The departure of Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole from Gucci Group will be a watershed moment for the luxury goods industry, one that portends a giant shift in the dynamics of global branding, designers for hire and rebuilding a historic label — all of which are concepts Ford and De Sole either invented or perfected.
This story first appeared in the November 5, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Many corners of the fashion world were shocked by the development on Tuesday, even though there had been signs of a potential fissure in the Gucci world coming for months, as the team of designer and executive had clearly stated they would leave if their terms were not met. Still, their ultimate decision to walk away from the famed house became a central point of discussion among designers, editors and retailers all attempting to gauge the repercussions of their departure.
“It’s shocking,” said Anna Sui. “I’m surprised because they have taken branding to a whole new level. They’ve set a new precedence for that type of business.”
The reactions ranged from disbelief to comic relief. (“Does that mean there’s a job opening?” asked Cynthia Rowley.) But an underlying concern in the industry is that their leaving will have a monumental impact on business, as the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche brands have become closely intertwined with the personnas of Ford and De Sole. If Gucci Group isn’t able to replace them with a stellar lineup, a downturn for the company’s core brand could have a ripple effect on its emerging designers, like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney, which could in turn impact Gucci’s magazine advertising and retail business.
Retailers were particularly upset about the Gucci departures and concerned about the potential impact on business.
“This turn of events is terrible,” said Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “My one hope is that this is not complete and final, even though they say it is. I hope they open the door and negotiate. They have till April next year. If enough people petition, they could. It would be a dreadful mistake not to give them what they want and keep them in place. With the last two collections, Tom has got Gucci in line and YSL is picking up.”
Kaner also wondered how Ford’s departure would affect other Gucci Group designers, particularly McQueen and McCartney. As creative director, “Tom was a benevolent leader, gave them guidance and was not dictatorial. They were blossoming and coming into their own. It’s like throwing a pebble into the pond and watching the ripples go out to shore.”
Gucci must move fast to come up with a new team, stressed Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s.
“They need to know what they are doing by January,” Ruttenstein said. “You can have all the financial and managerial skills in the world, but design talent is the most important element. Look what happened at Jil Sander. She left the company for two years and the company tried to make it work without her, but the collection floundered. If the talent isn’t there, there’s a problem. Tom is a brilliant talent. There are some great designers around, but it won’t be easy to replace him. Tom and Domenico, they’re a dynamic duo, like Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz were 20 years ago.”
“Change always makes a difference,” added Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Saks Fifth Avenue. “You can not get away from that.”
Still, some stores and designers were not convinced that the sky was falling with the news. Many designers expected that if Ford and De Sole were to create their own business, it would be a smash hit, although there are prevailing rumors that Ford is in discussions to work on a film project in Hollywood, hoping to leave fashion behind for the time being. Sui pointed out that while Ford did a fantastic job in building Gucci, he is not irreplaceable.
“It wasn’t just Tom Ford, he took on other peoples’ personalities, too,” she said. “He took on Gucci’s personality and he took on Yves Saint Laurent’s personality. Someone else could do that, but you’d have to find somebody as dynamic as him.”
“I’m not really surprised,” added Daryl Kerrigan. “Nothing would surprise me anymore. If you’re Tom Ford and as big a name as he is, why would you want anyone to tell you what to do? The thing we all want the most to do as designers is to be ourselves. People who are true fashion designers and love to be a fashion designer will always be that, but people in general pretty much think of fashion as a superficial and flighty business that is crazy and changeable. I don’t think people will think any differently of Gucci than they normally do.”
However, there will likely be some impact on sales, retailers agreed.
“I think that initially, no, because there will be a small sector aware of their departure, but in the long term, absolutely,” said Jeffrey Kalinsky, owner of the Jeffrey stores in New York and Atlanta.
As for whether the brand is tied up in Ford, the response is universal.
“I just don’t know that there are as many people in the industry as smart as Tom Ford or that there are as many good couplings out there as Domenico and Tom,” said Kalinsky. “You just can’t replace that kind of talent very easily.
“When Tom Ford entered the picture at Gucci, it was a dead-in-the-water brand and he revived it in a way that has never been done before, that I know of, in the history of fashion. Whatever Tom Ford does, I want to be at the front of the line to be a part of it.”
“Tom Ford is Gucci,” said Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director at Barneys New York. “Gucci wasn’t the Gucci it is without Tom Ford. He made how we look at Gucci and define Gucci today, and it’s very much the same with YSL. So without him that will change significantly.”
The impact on Gucci’s long-term stock forecast, however, is tougher to gauge. Dana L. Telsey, a Bear Stearns analyst, said, “It’s a loss for Gucci to lose those talents. There is a limit and certainly a dearth of talent at the creative design level. Now, we’ll have to see if other designers leave because they had been working with Tom Ford and want to go work with him on another venture, or do some of them want to stay to see if they can grow their own brand name.”
Bergdorf Goodman, supporting Gucci’s prospects, was standing behind the brand on Tuesday.
“We are appreciative of the great run we had with Tom and Domenico,” said Ron Frasch, chairman and chief executive officer. “They are an amazingly unique team. They came together at the right point in their careers, grew together, maintained a singular vision and executed extraordinarily. But it was more than two people who made this happen. Tom attracted great creative talent and Domenico has a strong senior management team supporting him. It’s not like Gucci is going to fall off the table.”
