PARIS — Behind the Gucci-centric headlines that greet every quarter of impressive growth at Kering, there is another brand that is fueling the French luxury group — Saint Laurent — because of a reboot of its women’s wear offer under chief executive officer Francesca Bellettini and creative director Anthony Vaccarello.
“If you think that the luxury industry is mostly women-driven, and before Anthony, our men’s ready-to-wear business was bigger than the women’s ready-to-wear, it’s dysfunctional, so there was a huge job that we had to do to reaffirm the woman of Saint Laurent,” she explained.
“Without clarifying the image and the positioning of the woman, and the elevation of the woman, we could not secure the future of the company,” Bellettini added in an interview at the company’s corporate headquarters on Avenue George V here on Friday, a day after Kering published its first-half results.
Since she took over in 2013, the Italian executive has overseen a tripling of the house’s sales, though she’s not one to sit on her laurels. Rather, she continually drives her teams toward the next challenge, as she propels the label founded by Yves Saint Laurent toward its long-term revenue target of 3 billion euros.
Having posted sales of 1.5 billion euros in 2017, the house — the second largest brand in the Kering stable after Gucci — has kept up a steady clip, though its pace is normalizing after several years of exceptional growth.
In the second quarter, turnover rose 19.8 percent in comparable terms to 400 million euros — below the 40.1 percent jump logged by Gucci, but sharply above the 6 to 8 percent luxury sector growth forecast by Bain & Co. for this year.
“There are not that many brands that are able to grow 20 percent,” Bellettini noted. “It’s 19 quarters, which corresponds to 57 months, that we are delivering growth of 20 percent or more. What is amazing about what we have been able to do is the resilience — it’s the fact that we continue to deliver.”
At an investor day last year, she set out a midterm revenue target of 2 billion euros, which she expects to achieve sooner rather than later. “Midterm is three to four years; I let you do your maths!” she said. “What I care about is that we outperform the market. We need to grow more than the market, because this means that we are gaining market share.”
Bellettini thinks brands can meet ambitious goals without resorting to disruption, even in an era of Insta-short attention spans. “You can still continue to grow even without a big revolution if you stay consistent to your DNA and you continue to do the changes that are needed and to improve the organization,” she said.
Profitability has spiked under her watch: the operating margin rose to 24.5 percent in the first half, up 150 basis points year-over-year, and is on track to meet a long-term goal of 27 percent. Meanwhile, Saint Laurent has ramped up the pace of openings with 18 new stores in the first half, suggesting it will eclipse its target of around 20 a year.
“The fact that our current stores are very profitable allows us to open new stores being less penalized by the dilution that you usually have when you open,” Bellettini noted, saying the house was taking an opportunistic approach by snapping up desirable locations as they become available.
Its new Paris boutique, in the location formerly occupied by concept store Colette, is set to open early next year, and flagships in Beijing and Shanghai are also in the pipeline.
The executive credits Vaccarello, whom she hired in 2016, with laying the groundwork for her strategy by updating the image of the Saint Laurent woman, fueling sales of accessories such as Opyum logo-heel pumps and 8,000-euro Yeti over-the-knee boots embellished with ostrich feathers.
“To me, it’s a great revolution that silently he has been able to do and we have been able to do, which allows me to open bigger stores. Since his arrival, we have not put on markdown anymore the current collection, because he works with such a product content that it would be wrong to find that collection on markdown six months later,” Bellettini said.
“We do a little bit of markdown, in particular private sales in our stores, but those are collections that are one year old, so less attractive for the population that searches for the bargain of the season, and then we move them to the outlets. We try to balance the buying really well, try to control the sell-throughs, and then you see the result in the margin,” she added.
Now Saint Laurent is ready to shine the spotlight again on its men’s offer. In June, Vaccarello showed his first dedicated men’s collection in Liberty State Park against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. “Anthony felt that New York was a perfect stage for that show. He has a particular connection with New York,” Bellettini said.
“It really captured the attention not only of the press, but also of the consumer. The immediate response we had right after the show for the collection was incredible, and the beauty is that in the stores, there is already a collection designed by Anthony with that kind of silhouette, so you don’t disappoint your clients,” she added.
Kering chairman and ceo François-Henri Pinault, who regularly champions sustainable initiatives, has encouraged all the group’s designers to view their collections as chapters of an ongoing story, rather than taking off in radical new directions each season. Bellettini shares this vision.
“Each of Anthony’s collections builds on the one before,” she said. “It’s like a TV series: every episode can stand alone, but then the series has its DNA and its story.”
There is suspense as to the next episode, with Bellettini declining to say whether Saint Laurent will continue with its format of coed shows during Paris Fashion Week in the wake of the New York experience.
“We are going to continue to communicate strongly on both genders. Then how? Where? For me, it has to be left also to the sensibility and the sensitivity of the designer. I’ve seen so many companies declaring strategies and then going back,” she said. “I prefer to shut up, knowing that is very much part of the creativity.”
The runway shows have proven a great tool for communicating with Millennials, who make up the majority of the brand’s customers. Saint Laurent has been beefing up its online content, helping to drive up the number of Instagram followers to 4.6 million, and using artificial intelligence to get a better read on customer data.
Its online sales in the second quarter surpassed those in its physical network, and the share of repeat clients and loyal clients is “growing like crazy,” according to Bellettini. This is important to her, for as much as she wants to hit her 3-billion-euro target, she is also aware of posterity.
“That is my biggest obsession in a way: being able to build a legacy, being able to conquer people for the long run. I don’t want to please everybody. I want to please the right ones, the ones that have a connection with us,” she said.
In recognition for her services to the French fashion industry, the government of President Emmanuel Macron recently named Bellettini a knight of the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian award.
“I’m so honored and it was so unexpected. That was really making me incredibly proud, in particular for the people of the company,” she said. “It’s important for me as a person, but it’s important for the brand.”
The date for the award ceremony has not been set, but Bellettini — who was also recently reelected to the executive committee of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion’s governing body — hopes it will be after Saint Laurent moves into its new Left Bank headquarters later this year.
“I don’t think it’s going to be during fashion week. Fashion week is about fashion,” she demurred. “I am reserved as a person, so it’s not going to be done with big flash or big announcements.” In the meantime, she is allowing herself a rare moment of contentment.
“I’m super happy. This has been a fantastic period for my professional and personal career,” she concluded. “We have the feeling of what we have achieved, but what I love is that there is still the feeling of the more that is to come.”