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Expect Experimental Evolution, Not Revolution, at Valentino

In their first-ever joint interview, creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli and chief executive Stefano Sassi speak to Imran Amed about their strategy for Valentino as the brand scales beyond €1 billion in annual revenue and stages its first Pre-Fall show in New York.
The finale of the Valentino Pre-Fall 2017 show at the Beekman Hotel | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Imran Amed

NEW YORK, United States — It's only been six months since the cataclysmic news that Maria Grazia Chiuri was leaving Valentino to join rival house Dior as the brand's first female creative director, leaving Pierpaolo Piccioli, Chiuri's design partner of 17 years, to take the reins as sole creative director of the fabled Roman house, now owned by Mayhoola for Investments, a Qatari investment vehicle.

There were many questions about how Valentino would evolve under Piccioli’s creative leadership. How would he fare without Chiuri by his side? Would he stick to the tried and true Valentino formula or usher in a big change of direction?

But in today’s fast-paced, high stakes fashion world, six months feels like an eternity, and already, Piccioli has confidently shown his first solo collection to rave reviews in Paris and on Wednesday, staged his first Pre-Fall show at the Beekman Hotel in New York, which picked up where Spring/Summer 2017 left off, with a new focus on daywear and more functional bags designed for everyday use.

Pierpaolo Piccioli takes his bow | Source: InDigital.tv

Meanwhile, on the business side, Valentino continues to outperform, posting an impressive 12 percent growth in a flat luxury market last year, taking the business to €1.1 billion in annual turnover. This came after a whopping 48 percent revenue growth in 2015, driven by growth in retail productivity, rapid retail expansion and development of new categories. Accessories now account for about half of Valentino’s total revenue and menswear has grown from a €10 million business in 2012 to more than €150 million today.

But how will Piccioli and Stefano Sassi, Valentino's chief executive, evolve the business from its tried and true formula? And from where will it derive future growth in a challenging market context? BoF sits down with the dynamic creative and business duo to explore and unpack their strategy for the brand going forward.

BoF: There have been so many changes in the market and at Valentino in recent months, but the most fundamental change has been Maria Grazia Chiuri's departure. How has this changed the way you approach the design process and the business now?

PP: The design process is different. Of course I still maintain the values of the house because that's what we shared for years and what made Valentino what it is today. But the creative process is definitely different. Everything is more direct, more emotional. When you are two, you have to share and collaborate to come to a common vision. When you're alone it’s even more emotional and vibrant in a way. The way you work with a collection, [the way] I drive my team. They're all enthusiastic and have great energy, everything is vibrant and emotional.

BoF: But it must have been nice to have a thought partner as well to bounce ideas off of?

PP: Of course it was nice. We worked together for so long, but it's part of our paths and of life. When you're aware and want to feel your own language, which maybe is a different thing, it's good.

SS: I think that there is actually a lot of continuity because the company [has] the same approach and strategy as ever, with the same key values — superior craftsmanship and the ability to always bring something new [to the market]. At the same time, like Pierpaolo was saying, the fact that he's now by himself is something new, because the view of a couple is not necessarily the point of view from a single person. There is a new energy.

Especially today, the strategy of a fashion brand is about creating desire, creating coolness, and bringing energy to the market, not just creativity that you feel. Pierpaolo mentioned the new energy inside the team and the company that, at the end, is something we're trying to transmit to people who are looking at the show, through the marketing and communication processes. To evolve is something that's very positive for us.

Valentino Pre-Fall 2017 | Source: InDigital.tv

BoF: In a way, perhaps this change could be the best of both worlds. Other brands have to change everything when there is a new creative director — the stores, the advertising, the branding as well as the collections. This way you have a new energy, but you are still on the same path.

SS: Exactly. We've always been about evolution, [even] when [Piccioli and Chiuri] started to work together for Valentino. It's about keeping the same values but moving forward with a new language, which is state of the art of what consumers are looking for. Today this is absolutely crucial.

PP: I agree. Today the identity and authenticity of a brand are important. It's important to keep the values of a brand, but also to evolve it for modern times, the times we’re living in. In a way, this solo experience delivers a more authentic identity, because everything is more direct and unfiltered. I wonder if this emotion arrives to people attending the show or on the other side of the screen?

