“You have to be analytical but very intuitive at the same time. You also need good nerves.”
Sidney Toledano has demonstrated plenty of those qualities over an eventful 18 years as chief executive officer of Christian Dior Couture, nimbly steering the French fashion house through many delicate creative transitions, economic crises and human tragedies.
Along the way, he’s become one of the most admired leaders in the industry, having transformed and expanded the business tenfold to sales last year of 1.78 billion euros — while maintaining his modesty, personal warmth and charm. Over the last 12 months, Dior has generally maintained its momentum even as the ceo has had to lead the company through yet another change in its women’s designer, the global slowdown in luxury goods and the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, France. It is for this reason that Toledano has been named the first recipient of the WWD Honor for CEO/Creative Leadership.
“One day it’s a tsunami in Japan; the next day a terrorist attack in Paris, then a subprime crisis, so you can have any kind of parameters impacting the business and the mood internally,” he says. “In order to face these crises, you need to have passion for the house….Some days you are alone and you have to make strong decisions.”
While probably best known for his decisive and dignified handling of John Galliano’s fall from grace in 2011 — and managing strong growth in the aftermath — Toledano also mentions 2007 as particularly challenging.
In April of that year, Steven Robinson, Galliano’s longtime right hand, was found dead in his apartment at age 38, plunging the entire company into mourning, for Robinson’s energy, enthusiasm and capacity for work were legendary.
The same year, Hedi Slimane left Dior Homme after a stellar seven-year tenure that had thrust the brand to the forefront of men’s wear and helped usher in more than a decade of skinny tailoring and rock-inspired chic.
Toledano also made another linchpin strategic decision that tumultuous year: to stop Dior’s booming logo business and drive its leather goods and ready-to-wear more upscale. He knew it would impact revenues, but his “good nerves” — and a boss with a long-term view on the business — saw him through.
An engineer by training, Toledano’s strong financial and analytical skills are married to a passion for the fashion industry, ignited the moment he stepped foot into his grandfather’s knitwear factory in Casablanca at age five.
His parents were also style role models: Tailors would visit his father, while his mother ordered suits and dresses from a Moroccan representative of Christian Dior, who would receive patterns and fabrics from Paris.
“This was the lifestyle in between the Fifties and the Sixties in Casablanca and this is why you see so many people in the fashion industry from there,” he shrugs, alluding to the likes of Puig executive Ralph Toledano (who’s no relation), fashion entrepreneur Fayçal Amor and retailer Armand Hadida.
After getting his engineering degree from École Centrale Paris, Sidney Toledano started his career at market research firm A.C. Nielsen, where he discovered the world of data analysis and cities including New York, Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston.
His first step in the fashion industry came when a friend of his invested in French firm Kickers, known primarily for its shoes and children’s clothes. After two years, he was recruited by Lancel — a pivotal move that let him “discover the world of leather goods,” which would become the engine of the luxury goods sector.
In 1993, Toledano received a call from Dior’s then-president François Baufumé and met with him and Bernard Arnault, who was in the midst of assembling the world’s biggest luxury conglomerate. Arnault’s plan was to build a handbag business for the storied French house and shift the business model from one dependent on licenses.
Toledano noted that handbags accounted for less than 5 percent of the business and Dior trailed its competitors in that regard.
Not for long.
“I joined in March 1994 with a small team, and in July, I was already presenting some prototypes of the Lady Dior and more products,” he recalls. “In 1995, we launched the Lady Dior and it became a success almost immediately.”
Indeed, in photos one can see the pride on Arnault’s face at the Met Ball in early 1996 when the late Diana, Princess of Wales, arrived wearing one of the first couture dresses by Galliano and toting that now classic handbag with its canework pattern, luggage-style handles and dangling charms.
Toledano notes that he didn’t design the Lady Dior but oversaw a small team of designers. “But I was visiting the factories, checking, changing the proportions, the details,” he says. “It was a concept….We were adjusting and adjusting until we found the perfect proportion.”
In 1998, Baufumé left the company and Arnault asked Toledano to take up the management helm and build out the company with a network of directly owned stores. At the time there were perhaps half a dozen boutiques and revenues hovered at around $200 million.
A right brain/left brain type, Toledano has a knack for managing creative leaders — who at Dior include not only a couturier but dedicated designers for the men’s categories, fine jewelry and watches, homewares and Baby Dior.
He describes the Galliano crisis in March 2011 — the designer was ousted in the wake of drunken outbursts during which he uttered racist and anti-Semitic insults — as a key moment in his Dior career.
“This has been one of the most important days where I felt the responsibility for the company,” he says, recalling the rapid chain of events, Galliano’s dismissal happening only days before Dior’s fall show.
