Domenico De Sole first brushed with the Gucci family in the early Eighties, when he became Rodolfo Gucci’s lawyer and broke up a fistfight in a board meeting. Little did De Sole know it was just the beginning of the drama he would witness at the House of Gucci.
Taking on the post of Gucci America chairman and chief executive in 1984 and ascending to the entire group’s helm 11 years later, De Sole did no less than guide the company to a blockbuster initial public offering, spearhead an ambitious acquisition drive and thwart a hostile takeover attempt from LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton in one of fashion’s nastiest battles.
But even though the 62-year-old De Sole earned a reputation as a fierce businessman proud of his Calabrian heritage — he’s reminded people on more than one occasion that people “eat nails for breakfast” in his family’s home region — perhaps his most lasting legacy at Gucci was his ability to relate to everyone, from factory workers to key managers he hired at Gucci Group, many of whom still correspond with him today.
“I got a beautiful letter from Patrizio Di Marco [ceo of Bottega Veneta] thanking me for everything now that Bottega Veneta has become so unbelievably successful, thanking myself and Tom [Ford] for the help we gave him to get the company started,” De Sole said in a phone interview from his offices in South Carolina, just hours before flying to Italy for a weekend to take in Ermenegildo Zegna’s annual regatta in Portofino. “There’s a great bond that was created with these people and I really cherish those memories.”
Di Marco said he e-mailed De Sole earlier this year to express his gratitude and “appreciation for the faith that he and Tom [Ford] had in the brand” during the first years of Bottega Veneta’s relaunch.
Gianfranco Ferré ceo Massimo Macchi, who managed Gucci’s watch and jewelry divisions from 2001 to 2003, recalls how De Sole’s tenacious spirit spilled over on the slopes of Aspen, where De Sole used to host an annual retreat for Gucci managers.
“You couldn’t even get him to stop for a sandwich because he wanted to make the most of every hour left in the day to ski,” Macchi said.
De Sole’s ambitious drive and academic achievement — he holds law degrees from both the University of Rome and Harvard University — were impressive, but they couldn’t possibly foretell his rise to become one of the fashion industry’s most powerful and charismatic executives. Nor could anyone have predicted his symbiosis with a Texas-born designer named Tom Ford.
“I really liked him. I thought that he was rational. I was very impressed with him as a human being, as a thinker,” De Sole said, recalling his first contacts with Ford, who worked his way up the house’s design hierarchy in the early Nineties at Gucci under Maurizio Gucci and Dawn Mello.
The De Sole-Ford partnership endured numerous highs and lows over the nine-year period in which they led the company, from summer 1994 when the pair was meeting with suppliers in the hills of Florence to LVMH’s attempted takeover of Gucci, a battle that raged, in and out of the courtroom, for two years.
“I used to go down to Tom’s office every day and just brief him about what was going on. He gave me a lot of encouragement,” De Sole said. “I could not have done it without him. I think the fact that we fought united was very, very important in the end.”
Further testimony to the strength of their relationship is the fact that the two men united in their contract negotiations with PPR, as the French giant known at the time as Pinault Printemps Redoute prepared to buy out all of Gucci’s shares and take full control. De Sole and Ford, concerned with maintaining their managerial and creative autonomy at Gucci, didn’t manage to strike a deal with PPR and left in April 2004. De Sole, who is reluctant to discuss the outcome in detail, said: “We parted company in a very civilized way.”
Eleanore De Sole, Domenico’s wife of 31 years, said that post-Gucci she saw the stress eventually evaporate from her husband’s life and a newfound restlessness set in. It didn’t help that the couple had temporarily relocated to Aspen as they waited for workers to finish their new home in Hilton Head, S.C.
“It was May 1 and he said: ‘I need to step back.’ We went back to the States and he just did nothing, and it didn’t sit very well [with him],” she said.
That changed quickly. In August 2004, Ford called De Sole and the two started laying plans to launch a Tom Ford brand. “That was the point in time when Domenico started to kind of put a smile back on his face,” Eleanore said of the venture, which has so far launched eyewear and cosmetics. Men’s wear, produced by Zegna, will bow in November.
Meanwhile, De Sole has taken board seats at Zegna, Telecom Italia and the Gap, keeping him active on both the Italian and American business landscapes. He’s also guiding his two daughters’ budding fashion careers. Laura works for Luxottica retail in Cincinnati, while recent college graduate Rickie is interning at Vanity Fair.
“I had this dream — and it must have been a dream,” said a wistful Eleanore, “that Domenico could actually retire.”