MILAN — Valentino SpA is entering its third phase at age 45.

The fashion company, founded in 1961, is stepping up its growth strategy under owner Valentino Fashion Group SpA and following the appointment last month of a new chief executive officer, Stefano Sassi. As part of that program, the company on Tuesday appointed Graziano De Boni, president and chief executive officer of Valentino USA, to the additional post of president of worldwide sales, marketing and retail.

Valentino also revealed that it has signed a worldwide license with Timex Group for the production and distribution of a luxury watch collection. The company said it expected retail sales of the watch line to exceed 60 million euros, or $77.4 million at current exchange rates.

The moves come as there continues to be speculation Marzotto is looking to sell Valentino, as well as talk that designer Valentino Garavani will step down later this year after the house celebrates its 45th anniversary during the Paris couture shows in July. However, company executives firmly dismissed both ideas in interviews on Tuesday.

“Mr. Valentino can decide to interrupt the collaboration if he wants to, he can communicate it when he wants, or he can decide to continue in the interest of the company he built,” said Matteo Marzotto, chairman of Valentino SpA, “There is no contract with an expiration date.”

As for a potential sale of the house, Marzotto said he didn’t think “there has ever been such stability” within the company. Sassi said that, when Marzotto is involved, “small voices inevitably become big.”

“Either you believe in and build the brand and its team or you don’t. We each have an operative role and are sure we can obtain important results,” the ceo said. “Shareholders are in the situation where they can see the results and operate accordingly. We believe in enhancing what we have and that there are no limits. These are relaunch operations, not meant for an exit [out of the company].”

Both executives pointed to De Boni’s additional duties as evidence of Marzotto’s commitment to expanding the Valentino brand.

“De Boni is a fighter, a team worker and has worked very well in the U.S.,” said Sassi in an interview at the company’s Milan headquarters. “There is still a lot of untapped potential for our label and with his knowledge of distribution in one of the most important markets for Valentino, he is the most fitting person for this role.”

This story first appeared in the January 17, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Sassi praised De Boni’s knowledge of the brand and his “strong” commercial and product sensibility. “He manages his business in a way that allows us to consider him an entrepreneur,” said Sassi.

Matteo Marzotto said De Boni was the first to succeed in securing breakeven in the American market, while the rest of the company was weighed down by debt accumulated by its previous owners, HDP. Marzotto said De Boni’s additional asset was his “advanced perception of luxury.” The company said the American market reported sales of $67 million last year, up from $24 million in 2002, when Marzotto took control of the brand. De Boni joined Marzotto in 1988, also working for the Marzotto-controlled Hugo Boss.

Vittorio Missoni, who has worked with De Boni for more than 20 years on collections licensed to Marzotto, such as M Missoni, said in a phone interview the executive has greatly contributed to the commercial success of the Missoni brands. “De Boni has a positive view of the market, an optimistic streak which makes him see the glass half full, not half empty. It makes him very enterprising,” said Missoni.

De Boni, who was in Milan to attend the Valentino men’s wear show on Tuesday, said he will continue to oversee operations in North America, helped by his staff, naming in particular Wendy Kahn, senior vice president of sales, marketing and retail. De Boni said his new position “is part of a strategy to create a central structure that is stronger and more discerning [that] will be able to better coordinate worldwide activities.”

Valentino has 60 stores worldwide. Both executives said it was too early to provide details about the opening and locations of new stores. “A retail growth is inevitable, also in certain untapped areas such as China and the Far East, but we need to develop the brand in territories where we are already present,” said Sassi.

De Boni added that this does not necessarily mean an expansion of the number of Valentino boutiques and pointed to the growth of wholesale accounts, as well. “I don’t care where our customer is buying our product, as long as she is buying it,” said De Boni.

Sassi and Marzotto said the new agreement with Timex, which replaces a previous watch license with Sector, is in line with the company’s strategy to preserve the brand without diluting it, while raising the luxury level of various categories.

“This is a complex business with different apparel and accessories collections and with strong ambitions to grow,” said Sassi. “A license not consistent with our other products would not make sense.

“Choosing a licensee is like choosing a partner, a husband or a wife,” said Sassi, noting the companies have not yet decided when the first collection will bow and where but added that he plans to back the launch with an aggressive ad campaign.

The license will last a minimum of six years. Joe Santana, Timex Group president and ceo, said in a statement: “Valentino is a legendary brand that continues to experience exceptional growth in the marketplace. We are delighted Valentino watches are now part of Timex Group’s portfolio. The brand will enhance our offerings in the highest echelons of timepieces.”

Timex also produces timepieces under license for Versace and Guess, among other brands.

Other Valentino licenses are with Procter & Gamble for fragrances, Safilo for eyewear, Ciwifurs for furs and with SINV SpA for the younger line, RED.

“This is our third phase, one of growth, after the acquisition and the turnaround,” said Marzotto. “After a moment of discontinuity in the second half of last year [referring to the departure of Michele Norsa, former Valentino ceo for Salvatore Ferragamo], we have put together the right team of people with a new action plan. It’s an evolution, not a revolution.”

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