MILAN, Italy — When Matteo Marzotto, stylish scion of the Italian fashion dynasty announced in February 2009 that he was acquiring the storied House of Vionnet, owned at the time by Arnaud de Lummen who had already had a go at reviving the sleeping beauty himself, the response from the fashion industry was simultaneously one of intrigue and distaste. On the one hand, a swarm of journalists and buyers packed into Marzotto’s Milan apartment for the initial press conference. On the other, many fashion observers could not fathom how a legendary French fashion house could be moved to Milan, run by an Italian, and designed by Rodolfo Paglialunga, an Italian designer who had worked for most of his career in Italy.
Fast forward two years and it seems Mr. Marzotto has taken the first small but successful steps in rebuilding the Vionnet business, if not in quite the same aesthetic or spirit as that of its namesake designer, then undoubtedly far more successful in generating revenues and editorial coverage than the previous attempt to bring Vionnet back to life. Indeed, Vionnet’s gowns and party dresses now regularly show up on red carpets on both sides of the Atlantic where starlets such as Carey Mulligan, Marion Cotillard and Rachel McAdams have taken to the Vionnet cause, giving the brand a new lease on life. The brand chalked up over 5m euros in sales in its first year, from a standing start.
After years of hands-on experience turning around the Valentino business (and then selling it for a tidy sum), Mr. Marzotto is banking on turning Vionnet into his next fashion success story, leveraging his extensive global fashion network, his undeniable charm, and the fashion DNA that runs in his family. For many Italian fashion insiders, this is not a man to bet against.
With the imposing (and inspirational) photo of his grandfather looking over his shoulder, Marzotto spoke to BoF about the early results of his work on the Vionnet brand and his plans for its future.
BoF: Let’s talk about the House of Vionnet. With your experience and connections in the Italian fashion industry you had many other opportunities post-Valentino, but instead you decided to attempt to relaunch this brand. Why?
Matteo Marzotto: The word is passion. Even before my time at Valentino I thought there was the capacity and potential to grow another brand, or try to relaunch a brand, something with a beautiful history, but no recent past. Then one day I went to this consultant to speak about a completely different matter and in front of him there was a brochure on Vionnet. I asked about the brochure, and he said ‘it’s a small thing, it’s not for you.’
It was the final business plan for Vionnet.
BoF: What does the Marzotto organisation bring to the table to help with your strategy for Vionnet?
MM: Ten years ago, Marzotto was managing licenses. It was your typical Italian industrial organisation for fashion, the kind of organisation that made Italian fashion big at the end of the 1970s.
I grew up in that organisation, and for a long time I thought it would be interesting in terms of value creation to work directly on a brand. Then [the Valentino opportunity] came and we worked like horses for five years to build it up. In five years we doubled the business from 128m euros in sales and a net loss of 40m euros in 2002, to 260m euros in sales and a net profit of 27m in 2007.
Our management style was very much from the culture of Northern Italy, in Veneto, checking the financials twice, sometimes three times a day, while also learning how to work and survive with image issues, style issues and drama queens. In those 5 years I dreamed of taking something small and making it big by applying the principles of a large organisation to a small one.
BoF: So you will use the same approach at Vionnet as you did at Valentino?
Not completely. In my opinion there is a risk in fashion of constantly re-using the same people coming from the same backgrounds. People are always growing up with the same procedures in fashion, then changing companies and exporting those old ways of doing things to other companies. For this reason, it’s nice to have new blood as well and do new things. In a big company you cannot do certain things, you have to plan it and protect it.
BoF: What will be different with Vionnet then?
MM: We have to show a little bit more of our personality, the human side of fashion. Overall, there is too much focus on how people look; a kind of gaudy feeling. I like the idea of being very small and trying to relaunch a very beautiful brand through Facebook, Twitter, the web, whatever. I’d like to show a small part of our day to day life.
BoF: What do you mean exactly?
MM: We did a little test in Paris which I liked very much. It was quite traditional, a little bit of backstage plus a little bit of testimonials during the presentation of the collection. From now on we would like to fix this, to catch some of the daily life of the company.
BoF: At the most recent IHT conference, you said that it was ‘a nightmare for an Italian to relaunch a historic French brand.’ How do you respect the history of a French brand even though it’s based in Italy?
MM: Unfortunately when I said that, it was because French people were reacting to the acquisition very badly. French customers, especially in Paris, felt betrayed. The Vionnet brand had been there for 70 years.
Overall, my respect towards the brand comes from its history, and from our side there is the highest respect. Madame Vionnet foresaw the future, like a visionary.
She was so ahead, and made the body free by throwing away the bustier. The organisation of the company was genius, it was probably 40 years ahead. She was the very first to make a [branded] perfume, and use advertising and marketing for publicity.
She was a genius in everything; my admiration for her is so deep. There is no reason whatsoever for me to try and make it a fast fashion company, because I come from a family business, because I grew up with a respect towards history.
I cannot explain it; I can only speak through the quality of product.
BoF: What are your plans for the future?
MM: I am working with the same energy, concentration and focus as I was at Valentino. What I want to leave you with is the idea that there are people very much in love with fashion and this project. There are some brands which have no stamina, feeling or connection, but Vionnet is different.
Vionnet presents its Autumn/Winter 2011 collection during Paris Fashion Week on Friday
CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.
This interview has been edited and condensed.