The Neiman Marcus Group, which includes the Neiman’s chain and Bergdorf Goodman, is believed to be the single largest account for Gucci Group. Burt Tansky, chairman and ceo of the Neiman Marcus Group, said: “We are sorry to see this happen, but we wish them well. We’re anxious about the future with the Gucci Group and we are certain there will be a future. A substantial amount of our volume and profit comes from our business with the Gucci Group.”
Despite that prediction, there are many designers who recognized the historic difficulties of meshing a creative vision with a business plan. At Gucci, they were the shining example of a business that put a premium on creative freedom, yet exercised the financial discipline to make that dream successful.
Richard Lambertson, who was design director at Gucci from 1990 to 1993 and hired Ford as women’s ready-to-wear designer, said he was not surprised by the news. Lambertson launched his accessories line Lambertson Truex in 1998.
“Both Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole did an incredible job and I don’t blame them,” he said. “If they were not able to agree on the terms, they have every right to move on. I’m sure they’ll have success whatever they decide to do. If I were Tom, I would take a long vacation and just see what to do. Tom is extremely focused, he sets goals for himself and achieves them.”
Cathy Hardwick, who gave Ford his first job in her signature firm more than 20 years ago, said, “I’m sure he made the right decision. It’s always terrible to make a change when that combination was working so fabulously, and I’m sorry he won’t stay because I won’t be able to wear his clothes anymore.”
Speculation on the designers’ next move became pretty much a guessing game following the announcement, with some observers expecting they would team up to open a Tom Ford collection, and others wondering if Ford’s long-held ambitions of a career in Hollywood would lead him to pursue film projects.
“Those two are so talented,” said Donatella Versace, whose company was at one point rumored to be a destination for Ford and De Sole should they leave Gucci. Those rumors have since died down and Versace has adamantly denied they would become involved in the collection.
“I’m sure lightening will strike twice,” she said. “Domenico and Tom’s contributions not only to Gucci Group but to the fashion industry as a whole are unprecedented. Whatever they decide to do in the future, their incredible talent and business acumen will undoubtedly lead them to another success.”
“I praise both Mr. De Sole and Mr. Ford for the excellent results obtained during their time at Gucci,” echoed Miuccia Prada, designer of the Milan-based fashion house. “I am certain that both of them will enjoy the same continued success in their future professional endeavors.”
In any event, many designers said they would like to see Ford and De Sole return to America.
“Tom did amazing things for Gucci, so I’m excited to see what he does next,” said Elie Tahari. “I hope we can get him back on American soil.”
“It’s probably two sides playing hardball and calling the other’s bluff,” added Nicole Miller. “I’m sure Tom and Domenico will resurface someplace else and do just fine, so I wouldn’t worry about them, but it would be seriously difficult to find a replacement at Gucci Group. I don’t think they are as dependent on Gucci Group as Gucci Group is on them.”
Their loss “takes out a good celebrity quotient in the fashion business,” pointed out James Purcell. “What is said is that Tom and Domenico proved what can be accomplished when a businessman and a designer get together and understand each other. That’s something that is lacking considerably in the fashion business. Who’s going to go to YSL now? Alber Elbaz? And who would be good at Gucci? They should look up who’s designing Tom of Finland.”
Giambattista Valli, creative director at Emanuel Ungaro, said Ford’s departure signaled a change in fashion.
“It’s the beginning of a new era,” he said. “They created a system that typified the Nineties, but perhaps that system had outrun its course. Maybe we’re going back to a true style, with creativity and research. Something that has to do more about the attitude of a garment. They’re success was based on image and marketing. It was perfect for the times and the Nineties were all about pumping old themes for the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. Ford did that so well. Saint Laurent was more difficult and he didn’t seem to capture the dream that the name held. I think that they could still do fantastic things together. Something like Halston would be perfect.”
From the editorial perspective, several magazines were having difficulty digesting the news that Ford would be leaving Gucci.
Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, cited Ford’s charisma and star power, as well as his ability to seek out and nurture new talent as instrumental in the growth of Gucci Group.
“I have no idea what the Gucci Group’s plans are,” Wintour said. “I know that Tom will be there through the next collection, what happens after that? They must have a game plan and they must have thought this through. Perhaps they’ll take it in a different direction. I don’t know. Tom took a brand that was virtually nonexistent and he totally reinvented it and gave it the sex appeal that he’s so good at. He’s an extraordinary talent.
“There are other extremely talented designers out there, but he not only had the design talent, he had the business acumen and a real sense of marketing about fashion. A lot of designers need that other half. As well as being such a glamourous figurehead, he had real savvy. Those are hard to replace.”
“He made it strong, he made it sexy and he made it bold,” added Elizabeth Saltzman, fashion director of Vanity Fair. “It’s a tragedy not for Tom Ford so much as his partners. It’s tragic for all the people he was inspiring. It’s tragic to everyone involved. He gave the company a face, an identity and a spirit.”
Glenda Bailey, editor in chief of Harper’s Bazaar, was less inclined to believe Ford will start his own label, noting his strength in reviving an existing label. She, too, was concerned about the impact of their departure on those designers Ford convinced to join the Gucci fray.
“Tom and Domenico are incredibly seductive people, so obviously, they have created incredibly talented and loyal teams,” Bailey said. “Of course, someone who participated with them in making the Gucci Group so successful must have divided loyalties right now.”