NEW YORK — Vera Wang reached into the beauty world to find her new president.
Veronique Gabai-Pinsky, former global brand president of the Estee Lauder Cos.’ Aramis and Designer Fragrances, BeautyBank and IdeaBank, has been named president of Vera Wang Group. That position has been vacant since Mario Grauso left Wang in 2013.
Gabai-Pinsky, who resigned from Lauder in October 2014, oversaw several fragrances, including DKNY Be Delicious, Tory Burch and Michael Kors. She also helped shift the ADF portfolio to focus on luxury and high-potential brands, launched Asian skin-care brand Osiao as part of IdeaBank and helped grow several brands in BeautyBank. After stepping down from Lauder, she became a senior adviser to the company, as well as a consultant to Wang.
Prior to joining Lauder in 2003, Gabai-Pinsky was executive vice president and general manager for fine fragrance, North America, for Symrise, and before that, its predecessor, Dragoco. She also has been vice president of global marketing for Guerlain and worldwide director of strategic planning for Select Advertising, where she helped to develop Giorgio Armani fragrances at L’Oréal.
In an exclusive interview at Wang’s offices Friday, Gabai-Pinsky and Wang discussed their long-standing friendship and how they met through Gabai-Pinsky’s husband, Joel Pinsky, who had an accessories company, Omega Fashions Ltd. Wang and Gabai-Pinsky would see each other at industry events and began socializing. While at Lauder, Gabai-Pinsky developed Wang’s skin-care and beauty line for Kohl’s, which no longer exists. (Coty has Wang’s fragrance license.)
Wang said she had been searching for an executive for a long time when she heard Gabai-Pinsky was available. “Given how we interact together and our history on many levels, it was just something that could be just great, so I went seriously after her, and it’s been a long courtship,” said Wang. She said she sought a partner who could not only help her manage the 25-year-old privately-held firm’s day-to-day operation but also spearhead the licensing business, which is the company’s bread and butter. Gabai-Pinsky’s international experience at Lauder helped clinch the deal.
Gabai-Pinsky initially started as a strategist for Wang, helping the designer figure out where the company was going and where Wang wanted to take it. Since Grauso left, Wang has been handling the business side of the company as well as the design operations.
“I’ve been running it, and it’s been very intense,” said Wang. “We have very deep licensing partnerships. We not only have them with retailers but also with wholesalers. It’s a quite complex model.”
Among the firm’s major licensees are Kohl’s, Signet, Men’s Wearhouse, Coty, FTD Group, Revman, Wedgwood, Kenmark, Crane and Levy Group. “It takes a lot of supervision, needless to say. Any of the other initiatives we are thinking of, or planning, I certainly need a partner for that,” said Wang.
Two of the big initiatives right now are cultivating its major jewelry license with Signet and exploring an e-commerce site. Wang has a Web site, but has yet to enter e-commerce. She has sold her ready-to-wear on other companies’ sites, including Net-a-porter, Farfetch and Neiman Marcus.
Gabai-Pinsky said what influenced her to leave the beauty industry to work for a fashion designer was the Vera Wang brand itself. Through Wang’s experience as a bridal designer, the designer has created a strong emotional bond with the consumer, explained Gabai-Pinsky. “You do not go after your wedding gown like you do with another T-shirt. The connection with the consumer is very special and is very deep and it has allowed Vera to build a very solid connection with consumers,” she said.
Further, she said, “The reason I decided to shift after 25 years in the beauty business is I thought it was necessary to take the next step in this brand-building exercise. I call myself a brand-builder. This is the most important thing in my career so far. In today’s world, with the advent of the digital space we’re living in and the immediacy of communication and transaction, if you own your equity and if you own the connection with the consumer, you have a greater chance to build success and grow a business.”
Gabai-Pinsky equated bridal to “couture” at Wang. “When you look at the factories that Vera owns, the quality of the skill, know-how and craftsmanship is actually stunning. I’m French, so I can speak a little bit about this, but I’ve never seen anything like this in the U.S.” she said, referring to Wang’s factories in Ohio and Florida.
Wang admitted that her ready-to-wear collection “is small” and is sold only at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, as well as her freestanding boutiques. “It’s really been a way for me to express who I really am,” said the designer. “I do in bridal, certainly, but there’s always a mix of protocol in bridal, and it’s very much reflective of the bride. Even though I like to shake it up all the time, I do keep the bride in mind. And that bride is ever-changing. It’s an incredible phenomenon. When I began, it [the wedding] was extremely traditional and conservative. There were certain ways of getting married. And that has so changed over the last quarter century. It’s a lot about experience, it isn’t only based on a formal dinner dance. It’s not in a church any longer or a religious ceremony. It’s just a very new paradigm.
“Ready-to-wear is totally different. Ready-to-wear is about me. It’s about what I want to wear and how I want to dress,” continued Wang. “As is Kohl’s, in a strange way. Neither of which have anything to do with bridal. At Kohl’s we have a fairly good business, it reflects my leggings mentality, my T-shirt mentality, my love of a great top and how I layer things together. Even the dresses I have there are easy and lifestyle-driven.”
Areas of growth for Wang are “across categories, geographies and through the digital space,” said Gabai-Pinsky. She is interested in expanding Wang’s wedding business in other countries where the business models are different. In many countries in Asia, for example, the bridal gown is part of a bridal package.
“These are very different customs than what exists in America. These are areas we do foresee getting very involved in Asia. The business in Asia is not enormous, but the awareness of the brand is quite amazing,” said Gabai-Pinsky.
Globally, Wang has 21 freestanding stores. The ones in the U.S. are directly owned by the company, and the others are with partners. At present, there are four freestanding stores in the U.S. — in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. “The next market for us is Miami,” said Wang.
What Wang found especially appealing about Gabai-Pinsky was her experience working with brands at Lauder. “You’ve got Donna and you have Michael and you have Tory. I think she understands designers and she understands branding. That appreciation was key for me. And the respect for the designer, the house and the message,” said Wang.
“I can bring an element of strategy and structure and organization and with Vera lead the brand to the next level of expansion,” said Gabai-Pinsky.