Rodrigo Bazan

MILAN — Some may call it serendipity. Rodrigo Bazan’s move into fashion from his previous roles at Motorola and Deloitte came via Gucci and former president and chief executive officer Domenico De Sole — and a touch of fate. After reading a 2001 Time cover story, “Style Wars,” on De Sole and Gucci’s then-creative director Tom Ford, Bazan was particularly intrigued by their turnaround of the brand and their battle for control opposite LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and fascinated by how “very strong designs can touch people in a brief time.”

Shortly after, a former colleague was called for an interview at Gucci in Florence, but she suggested Bazan apply for the job, given his relationship with Italy. The Argentina-born Bazan, whose mother is Italian, was eventually hired and would continue to work with the group as chief financial officer and later general manager of Alexander McQueen before joining Marc Jacobs International LLC as vice president and general manager Europe, Middle East and India. In 2010, he left that group to join Alexander Wang as president, a role he held until May 2016, when he was appointed ceo of Thom Browne Inc.

Bazan, who considers De Sole a mentor, has carved out his own path in the business, viewing teamwork as essential and, in building his team, he looks for talents who are curious and “hungry for action.” Affable and understated, Bazan has taken his own bold steps in spearheading Thom Browne, but only after thoroughly sharing a master plan with the designer and shareholder; the brand’s majority owner, Sandbridge Capital, and Japan’s Stripe International, which has a minority stake.

The executive balances a big-picture view while keeping an eye on details and execution, running a tight ship. He carefully tests projects, keeps a lid on licenses (there is only one for eyewear made in Japan with DITA) and is focused on building a connection with customers. Quality is key, with production made almost entirely in Italy —even sneakers, a point of pride.

Here, Bazan talks exclusively with WWD about an upcoming partnership with Barneys New York in September and how to keep customers engaged.

WWD: How did you make the move from Alexander Wang and what were the first steps you decided to take at Thom Browne to lead the brand?

Rodrigo Bazan: At the beginning of 2016 with Sandbridge Capital, the most important thing was to map out a strategic plan and share it with the team. This is my rule, to involve everyone, adding ideas. After a few months openly discussing the strategies, we could have simply grown our men’s wear and wholesale businesses, but we decided to do the opposite, to put a big focus on women’s wear and on direct-to-consumer. That’s not to say that we didn’t think men’s wear was important, but we wanted to think long-term, to be recognized and known for men’s and women’s wear. We continue to operate with 300 men’s wear wholesale accounts and with 225 for women’s wear and have a very important direct-to-consumer, involving stores and online, omnichannel, internally and with a technological partnership with Farfetch. The focus in particular was to establish the women’s business and an image for that woman, Thom said, and part of this was moving the show to Paris, and to create a modern retail model that would move forward. We were very lucky to start with zero legacy. The company has a start-up mentality. It was small, less than 80 employees two years ago. Now there are almost 190. We didn’t have gigantic stores, we had set up a small office, the strength was in people with different roles in the company, with whom we could sit down to discuss the future with a focus on digital. When the structure is bigger, it’s more complicated. We wanted to connect everything through omnichannel, communications, branding, retail, wholesale, and tell stories through images, connecting with consumers. Our big focus is on retail experiential moments, as we did at Colette, Lane Crawford, Shinjuku Isetan and now Barneys.

WWD: How do you achieve this alignment?

R.B.: Alignment is a very important word for us. It all starts by talking with Thom, in terms of big picture and strategy. He is a genius and very open to listening, and we all decide the strategy — everyone is aware. We’ve found a formula to communicate internally so that all teams are aligned. We have a leadership breakfast every month and a half, and we have a beautiful project with a coach. The future with talents is in coaching. Fifteen people are in this phase of coaching now. We ask, what are our goals? We are focused on growth, on establishing our men’s and women’s, wholesale and retail businesses, on how to be prepared to communicate internally in a team that has grown, on how to give feedback. The most important value is respect but that does not mean not saying openly what you think. The team is empowered to give their point of view in an objective and constructive way, passionately with a very clear goal, to produce a beautiful product as part of a unique business. You very much feel this start-up mode.

