LONDON — It’s a pivotal year for Alexander McQueen, which plans to open a store at 27 Old Bond Street that, at nearly 11,000 square feet, will be four times bigger than the old one just a few yards away. It will also showcase a new and more modern concept, conceived by the house’s long-standing creative director Sarah Burton.
The store is just one marker of the strategy laid down by the company’s chief executive officer, Emmanuel Gintzburger, who joined McQueen in 2016 from Yves Saint Laurent, where he was worldwide retail and wholesale director. Kering, which has owned McQueen outright since the death of founder Lee Alexander McQueen in 2010, tasked Gintzburger with pursuing the brand’s global expansion and accelerating its organic growth — and that’s just what he’s been working on, albeit under the radar.
Gintzburger had his work cut out from the start: In 2015, luxury analyst Rogerio Fujimori of RBC Capital Markets wrote in a research note that by expanding its retail footprint in Asia and growing its leather goods category, McQueen aimed to double in size and become a 500-million-euro brand in three to four years. The Canadian bank, which stands by that three-year-old report, also estimated that McQueen has the potential to reach an earnings before interest and taxes margin of 15 percent in the same time span. Kering does not disclose figures for the McQueen business, which is classified in its “Other Luxury Brands” category.
A graduate of EM Lyon Business School, Gintzburger has held positions in retail at Lanvin, Sephora France and Louis Vuitton’s Asia-Pacific branch. In his first major interview since joining McQueen as ceo, Gintzburger talked to WWD about his particular approach to business, the importance of breaking rules and why Burton remains the beating heart of the company.
WWD: Can you talk about your vision for the business?
Emmanuel Gintzburger: Everything starts with Sarah — she’s an intense force of creativity, she’s an absolute perfectionist who is brave enough to follow her instinct and never compromise. So, all being said, it’s how we translate her own values, or point of view, into the company culture, and the vision succeeds with the right level of execution, speed and consistency. What I want to avoid is to have on one side, the creative director, and on the other side, the business model: I want to merge the two and start from the heart of the company, and she is the heart of the company. Her studio is the heart of the company. Then, from there, spread out around the company and the team, the departments and then the customers. By having only one voice and making sure that the creative vision trickles down, the end result means that the customers or the people in the team will get the message. If you’re honest with your message then you have a voice that is relevant.
We had to start first by defining a very high business ambition to align it to the level of creative recognition. The creative strength and power has been here since day one. It’s just a matter of making sure that the business ambition is at the exact same level. This is a brand that tells stories, a brand that purely relies on the integrity of the expression of the collection, and does not follow or jump into trends. So, we do what is right for us, and we obviously do what is right from a retail standpoint.
WWD: How big would you like to see this business get? In the past, we’ve written that McQueen is aiming to become a 500 million euro brand by 2019.
E.G.: We don’t disclose numbers because that’s not the way the house functions within the group, but when you think about the magnitude and the strengths of the creativity within the house, the brand has huge potential. We are enjoying a strong growth in all channels and countries, which shows the power of integrity, and the house still has tremendous potential. The house is a true expression of a creative vision, and it works.
We had to adapt the organization of the company — it could be retail, HR, the supply chain — for a new phase of dynamic international development. What’s absolutely essential for us is to always start with the silhouette, and when I say silhouette, I’m not only referring to ready-to-wear, but also to other product categories, so it can be leather goods, shoes, jewelry, belts. What we have been doing is building a very strong engagement strategy, both internally and externally because it’s exactly the way the studio works.
Alexander McQueen is a true creative community, and we want to make sure that people can feel it, people such as our own employees, the team, partners and particularly customers. Whilst we grow, we want to make sure we have that agility and instinct and have this constant creative obsession for innovation, while still being honest and true and not just being innovative for the sake of being innovative.
WWD: Can you talk about your progress so far? What changes have you made to the way the business works?
