WHEN COMPANIES MERGE, THERE’S A FINELY TUNED DANCE OF GIVE AND TAKE.

When it comes to hands-on management, how much is too much? And how about fixing those things that aren’t broken?

Sometimes, in the mergers-and-acquisitions game, acquirers will do anything to create major media buzz and lure new clients. But they have to walk a fine line between coddling old customers with familiar, comfortable ways and fattening the bottom line with strategies to raise brand awareness, like opening freestanding shops, revising the ad campaign and creating lines that are sexy and commercial. Especially in wavering economies, striking the right balance seems to be easier said than done.

The recent spate of acquisitions — Gucci scooping up Sergio Rossi and Bottega Veneta, LVMH taking over Pucci, Prada buying Jil Sander, for example — has left family businesses in the hands of giant conglomerates. Sometimes, the marriage and the tinkering works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Milan-based financial analyst Carlo Pambianco is a firm believer that as much as possible, the big groups must safeguard the identity of the brands they acquire by making the necessary corrections without getting carried away.

“If you buy Valentino, you obviously have to rejuvenate the line, but if you buy Pucci, you make different choices,” he said. “Unfortunately, these big groups don’t always know how to maintain the right balance. By the same token, it’s true that the consumer is psychologically influenced by a [well-publicized] takeover; she automatically expects some kind of change.”

Catherine Vautrin, who took the ceo reins at Pucci after the LVMH acquisition, said that while there is no real recipe for takeovers, it’s usually important to favor coherence over arrogance, and that it’s vital to listen and to understand what the brand is about so that it can do the talking later.

The marriage between Pucci and LVMH seems to be a happy one.

“There is total respect for my father’s work and for his legacy, and I’m thankful that I’m a voice they listen to,” said image director Laudomia Pucci, the daughter of Emilio Pucci. “By myself, I wouldn’t have stood a chance in bringing the company forward because I didn’t have the resources.”

Julio Espada designs the Pucci collections. When laying out her restructuring plans, Vautrin compared Pucci to Sleeping Beauty.

“The brand simply needed to be awakened and enter the modern age. It’s not a question of changing it drastically, because Pucci has a very precise identity that is based on sexy glamour,” said Vautrin.

Pucci added that it takes time for a brand to branch out in new directions, such as communications, retail, design and new lines.

“Rome wasn’t built in a day, and there’s so much to explore in everything, from store concepts to furniture designed with Cappellini,” said Pucci.

The benefit has been positive retail feedback. “Pucci targets a refined clientele that understands jersey and prints. The total look is taboo, but the printed leather, the silk blouses and the twinsets perform very well,” said Giovanni Scialpi, image director at the Ratti store in Pesaro. “LVMH has definitely raised brand awareness with the new boutiques and the ad campaigns.”

According to Giovanni Stella, chief executive at Antichi Pellettieri, a sub-holding of Mariella Burani Fashion Group, when buying a company, the acquirer must never forget a priceless asset: the people that work there.

“They are part of the company’s history, and it’s not so simple to replace them with your managers. Also, if the structure becomes too bureaucratic, you lose human contact and speed,” said Stella.

Antichi Pellettieri recently bought stakes in handbag maker Braccialini and footwear house Baldinini, and Stella said that there is great determination shared by families that still run these companies and their new partners to expand them.

“In the next three years, we plan to open directly owned shops in Europe that will carry all our lines,” added Stella.

Matters get decidedly more complicated, though, if suddenly a designer the caliber of Jil Sander says auf wiedershen. It was clear from the start that replacing Sander, a woman who elevated minimalism to new levels with her sense of cut and proportion and whose relentless fabric research always gave the clothes an effortless edge, was going to give Prada chief Patrizio Bertelli big headaches. In January 2000, just a year after Sander was acquired, the two endured a well-publicized split. At first, Bertelli downplayed the importance of a single creative force behind a brand, only to change his mind that November when he handed the creative reins to Milan Vukmirovic, who was previously art director and buyer for the trendy Colette boutique in Paris.

