When Puig acquired a majority stake in Jean Paul Gaultier in 2011, it was the latest signal that the Spanish firm was serious about owning brands, not only licensing them to sell fragrances, but about becoming a more formidable player in the fashion world.
A year later, Puig brought in industry veteran Ralph Toledano to head up its fashion division, sending up another flare about its ambitions, given the Frenchman’s track record building such houses as Karl Lagerfeld, Guy Laroche and Chloé.
In his first major interview since taking on the role, Toledano recalled that during his initial meetings with Marc and Manuel Puig, the family-controlled firm’s chairman and vice chairman, respectively, “they mentioned that one day they would like fashion to represent more than 50 percent of the business, and I think that’s a nice target. It will take time, because it doesn’t happen overnight. But that’s the ambition.”
He declined to say what share of Puig’s $1.99 billion in revenues currently derive from fashion houses Nina Ricci, Carolina Herrera, Paco Rabanne and Gaultier, but intimated that considerable work needs to be done to lift these names into the big leagues.
“We have to be clear, we don’t have a winner yet,” he said. “We have brands that are doing better, but when I look at a magazine and I see a ranking of the 10 best collections, we do not often have a brand there, and we need to have a brand there — as simple as that.”
Believing that success elicits success — what he called a “virtuous circle” — Toledano explained that “it’s very important we have a winner, as this will gain us credibility and presence. So once we have the first, then we’ll have the second and the third, and I think that’s quite critical.”
A pensive executive known for his strong product sensibilities and financial acumen, Toledano is reticent to discuss specific targets, preferring to wait for achievements to arrive rather than trumpet them in advance.
“Trees don’t grow to the sky, but they can approach the sky. You always have to think very big, but never say it,” he mused. “The only thing I know is that we can only do better, and I would love to do better, much, much better.”
Pressed for some timelines, he said, “In this industry, you start seeing the light after five years.”
Toledano, who is head of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, was elected the new president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, succeeding Didier Grumbach, and will take the reins on Sept. 1. He was interviewed in his office at Ricci headquarters on the corner of Avenue Montaigne and Rue François 1er, affording him a view of a luxury strip that counts such storied tenants as Dior, Chanel and Saint Laurent.
He has assumed the management helm at Ricci and is conducting an extensive review of its internal organization and processes. The initiative should be finished by year end and could ultimately benefit other divisions in the group.
“We are looking at every single department and asking, what do you need to perform better?” he said, noting the Ricci process started about eight months ago, analyzing the supply chain from design studio to shipping department.
Toledano has made two key hires at Ricci, building teams around Peter Copping, its creative director since 2009. They are Sophie Templier, accessories director, and Iliana Giannakouris, chief ready-to-wear designer under Copping.
Toledano said a deep reflection within each brand is needed to unlock its full potential: “The first piece of the puzzle is, ‘Who do I want to be? What does my brand mean? What are my brand features? Where do I want to take it?’
“You can have the most talented designer, but if he doesn’t have a clear brief, if there is not a clear understanding between you and him, where you are and where you want to go, you cannot do it,” he said. “That’s the work we have been doing. We have made progress, and hopefully time will show that it’s meaningful, and each brand is absolutely different. Each one needs to find its way; each one needs to find its own identity.”
Puig’s mission is to build brands, shape them and translate their image in the world of fragrance, Toledano said, stressing that a vital fashion house is an integral part of the picture.
“When you look at the leaders of fragrance, you very often find the leaders of fashion, and you see nearly every season a fragrance brand that had given up fashion coming back to it, so there must be a reason,” he explained.
Toledano cited “very positive momentum” at Carolina Herrera, which Puig acquired in 1995, and which is currently its largest fashion concern.
“In the past four years, Carolina Herrera has made tremendous progress,” he said, praising the leadership of chief executive officer Caroline Brown. “She has really created a very positive atmosphere. It’s a company that has worked very carefully, but positively in terms of product assortment, in terms of international expansion, in terms of digital.”
According to market sources, losses at Ricci were considerable when Copping arrived from Louis Vuitton’s design studio. The house had endured a revolving door of designers.
Toledano only hinted at past challenges and concluded, “We are putting in place proper ammunition to go to the next level, but it’s a work in progress.”
Sparking Gaultier’s business has been a challenge. Last year, it was on the cusp of introducing a new contemporary and streetwear-driven line with Ittierre SpA when the Italian manufacturer ran into financial difficulties, scuttling what had been a promising new version of the French designer’s once-blockbuster Gaultier Jeans franchise.
Toledano said the first Gaultier 2 collection received positive feedback from buyers, proving that the house was able to deliver the right concept for the market. “It was a real demonstration of taking the essence of Jean Paul and translating it for today. There is an excellent team at Gaultier. Such a commitment, such a team spirit — and they have a fantastic leader in Jean Paul. He hates when I say it, but for me, he’s a living legend. For me, working with him is a privilege.”
Toledano noted that he recently appointed a general manager at Gaultier, company veteran Sophie Weintraub. She succeeded Christine Chapellu, who had joined Gaultier from French retailer Le Bon Marché a year ago, but recently exited for personal reasons.
Meanwhile, the house projects that more than two million people will see the globe-trotting retrospective, “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk,” which originated in Montreal in 2011, is currently on at the Barbican in London and, come April 2015, is heading to the Grand Palais in Paris for four months.
Toledano stopped short of saying the exposure has been a major factor in boosting fashion sales, but “it just shows how important, how influential, Jean Paul is — not only for the fashion crowd, but for the general public.”
While the scale of Puig’s fashion businesses could seem like a handicap amid Europe’s giant luxury conglomerates, Toledano views it as an opportunity, for smaller players to “give more room to creativity than a large corporation or megabrand, where creativity has to be more disciplined.”
Ditto for managers, who can be offered “the possibility to be a real entrepreneur, not work vertically on some huge chain of command.”
Toledano noted fashion, fragrance and other luxury purveyors in France have made huge advances in recent years, becoming more effective, professional and organized — to the point that they rival other sources of national pride, including the aerospace and high-speed train sectors.
“Personally, I think that luxury — fashion and accessories, fine wines and liquors, fragrances, high-end craft, tourism and, more generally, the art of living — is the treasure of France. In the last two decades, it has impacted very favorably the French economy in terms of job creation and international trade, but a tremendous potential still exists in these areas.”