Byline: Miles Socha

PARIS — Gucci Group is closing in on a deal to launch a Stella McCartney fashion house.
Sources said Tuesday McCartney signed a letter of intent with the luxury group that will pave the way for a network of stores and a signature fragrance for the 29-year-old, currently the designer of Paris-based Chloe. An announcement could come as early as Friday.
Gucci declined to comment. McCartney could not be reached for comment. Ralph Toledano, president of Chloe, who has endured speculation of a McCartney departure for almost two years, said only that it was “business as usual” at Chloe on Tuesday.
WWD first reported that McCartney was in talks with Gucci on Feb. 28, when she was still considered a front-runner for the designer slot at Givenchy. LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, parent of Givenchy, subsequently named Julien Macdonald its latest couturier, succeeding Alexander McQueen, who sold a 51 percent stake in his own fashion house to Gucci.
But media speculation that a Gucci-McCartney deal is imminent has reached a fevered pitch in Europe, with many London newspapers flagging the story on the front page last weekend.
“It’s a good deal for Stella and it’s a good deal for Gucci,” said one source familiar with the negotiations. “They could probably get up to $50 million very quickly.”
Sales at Chloe are said to have increased dramatically since she took over the label from Karl Lagerfeld in 1997. At present, the collection is sold in about 270 doors worldwide. Market sources estimate that it generated wholesale volume of more than $35 million last year.
Leveraging McCartney’s rock ‘n’ roll reputation and youth appeal, Chloe recently introduced a licensed secondary line called See by Chloe that will reach retail this fall. It’s also introducing a handbag collection and has its sights set on lingerie, footwear and a new perfume.
But, as reported, McCartney is said to have frustrations with the management at Chloe parent Compagnie Richemont Financiere, whose core expertise is in watches and jewelry, not fashion. Her design contract with the group, renewed last spring, is believed to expire soon.
The daughter of billionaire rock legend Paul McCartney and a celebrity in her own right, with glittering friends like Madonna, McCartney has been reluctant to give up control over her famous name, sources said. Still, McCartney is said to have been attracted to Gucci’s ability to aggressively and energetically build up a brand, while leaving her free to concentrate on design.
It is expected that Gucci will hold 51 percent of the equity of the new venture, while McCartney will maintain certain control rights, thus avoiding a Jil Sander -Prada Group situation, in which Sander left the company — and her name — after the partnership with Prada didn’t work out.
Sources said the McCartney deal calls for Gucci to roll out at least five stores under the Stella McCartney banner within the first year of their association.
It is unclear if McCartney’s longtime design assistant, Phoebe Philo, would follow McCartney to Gucci Group. Sources indicated she could possibly succeed McCartney at the helm of Chloe, or the house could recruit another designer.
Meanwhile, McCartney isn’t the only hot designer expected to join the Gucci stable. As reported first in these columns Jan. 19, Gucci has been in pursuit of French house Balenciaga and Nicolas Ghesquiere, the designer credited with Balenciaga’s rejuvenation. An announcement is expected in the next 10 days, according to sources.
Over the past 18 months, Gucci has been aggressively building its cachet of fashion brands to compete with arch rival LVMH, most recently announcing majority acquisitions of McQueen and Bottega Veneta to add to a stable that includes Yves Saint Laurent, Sergio Rossi, Boucheron, Roger & Gallet and Bedat & Co.