The business of true luxury

The business of true luxury
Domenico De Sole

UNITED STATES - For most people, retirement means leisurely days ahead, jet-setting across the world, fine-dining at restaurants and playing endless rounds of golf with nary a care. But not for Domenico De Sole, former CEO of the Gucci Group. Back in 2004, he thought about retiring when he left the company after 20 years. Those retirement plans never panned out because in the following year, he became chairman of Tom Ford International, the firm he started with the American designer.

Under Mr De Sole's leadership, the Gucci Group went from near bankruptcy in 1994 to become one of the most profitable luxury multi-brand companies in the world, by acquiring brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. Together with Tom Ford, he defended Gucci from an alleged takeover by LVMH.

Passion for success

In 2007, two years after Tom Ford International was started, the first Tom Ford flagship store opened in New York, with the debut of the menswear and accessory collection. In 2010, Mr Ford presented his much anticipated womenswear collection.

"We have become a powerful brand in a short period of time," says Mr De Sole, 69, who adds that had Tom Ford International not started, "I wouldn't know what to do". He quips, "I don't play golf. I don't know when I will take a break, so far I'm happy."

Asked what he does for leisure, he deadpans, "I don't do very much for leisure, because I really like to work. If you are involved in a business, it is something that you think about all the time."

He is constantly thinking about what can be improved and what did not work. "To be successful, it is a time-consuming process and you must have passion." For the former lawyer, passion means reading up on the history of the brands, and going to visit the stores, not only his but also the competitors' to understand the industry.

Mr De Sole and Mr Ford have had a long working relationship. The latter joined Gucci in 1990 as its womenswear designer. In an earlier interview, Mr De Sole says that he trusts Mr Ford with his life. When that line gets brought up at this interview, the father of two immediately replies, "Tom said the same thing about me."

The Italian says that he still remembers vividly the first time he met Mr Ford, now 52. "He was very young then. We met in Milan when I was running Gucci America. I had heard about this new designer that had joined the company. Tom and I talked about the Gucci store in New York, and I was very impressed by his intelligence."

It was Mr De Sole who suggested that Mr Ford be promoted to be Gucci's creative director. "We both have a clear understanding about what we want to do and achieve. We are driven, and like everything to be done a week ago," says Mr De Sole. He says that they are also very good friends outside of work. While most people know Mr Ford as the creative person, Mr De Sole points out that "Tom is a very astute businessman". Mr De Sole says that they have had their fair share of disagreements, but "we talk about things like civilised people".

Their roles in the company are clearly distinct. Mr Ford is the creative force, while Mr De Sole is the business person. "The company is Tom's vision. It is important that a brand is a representation of its creative person," says Mr De Sole. He goes on to say that for a luxury brand to be a success, it has to have a "point of view. This point of view has to present great design aesthetic, which comes from its creative director".

Mr De Sole recalls that even at Gucci, "I didn't want anything in the store that was not approved by Tom".

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