E.G.: I think everything is about building an extraordinary team. What we have today is an absolute mix of people who have been here since Day One, and they are the ones guaranteeing the integrity and values of what we do, no matter what. We’re mixing that with new, strong talent coming from maybe larger corporations or companies, and that brings international expertise. What was also important, and that had to be done quite fast, was to re-engineer the supply chain. To be able to cope with growth in different categories or in different countries and channels, we had to build a very smart and agile supply chain, making sure that throughout the chain we have transparency, we have the capacity to react, and we have the capacity to test and learn and change and fix. That’s what’s important. The whole point of the supply chain is to make sure every single step of the chain is aligned, and there is transparency from the supplier to the store.
The second thing was to prepare and start executing a strong retail plan made of key locations, but also to look at new markets, new stores. We always start from the product point of view, and with the ready-to-wear, which is at our core. However, we also want to give enough space — and longevity — to each category that represents the house. It is important to make sure that we can nurture products through our different categories that purely embody the house and have strong, unique McQueen codes. That could be a peplum leather jacket, in a strictly McQueen shape. It could be a boot from the show that is mixed with a dress, the juxtaposition of a soft, hyper-feminine dress worn with a very hard boot. We are building codes through the categories. From a communication standpoint, we’ll invest further in our digital communication, particularly on social media. Social media, for us, is one way you can talk and engage directly, and honestly, with your own customers.
WWD: Can you talk more about what you’re doing with social media?
E.G.: Alexander McQueen is a creative community. We want people to feel part of that world, and to be able to identify visually through our social media, which expresses that community, that creativity — without formality. We’re very community-driven because it’s all about being dynamic, having a rhythm, but remaining very true to the house’s image and to Sarah’s vision — and it works. The engagement on this is really incredible, because it’s what [our followers] expect from the house, because it’s aligned with who we are, and they really want to be part of that world. I think what is key is to be who you are, and to not do things for a specific purpose, but because you feel that it’s right for you. So, we will never categorize people, or address a specific target or age group. It’s who we are, the collections are who we are, Sarah is the one who embodies that vision, and the whole communication expression, therefore, doesn’t change because of trends — and it works. I do believe that every single customer or person in fashion wants a true connection with the house, the journey has to be right.
WWD: How challenging has it been for you to transition to a ceo role from a global wholesale/retail one?
E.G.: Everything started with Sarah. I first met her in May of 2016, and it was an absolutely revealing and inspiring moment because her vision for the house is so clear. Building a strategy to support the vision is a very natural evolution. You don’t have any distance between the creative vision and the final execution. Sarah always starts from the show and, in the end, what we want our team and our stores to express is, literally, that story translated into a physical space. We are working, and Sarah is working, on a new creative concept for the stores that embodies that very unique and specific McQueen world, just to make sure we can take our customers through a journey by translating the stories behind the shows through the physical store. This is why we are relocating key stores in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Dubai, London for this concept. And beyond those openings, what matters is the capacity the different countries have to express our creative vision, and to build new communities who are emotionally connected to the house.
WWD: Where is growth going to come from? Are you putting an emphasis on any particular categories?
E.G.: The reality is that growth is fueled by every single product category in every single region. What we’re all proud of is the fact that we are able to have an extremely good team that completely embodies what the house stands for, and that connection between people is really what the house is about. What we aim to do is to bring every single category closer to the collection, and always tell the story that strictly comes from the show. We’re launching three new lines of leather goods this season, and it’s exactly a translation of this idea because it tells the story of the show, of the silhouette, and it connects to the McQueen codes without compromising. Depending on the silhouette you have specific categories, bearing in mind that our core is ready to wear, it’s where everything starts. What is very important from the house’s point of view is that we don’t want to jump into the short term quickly.
WWD: Can you talk more about your retail expansion plans? Where else will you be taking the store concept that will make its debut on Bond Street later this year?
E.G.: Because we are enjoying a growth period, it gives us the confidence to further accelerate our expansion. So, apart from the key locations that we will have in the next 10, 12 months, following the launch of the new store in Old Bond Street and the new concept, we will be looking at key areas like New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and even new markets in Southeast Asia, and in the Americas. What is important is to make sure that we grow the network in a very selective way, in countries that make sense for us.
WWD: What about wholesale?