Toledano went to Bill Gaytten, Galliano’s longtime deputy and Robinson’s successor, and asked if he was prepared to go ahead with the show. “The team was really close to John. It was like a family, and when the father does something wrong, you have to go to the rest of the family and say, ‘We must go on,’” he says, noting his decision to make a speech before the show and invite the entire atelier to take the bow. “I wanted to show the world that Dior is not only one designer. It’s a brand and a lot of people and they represent the backbone of the company. And so it was a good memory.”
Toledano’s mesmerizing speech was printed in its entirety in WWD and concluded with the assurance that “the heart of the House of Dior, which beats unseen, is made up of its teams and studios, of its seamstresses and craftsmen who work hard day after day, never counting the hours, and carrying on the values and the vision of Monsieur Dior…achieving the ultimate in artisanship and femininity, respecting traditional skills and incorporating modern techniques.”
A long search ensued, with Gaytten helming the studio until Raf Simons was named Dior’s sixth couturier in April 2012. (Galliano became creative director of Maison Margiela in 2014.)
After a fruitful three-and-a-half-year stint, Simons revealed his departure in October 2015 with praise for Toledano’s leadership among his parting words. “His thoughtful, heartfelt and inspired management will also remain as one of the most important experiences of my professional career,” said Simons, who went on to become creative director of Calvin Klein. (He is to present his first collection for the American brand in early 2017.)
After another search of the world’s design talent, Toledano ultimately decided on Valentino’s co-creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri to succeed Simons — a decision based largely on intuition and soft criteria. He notes that top-level designers are talented, smart and intimately familiar with Dior’s legacy, leaving such questions as: How are they going to fit? What is the personality? Are they going to listen? How far are they going to twist the brand image?
“We are not going to dictate anything about their creation,” he stresses. “But you need some dialogue. It’s a big house. It’s not some small studio where you hand someone all the keys. There are a lot of people in the boat. The destination of the boat is defined by the shareholder and the ceo.”
Toledano notes that Arnault, the business titan behind Dior and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, set the overall roadmap for Dior from the minute he was tapped to develop leather goods and trim licenses. “I am not alone. Mr. Arnault and I discuss everything. He has been my coach and given directions to me and my team,” he says. “He advises a lot. But the final decision? I am responsible.
“For success, there is no recipe,” he says. “You know, it’s like being happy in life. I have no idea….There is no absolute happiness and no absolute success. It’s just how you manage a difficult situation. And how you make people around you happier or feeling better about themselves. And then you can go very far. There is no limit for success for your teams, for your company and then for yourself.”
A father figure to many in the company, esteemed for his suave manners, vast knowledge and caring nature, Toledano considers himself a demanding boss.
“I accept mistakes, but I don’t accept if people don’t try and they don’t give their best,” he says, expressing disdain for people who blame others or lie. “My ethical principles are high. I like people involved. I go to the stores on weekends so I can have direct contact with employees. It’s good to hear what’s happening at the base: factories, stores, ateliers and then hear the management team.”
While managing a publicly traded company with 5,281 employees and 194 stores requires a wide-screen vision, Toledano is known for his detailed approach — and can authoritatively describe hidden features of leather goods, for example.
“You have to be detail-minded. Our business is detail-minded,” he says. “It’s not only the bag or the shoe, the quality of a store, but you have to check everything. The more you do it, the more you see details….It’s a matter of observing and excellence cannot be reached without detail.”
Asked what drives him to succeed, Toledano doesn’t hesitate to put almost all aspects of his job in the basket.
“It’s products, merchandising, retail, visual merchandising, image. The image is essential. Execution is as important as the products,” he says. “I don’t do it alone and I don’t have the expertise on all products, but I know how to select people having the expertise and the same sense of detail and this quest for excellence.”
Indeed, he says the highest compliment he can receive is to hear, “‘Thank you. I learned something from you.’ Transmission is key for me.”
“I did not fund the company, I don’t own the company, and I’m a contributor to the development of the company,” he explains. “Creativity is key. You have to be creative in the studios, this is obvious, but you must also find creative solutions to everyday management problems. This is why I still feel humble.”
Asked to recount some career highlights, Toledano first mentions some Dior runway extravaganzas.
“I remember the first shows of each designer. When they succeed, you feel proud. It’s a moment of joy,” he says. “I will always remember the show [with Galliano] we did in Shanghai, in 2010. It was a huge moment not only by the size, we had the opening of a store and then we had the show on a boat. It was during the Universal Exposition. How my team got the authorization to do a show on a boat is a kind of miracle. It was an overexpectation moment, really great. The cruise show [with Simons] in Brooklyn, New York, was something as well. I was blessed because I saw many moments like that. People have given me more than expected because they were very motivated.”
Toledano says less public events were important, including the opening of factories, and the new rtw ateliers in Paris, where the executive was photographed amid the gleaming white workspaces for tailors and seamstresses.
“There were many moments like that, but you always know that you can do more,” he muses. “The day I feel that I can’t improve anymore, I will pass the baton to somebody else. But for the moment, I think we can really improve it.”