WWD: How is the team encouraged and how do you limit the barriers between business and creativity?

R.B.: Thom is very charismatic and his point of view is on everything, but he is very open to listening. If he and I talk once a week with everyone, it’s unsustainable. What is sustainable is a group of leaders aligned with their teams down to the design assistant, so that everyone contributes, with passion and work and ideas. This is a design company [based on] explosive talent, and we must be very innovative. We have adapted only by listening to our teams, to create a big business in Europe, America and Asia.

WWD: Teamwork is obviously very important to you.

R.B.: When there is no alignment, there can be momentum in terms of products and accessories, but it only lasts a couple of years. Then there is friction, creative and commercial differences, and that puts a stress level everywhere because strategies had not been discussed at the beginning. Thom is a creative — if you look at his sketches, his past projects, his signature is there. I am not a creative — what I did in the past, I need to delete and find something significant that fits with this brand and be innovative. Before anything, I sat down with Thom and the shareholders to discuss what we wanted to do, we talked, and I realized Thom is very open, talented and interested in doing something unique and creative to touch people.

Before I took the job, I locked myself in for two weekends and looked at all the images of his past shows. I realized there were 15 years of enormous work. I call it substance of product, really well-designed and really well-made, anchored in the Fifties but modern, with the most important [being] materials and craftsmanship. There is consistency in the design and clarity in the message. From May 2016, we’ve expanded the men’s world. It was full-canvas tailoring and sportswear; now from that we’ve moved to unconstructed tailoring, which is very important and a great success, and sportswear, not in terms of sweatshirts or functional sportswear, but an elevated American sportswear, JFK in the Fifties, that kind of sensibility. The market goes toward streetwear — we are not that, and we will never do that. Also, outerwear for men’s is very important.

On the women’s wear front, it was all to be done, and Thom said it had to be done exactly the same as the men’s wear, developing tailoring, shirting, knitwear and outerwear, as well as accessories. Growth will be on these pillars. First, product and price point architecture — people need to know that you don’t have to be thin and rich to wear Thom Browne; there is a big range of product today.

Second, a direct-to-consumer formula that is successful for the brand. The brand started in retail, from the made-to-measure store in New York and the retail business retail in Japan. What we presented to the board was to expand these stores and connect them with omnichannel.

Today, retail accounts for 45 percent of sales; next year, it will be 50/50 with wholesale.

Third, communication, and we created a marketing team with a lot of talent from the digital world, not only to do press but also content. The fourth pillar is data that allow us to be even more objective on product strategies. On this pillar we have worked with Farfetch and data scientists to understand the Thom Browne customer and the performance and architecture of men’s and women’s product.

WWD: Why did you think you were a good fit for Thom Browne and what did you think you brought to the brand?

R.B.: That discussion with Thom was very interesting, to understand, he was so open-minded and we realized that the perception of the brand was not in line with what we can do with it. A lot of people saw it as niche, with a quarter of our actual sales, as only men’s, without stores — they are a bit hidden, true. But we’ve had women’s for five years, or actually two, since the start-up in Paris — a start-up with a big business. I understood that there was an interesting potential. What also contributed perhaps was that it’s Thom and the brand, like Miuccia and Prada, it’s anchored in the Fifties, perhaps the most important moment [in the U.S.], but modern. If you bring a new idea to a retailer, an e-tailer, a partner, a wholesaler, they will open their doors to modernity and innovation. That is what I like to push internally, a modernity that makes sense — a digital and physical platform for the collections in 195 countries, click-and-collect in four countries in 16 currencies. Of the direct-to-consumer business, which is 45 percent of sales, e-commerce this year accounts for 10 percent of that, and next year we expect it to represent 20 percent.

WWD: You believe there is a discrepancy between the brand and the business, which market sources peg at expected revenues in 2018 of between 140 million and 150 million euros?

