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PARIS — PPR’s offensive has begun.

In a conference call Thursday, Serge Weinberg, chief executive of Gucci Group’s majority owner Pinault-Printemps-Redoute, defended the company’s decision to replace Tom Ford with three designers at Gucci and one at Yves Saint Laurent. It’s a move that has ignited a debate throughout the fashion industry that is bound to reverberate for seasons to come and that could, if it succeeds, change the luxury model popularized throughout the Nineties.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As expected, PPR on Thursday named Alessandra Facchinetti, John Ray and Frida Giannini to succeed Ford at the creative helm of Gucci, responsible for women’s wear, men’s wear and accessories, respectively. Meanwhile, Yves Saint Laurent named Stefano Pilati, Ford’s number-two at the French house for the past four years, its creative director, responsible for all product categories.

“We feel very comfortable with the decisions we have made,” Weinberg said in a conference call. “We are proud of their appointments and we are sure they will receive the critical acclaim that their talent deserves.”

In fact, Weinberg revealed that the search for Ford’s successors — rumored to span such far-flung names as Narciso Rodriguez, Hedi Slimane, Viktor & Rolf and Marc Jacobs — was entirely an internal undertaking.

“No external candidates outside of Gucci Group were approached,” he said. “The search was not for big names, it was for talent.”

Weinberg acknowledged there had been discussions with Alexander McQueen — believed to center on the YSL post — but stopped short of saying the British designer, whose house is 51 percent owned by Gucci Group, was the top choice.

“We have been looking at different possibilities in theory, but really this was our best choice,” he said. “It was the best solution for all parties involved.”

It is believed PPR was advised in its search by Paris-based recruitment and consulting firm Floriane de Saint Pierre SA.

Citing “continuity and renewal” as the key themes in the design appointments, Weinberg reminded that another unsung design talent, Ford himself, was unknown when he was elevated to the top slot at Gucci.

“I don’t think this debate between known designers and unknown designers is a valid one,” he said, assuring that the four unknown talents “will bring something new to the world of fashion. We are convinced that they have the creativity and the design talent to become the stars of tomorrow.”

During a question-and-answer period, Weinberg and Giacomo Santucci, president and ceo of Gucci, were peppered with questions relating to keeping Gucci’s unified image with a trio of designers. Leading the charge of detractors was Claire Kent, chief luxury analyst at Morgan Stanley, who titled her report, co-authored by retail analyst Rebecca Davis, “Is Three a Crowd?” It blasts PPR for failing to “put its neck on the line” and hire one creative leader.

“There are few highly successful brands in the world of fashion where there is not an overall creative director, and this multiple director strategy is antithetical to the very one that made Gucci highly successful, namely a single brand vision, which encompassed everything from the company’s business cards to the product,” the report said. It continued by saying that Pilati’s appointment at YSL seemed “illogical” because “PPR has been publicly critical of Ford’s repositioning at YSL.”

But others said elevating internal designers ensures continuity at Gucci and YSL.

“It’s probably the best solution as far as I’m concerned and I don’t expect to see major changes in direction,” said Sagra Maceira de Rosen, analyst at J.P. Morgan in London. “These are people who know the brands and who any other brand would be lucky to have. It is risky, but it would have been just as risky bringing in a Marc Jacobs, a [John] Galliano or an Alexander McQueen, any designer with an already distinct point of view. The advantage is these people already know their brands.”

Commenting on the foursome, Ford praised them as “very talented designers. I hired each of them and have tremendous faith in their abilities. I wish them the best of luck in their new roles.”

Santucci argued that three designers, each dedicated to a single product category, were needed to ensure continued growth at Gucci, whose volume is already in excess of $1.86 billion (converted from 1.5 billion euros at current exchange). “The leadership of the brand is given by the brand itself,” he said. “It took us a long time to build the Gucci essence, which consists of Italian craftsmanship, glamour and sexiness. These three designers helped fuel the success and define Gucci’s essence.”

Asked if it was a risky strategy, Santucci replied: “We view this new model as an opportunity and the only way to raise Gucci to the next level.”

Also, it is understood that Santucci will have the last word on product and creative issues at Gucci, much like ceo’s at brands such as Hermès, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton, which employ a variety of designers for different product categories.

Weinberg also stressed that designers and ceo’s at the respective brands, freed of the constraints of Ford’s group creative director position, “are now fully responsible for everything inside their houses, and this is a major change.”

He and Santucci also noted Facchinetti, Ray and Pilati would work closely with their respective fragrance and beauty partners to create new fragrances and ensure brand coherence.

