constant battle [laughing] on the daily management because I rarely find someone that agrees with me right away. In this company in particular, one of the characteristics I look for in collaborators and for those new roles that we are seeking is passion. It’s fundamental that there is an understanding of the values of the brand and a passion, otherwise it’s the wrong company.
WWD: I know the company will report results for the first nine months of the year on Nov. 8, so you can’t disclose too many details before that. Can we talk about the products?
M.L.D.L.: No, but I do have a beautiful blouse, don’t I? [Smiling and pointing to her silk design with a patchwork of colorful foulard prints].
The collection that was presented in February and is in stores now is bringing results — we can say that. From that, it’s difficult to draw conclusions on the performance because the collection is being delivered now. There is a great appreciation from customers and we see an editorial return that is very interesting. One of the comments I heard in the store is that it is very Ferragamo, which is what we needed. The bag that was launched in February, the Studio Bag in a limited edition, was sold out in all regions.
WWD: Do you feel it is important to continue to invest in ready-to-wear for the brand?
M.L.D.L.: Yes, it’s beyond the image. I think it is one of the categories the brand has a legitimacy in and where it has something to say.
WWD: Have you been traveling a lot for the company since you arrived?
M.L.D.L.: I started visiting markets, but not all, unfortunately. I hope by the end of the year to complete the visits by going to the Americas, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia. I went to China and Hong Kong, as well as Japan, but I must return to Japan.
WWD: Are you planning any changes in your network of stores globally?
M.L.D.L.: We want to work a lot on the quality and performance of stores, so there are no really major openings — or closures, for that matter.
It’s a delicate moment, the ideas are clear, but we wouldn’t want to say things without proving them with facts. It’s also in the family’s style. We know what needs to be done, and we just have to do it.