R.B.: We have 30 stores and they are all profitable. Next year, we are negotiating locations for 10 openings, especially in Japan and Greater China, and Miami will open in October in the Design District. Europe accounts for 35 percent of total sales and the U.S. and Canada for 25 percent.

When I arrived, there was a start-up mentality after 10 years, with a very interesting performance and it remained uncompromising Thom Browne. Now it’s more open to other categories and fits, but we are very proud of this start-up mentality — with more than 100 million euros in sales. Everyone believes in contributing, and we can invest in talent and teams.

WWD: Thom Browne has succeeded in building a business while several of his peers have had to shutter their brands. What made the difference?

R.B.: Thom conceived this men’s silhouette, which took over five years to establish. People said you can’t sell it, they didn’t want to touch it at first, but he changed men’s wear. He is uncompromising on his creativity and quality and remains completely consistent. Many designers thrive on not being consistent; they need to change all the time. Also, he had a retail business behind him that helped. Having one step in retail allowed him to understand. Retail gives you constant feedback. This creative point of view, quality and consistency allowed him to draw the likes of David Bowie, the best entrepreneurs and architects.

Then came the development in interesting markets such as Korea and K-pop stars that had a passion for the brand and communicated to an important pool of people. Korea exploded for us five years ago and it remains very important. We have 11 stores there. It’s like Japan 15 years ago when the company was growing. The start-up mentality also inspired me to not overcomplicate the company. We are New York-based but we are the antithesis of that — we have a big business outside the U.S., we hold four shows in Paris and sell our pre-collections in Milan.

WWD: What are the brand’s main markets?

R.B.: Europe is our biggest, and Asia has grown enormously in two years. Globally, we have expanded from 16 to 30 stores; enlarged our New York store, which carries men’s and women’s; opened London and Milan; opened five direct stores in China, four in Korea; for a total of 11. We had one in Hong Kong, we have concessions in Dover Street Market in New York, London and Singapore. We opened a year-round, su misura atelier in Paris on Avenue Montaigne at our permanent showroom by appointment only. The idea is to create a local, well-looked-after clientele and then decide when to open a flagship. We are in Le Bon Marché and will open two shop-in-shops at Printemps. Our role is to create a men’s and women’s architecture of price and functionality and touch the end consumers through wholesale, e-tailers, retail, online and grow our pool of final clients in an organic way, rather than through stores.

WWD: Given the craftsmanship and details of the designs, have you considered showing during haute couture week?

R.B.: If you ask Thom, he is very humble and he says the clothes are still pret-à-porter, although yes, they are almost couture, but we just made this change and we are very happy and committed to show during the ready-to-wear collections. It’s not on the table now; we want to really develop ready-to-wear — couture is another business. Women’s already accounts for one-third of sales. We had always planned a 25 to 30 percent growth for women’s wear, but with the last collection we are seeing a 40 percent increase. Thom said he felt he [achieved] the perfect balance with the pre-collection, with men’s wear-inspired tailoring with new jackets and a very interesting fit, American sportswear sensibility and hyper-femininity.

WWD: What are the expectations for women’s wear?

R.B.: In the short-term, in two or three years, 50/50 would be perfect. We must remain niche and touch many people and never lose that relationship with our customer. The worst for Thom is to have a customer say, “I used to buy your brand but I don’t anymore.” We must add new customers, but at the same time offer different alternatives for different moments for the same person, easing into utilitarian, too.

WWD: What about the accessories business? There’s a streak of Browne’s irony in some of the handbags.

R.B.: Our success is based on classic-looking bags in pebble grain leather or the uber-emotional bags like Hector [shaped as a dog] which is also a strong commercial success. Accessories account for less than 25 percent of sales, but there will be a strong growth — we have a big focus on the category and we’ve seen an enormous success in Paris.

WWD: About Barneys and the experiential moments, could you explain the reasoning behind this project?