E.G.: Wholesale — department stores, specialty stores, retail franchises — are always relevant for us in terms of expressing what we stand for. What we need to make sure of, again, is that despite our growth and acceleration, we work with [our partners] to make sure that we keep our identity in their environment, and ensure that our house can be kept precisely and perfectly represented in very different environments. In the end, we want to engage and build connections with people. It’s all about true connection and building a real community of people who want to share what the house stands for. We’re further investing in our digital business and online distribution, and want to ensure that we are in the most relevant eco-system in specific countries. In China, platforms like JD.com [Toplife] are extremely relevant to us because they address people whom we would not necessarily address through our own website in China, or throughout the stores. Every sales channel we have is completely integrated and because we are successfully engaging with more and more people, automatically, it works.
WWD: Is it more difficult — or easier — being one of the smaller brands within a business like Kering, whose big brands are Gucci and YSL?
E.G.: I think what is brilliant is to be in a group that has luxury expertise and that values creativity. This creates a highly stimulating and supportive environment for the house; we’re investing in the long-term without taking shortcuts. We’re able to test and try, and improve. Kering has respect for creativity, they have respect for the creative directors, and it’s exactly the type of group that a house like McQueen needs. So, it’s not harder or easier — that’s who we are in an environment that creates a creative stimulation.
People come to work at Alexander McQueen because they feel that they’ll be able to make their own individual impact on a very free and creative journey. They feel empowered, it’s a brand that’s obsessed with perfection. You cannot reach perfection unless you are fully empowered and trust the team with whom you work. We are agile and have a test fast and learn fast mentality. We promote ideas in the purest form and want people to break boundaries. From a business point of view, this is key. Having people feel part of the journey merges the business side and the creative side, because people feel they can be creative, they can have ideas, and they will gain further respect by challenging the status quo.
WWD: Does being a part of Kering mean that you are looking ever closer at your sustainability practices?
E.G.: It’s a natural and important evolution for the house, it’s part of our collective way of thinking and also what we individually feel. Within our homes, with our families, it’s about consistency and integrity between how we live and what we do.
WWD: How much more competitive has the market gotten since you started in the fashion and luxury business?
E.G.: I think that in a very crowded market, which fashion has become, it’s even more important to be strictly aligned and true to who you are, and being who you are comes from a creative mind. Avoiding that distance between the creative vision and reality helps you translate your own values, and the identity of McQueen has always played on the tension of juxtapositions, experimentation and tradition, masculinity and hyper femininity, fragility and strength, light and dark, and the expression of this identity has to be extremely precise and communicated to the market. It’s no more competitive than it was before. It’s a matter of the way you express your brand, if you stick to your own expression, then you will touch people no matter what the noise around you is.
WWD: How would you describe your management style?
E.G.: It’s to encourage passion for creativity, agility, then avoiding a too vertical management style. We definitely celebrate ideas in their purest form, because the test fast mentality allows people to break down barriers, and I believe people can gain more respect within an organization by challenging the status quo. The company is very proficient, but again proficiency can’t be reached without empowerment, so we trust. I think it’s a point of view that’s been driving the house since it was created.
We are mixing people who have been here a long time who embody the creativity and who can guarantee the identity and newcomers, who are driven by creativity. They share the same values. More than 70 percent of our team is between 20 and 35, so it’s a very young and dynamic team. But, not for any specific reason, just as a consequence of what we want to do, which is having people who join the house and the company feel that they can have their own individual impact on that journey. It’s making sure that we keep it simple, that we focus on what matters which is, the creative vision of the house, and it’s expression outside the company.
WWD: Who are your mentors?
E.G.: I can’t name specific people because I’d like to keep it quite personal, but I’ve been lucky enough over the past 20 years to experience what it’s like in different companies, different moments, different sizes and cultures. This has been amazing because it enriches your way of thinking.
WWD: What is the first question you ask a job interviewee?
E.G.: What do you wake up for, and why are you here? Making sure we understand the real personal motivation and story of the person being interviewed, not only for business reasons, but also for personal ones.