Weinberg was also pressed by journalists and analysts to clarify recent statements in the press, particularly his controversial quote in The Wall Street Journal Europe that “no one talks about Miuccia Prada. No one knows it’s she who designs the brand.”

He retorted by saying that he was referring to how magazines credit simply Prada and not Tom Ford for Gucci or Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent. “I’m certainly ignorant about fashion and luxury, but not to the extent of not knowing about Miuccia Prada,” he quipped.

The loss-making YSL business also dominated the conference call.

Mark Lee, president and ceo of YSL, declined to map out a specific plan or time frame for stemming losses, but said the network of 59 company-owned stores would be retained, with the priority being to “aggressively” increase sales, especially in rtw.

Acknowledging the brand was focused on late day and evening clothes under Ford’s creative direction, Lee said Pilati would expand the brand into “core day clothes” and the casual category.

In an interview with WWD, Lee also revealed that Pilati “was absolutely my first choice and I was definitely involved in the search since Day One.”

While praising Ford for “brilliantly” repositioning the brand, he stressed that “now [Pilati] has been freed to express his own personal vision.” Pilati’s first solo efforts will be the cruise and men’s collections in June, but the official international debut will be the spring 2005 women’s YSL collection, to be shown in October during Paris Fashion Week.

Thursday’s announcements did not include Domenico De Sole’s replacement. Weinberg said only to expect an announcement before the expiration of the ceo’s contract at the end of April. He said that the search process was in an “advanced” stage and that the choice of candidates had been narrowed.

Weinberg underscored the significance of the future chief’s personality. “It’s not only about his talent or achievements, but he must have a personality that works with the group chemistry. This is not a traditional management position.”

Weinberg reiterated he does not intend to run Gucci’s daily business.

Gucci Group declined all comment on the duration of the designers’ contracts, and whether stock options were granted.

Facchinetti, design director of women’s rtw for the past four years, will become creative director of Gucci women’s wear. Ray, an eight-year veteran of the men’s wear department, was named creative director of men’s wear. Gucci said the pair will be responsible for the development of their respective collections, including seasonal runway shows in Milan, and ad campaigns, in tandem with Gucci’s internal image department.

Giannini, who joined Gucci two years ago as design director of leather goods, was named creative director of accessories, spanning leather goods, shoes, jewelry, gifts, timepieces and eyewear.

Gucci said Giannini would “support” Facchinetti and Ray to develop accessories for their respective runway collections and develop new accessory categories for the house. The trio of Gucci designers reports to Santucci.

As reported, Milan-born Pilati had a five-year career at Prada Group before joining YSL in March 2000. An internship at Cerruti while he was studying environmental design in Milan in the early Eighties cemented his interest in fashion. He would go on to work at an Italian velvet company before joining Armani in 1993 as a men’s wear assistant and Prada Group in 1995, initially in the fabric research and development department.

Meanwhile, it looks like Pilati’s appointment has received an early blessing from Yves Saint Laurent himself and former YSL couture boss Pierre Bergé, who were critical of Ford’s era at the house.

Bergé told WWD that François-Henri Pinault and Weinberg informed him and Yves Saint Laurent that Pilati would replace Ford.

“Pilati came to see us three days ago,” Bergé said. “I showed him around the [new YSL museum and foundation] and gave him a visit of the exhibition. I repeated to Pilati what I said to Ford in the beginning — that all of this is at his disposal. I also presented him to Yves, who is very happy with the choice. He thinks that it’s better to [elevate] someone who is unknown than to bring in a [marquee name].”

Bergé said he believes Pilati has what it takes to “capture the spirit of Yves Saint Laurent. It’s not a question of copying what Saint Laurent did, but it’s about capturing the essence and culture of Yves Saint Laurent. Then he needs to modernize that, bring it into the 21st century, not to destroy everything, which is what Tom Ford did. Pilati needs to modernize it, that’s all. I think that Pilati will be able to repair the damage that’s been done to the YSL culture and to reestablish the dialogue with the YSL customer.”

Pilati could not be reached for comment. In a statement he called the appointment “a dream for any fashion designer” and he vowed to maintain a “deep respect” for the legendary couturier’s heritage.

“When I first fell in love with fashion, it was obvious that Mr. Saint Laurent was the master, because he brought a couturier’s sensibility to prêt-à-porter — while making it completely acceptable,” he said.

PPR stock declined 1.3 percent to close at $103.93 (83.80 euros) in trading on the Paris Bourse, as the CAC 40 index of French industrial companies fell 2.97 percent.

— WWD Staff

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