Evidently, Vukmirovic believes that you can’t go wrong packing collections with commercial clout. A Prada spokeswoman said, “In many ways, we view the fact that people are saying Jil Sander is more commercial as a success, because it means that the collection is selling. Milan is the creative director for the brand, which means that he oversees the same design team that worked under Jil Sander and that carries on the same tradition of fabric research. Milan has given the collection-his imprint, and it simply appeals to a different customer.”

But fashion retailers have a different point of view. Giuse Battaglia, owner of a high-end specialty store in Vigevano, said that she stopped carrying Jil Sander when the house kept the high prices sans the distinguishable creativity.

“At that point, I buy Prada because it sells itself,” she said. “[With Vukmirovic], Jil Sander lacked the same creative spark and fabric research that made people make the effort to buy it.”

According to Serena Fernanda, an owner of Reil, an avant-garde boutique in Brescia that carries Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Junya Watanabe and Costume National, believes that Jil Sander is currently in a transition. “The collection is still seeking its identity,” noted Fernanda. “Before, our customers had no problem paying its high prices because they felt they were rewarded by the incredible research that went into the fabrics. But now, it’s too similar to Prada.”

Similiarly, it would seem, Sergio Rossi has lost some of its identity after being gobbled by Gucci Group. Technically, Sergio Rossi continues to be the creative director but according to some close clients, the designer doesn’t have total control over the collections anymore.

Most interviewees said the collections were less versatile, more expensive and too fashion-forward — in short, “more Gucci-ized.” And some vented that Gucci bought Rossi to exploit its know-how and factories.

“Rossi is the artisan of footwear par excellence. Just by looking at a pump, he can tell whether it will fit right. He’s the kind of guy to throw out an entire collection if it garnered negative feedback at a trade fair,” said Roberto Vergelio, whose high-end footwear chain, called Vergelio, carried the line until the Gucci takeover. “Globalization leads to worse quality, in all aspects of life, and when you’re part of a bigger group, you must think in different terms, because everything is planned way ahead of the time.”

“Sergio Rossi is looking like anybody else. It’s not as feminine as it used to be,” said Suzanne Ward, a client who said that for 15 years she has splurged on Rossi. Another longtime customer and a fan of Sergio Rossi’s evening styles, Ludovica Purini, said that she now has a harder time finding something that stands out. “What I always loved about him is that I would find an unusual color that had nothing to do with the season’s trends, whereas now, the collections are much less variegated.”

Other retailers, however, say they are happy with the way the collections are selling. For You, based in San Benedetto del Tronto, has been carrying Sergio Rossi for 20 years, and owner Valeria Massi concedes that while Gucci’s imprint is evident, she feels that the shoes are trendier and reflect the fashion fads. “Shoes today make a look, but a lot of houses haven’t renewed the right way,” said Massi. “Trust me, Sergio Rossi offers a great assortment in terms of colors, leathers and the heights and shapes of the heels.” Retailers and clients instead have largely praised Gucci’s strategy with Bottega Veneta. Gucci creative director Tom Ford installed Tomas Maier to bring the venerable house back to its roots. Word has it that the artisans who for years worked in the company’s Vicenza headquarters are loving Tomas Maier for letting them do what they do so well: labor-intensive bags made with woven leather strips.

“Bottega Veneta’s quality is the best,” said fashion consultant Paolina Landon. “I’ve been buying their bags for decades, and I constantly batter them around, but they’re indestructible. I’m excited that they’re going back to their roots, because I had stopped buying them. The high prices didn’t justify the fashion-forward product it had turned into lately.”

Lorenza Betti, owner of Spinnaker, a tony boutique in Alassio, praised the line’s sexy elegance.

“I’ve been carrying it for 20 years, and when the Moltedo family [the previous owners] decided to go modern, they lost touch with the nature of the product,” said Betti, referring to the prints and graffiti logos that decorated the bags until a few seasons ago. “Now, Bottega Veneta is about luxury for women that really don’t need to show off.”

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