R.B.: The pinnacle was Colette. In January 2017 Sarah [Andelman, creative director and purchasing manager of the Paris store, which ceased operations in December] called us, proposed the top floor of the store for a month, and we did it in October so that we covered fashion week and FIAC [International Contemporary Art Fair]. It was a beautiful tour-de-force, a very important platform to show our business and our retail model at large. Sarah told us later that she was closing, so it was a way to celebrate the last season of Colette, too, with more than 200 exclusive products. Each week it was entirely turned into a new store. We worked very closely with the Colette team, who [for the first time] chose to wear our uniforms; they were very proud of this. Sales were three times more than we expected, more than 1 million euros in that month, and women’s contributed to 31 percent — men’s and accessories and exclusive products for the rest. Her mother [Colette Roussaux] helped us understand that in retail it’s all in the details — every Sunday the store changed with new [product] drops. It also helped us realize the strength as a small brand, if you have an important platform in a unique moment — we call them “retail experiential moments” — you can express your brand in a more interesting way, touch a lot of customers and perform very well. It was an enormous surprise at the level of feedback. Many people didn’t know how many products we have, the fun items, Thom’s irony.

After Colette, we did it at Lane Crawford and Joyce, where we had an exhibition of archival pieces. Then we went to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Isetan, taking over the ground floor and we added women’s exclusively for Isetan. It was an enormous success and a way to launch women’s there.

At Barneys, for the month of September, the partnership includes visual and experiential elements on the Madison Avenue windows, first-floor entrance and fourth floor, men’s and women’s on the Barneys Downtown windows, with a big presence of weekly drops of exclusives, and an installation of archival, vintage pieces. The name [of the project] is “The Anatomy of the Suit.”

Thom Browne

A rendering of the Thom Browne installation at Barneys

WWD: Why do you stand by these projects?

R.B.: As a start-up, we learned to test things. The first store in China was a pop-up in the best mall, Shin Kong Place [in Beijing]. We were very demanding, we wanted to be in front of Prada and Gucci, and we understood in the first month that there was potential of a direct business in China, and the kind of customer there was. This allowed the best malls to call us and to go to the best stores in China. We could not say no to Sarah, she was one of Thom’s first clients, and it gave us exposure in Paris where we had no store. It was on our shoulders to do something unique, an enormous job to create the designs, and a lot of people realized the brand has an important potential. It helped us understand how the retail model works, how to express the brand. If you come to a Thom Brown store, it’s a unique experience. We learn how to bring that experience in a much bigger store. Barneys has a traffic and visibility that we don’t have. It gives you a different confidence, in terms of creativity and product, and feedback from the customer.

WWD: Frequent product drops are becoming the norm in fashion, with several companies changing the structure of their organization. How do you feel about them and will you continue with seasonal collections?

R.B.: When this store [in Milan] opened during the Salone del Mobile [furniture and design trade show in April 2017], it was a unique moment for the city, but in all fairness we didn’t have a specific collection for it. The image was good and so was the traffic, but there was no compelling reason for an immediate purchase. After that, we opened our store in London in July, which is not a particular month for an event, so we decided to do a specific collection, a capsule on tennis with photos to tell a story and digitally communicated it, and it was enormously successful. We aim at creating two moments per year both with retail partners and in our stores. In Miami we will launch a collection based on golf when we open the store in October.

WWD: What are the main challenges that you could be facing in 2018 or 2019?

R.B.: Internally, to keep the alignment. It’s good to have a start-up mentality, but there must be order and defined roles, a focus in terms of objectives and business areas. We did an enormous job to bring talent in-house and nurture it. We need to never lose momentum and listen to constant feedback.

Externally, the challenge is to grow the number of customers exponentially, with a message that is clear in men’s and women’s so as not to lose the regular customer. We need to evolve with that customer. We have very committed clients, who buy 20 times per year.

WWD: Does Sandbridge have any specific plan for the company?

R.B.: At the time business is good, in line with plans, and actually better than expected. They realized what we want to do. It has not been risky so far — all stores are profitable and we are cash-positive.