I think you can feel those vibrant sensations in the company. Today I wanted to do a show more based on daywear than usual. With the green military coat with the gloves and the modest shirt-dress with the over-the-knee combat boots, you have a silhouette that is really daywear. The sneakers with the shirt and trousers and a soft cardigan fur with a big bag — this is modern to me, the idea of lightness even in modern and contemporary daywear pieces. This was the first time I showed sneakers on the runway for women. The big bags are very functional. So I think that these are the highlights from this collection. The real bags, the real boots, the knitwear pieces and even the simple shirt and trousers.

Valentino is a Roman couture house that can be cool. These are the elements that made it so special, being Roman, couture and cool. Usually you talk about couture and luxury far from something contemporary.

BoF: Previously, you've always presented Pre-Fall as a look book. Why stage a show in New York this time?

PP: First, because New York is an important starting point for Valentino, even from the very beginning. Second, the pre-collection today is very important. When you deliver fashion, you need the dream to [go with] the clothes. The show — with the music and the feeling and the girls — is more than just clothes. If you don't share this moment of beauty you don't share it with the clothes.

Valentino Pre-Fall 2017 | Source: Courtesy

It's also important to experiment with a different language. This wasn't a big or spectacular show like in Paris, it was more intimate and experiential. I wanted it to be an elegant and technical show, not a big event.

SS: I don't see the distinction between the communication, creative process and the business [objectives]. I think, especially today, that it's a lot about supporting the message. There are new challenges for communicating and talking about the brand. It's important that authentic values are brought to the market in a new way. Once it was just some pictures in Vogue, today it's Instagram or Whatsapp or whatever. You're bringing the message to the channels everywhere, even though there only were about 160 people here today.

PP: We were just feeling what we had in our mind. Contemporaneity also means that you experiment and just feel what you want to do even if you don't have a five-year strategy, because you don't know what's going to change, and you have to be able to face the change in a very authentic way.

SS: Yes, I think out of all this mess of “buy now,” “present now,” “show now,” how to communicate and digital and so on, what we realise now is that rules are less strict than before. You can present men and women together; you can hold a fashion show for a pre-collection. You can experiment and find the right way to do things — that is very important. So let's do that and take different steps and let's find out the way to get in touch with consumers and the fashion world.

BoF: I was looking at the growth rates of the business, which are pretty incredible. Now with this idea of experimental evolution, how are you going to drive business growth?

SS: At €1.1 billion in revenue, the company has not really reached its potential. I think that, first of all, there are some categories that are still underdeveloped and there are opportunities for growth. The first one is men’s. I think that a few years ago — just four to five years ago — in total, considering the business for men was maybe €10 million. Today, it will be more than €150 million.

PP: It was here in New York where we actually started talking about men’s. After a run in Central Park.

Valentino Pre-Fall 2017 | Source: InDigital.tv

SS: Absolutely. We agreed that we should focus on men's. Our shoes are also a very important business, and we are among the most important vendors, everywhere in the world. And I think we have an opportunity in bags, a category that we can develop more in volume.

PP: We are concentrating on delivering new ideas for bags. These are all new bags for this collection. The big bags — they are adding coolness to the functional bags, because sometimes functional doesn’t mean the coolest thing. I think that in this bag, we have something very cool — really because of the functionality. They’re bigger. You don’t have to get your shopping bag with another size. They are big enough to contain lots of things — and they are functional inside. To get the functionality and translate it to something cool is the challenge and the right balance. It is even done in a very couture-ish way. If you see this, it is just one piece of leather. Everything is super beautifully done.

SS: And on top of that, obviously we can develop our network of stores. In that, today we are a village of 170 stores. We can go to one in every city. There are some mathematics behind who can bring us more development. But what is special to us is keeping this kind of energy of craftsmanship — classical beauty, coolness, superior product, cool communications. If this is happening, and it’s happening so far, we are [capturing] more and more market share. There is an obsession of the company this way. You keep developing. You keep putting something new. You keep working in the key elements.

For stores, we are spread pretty even across the countries. I don’t see any specific country, except maybe Japan. We opened a flagship in Omotesando, and we are opening a big flagship in Ginza this year. It is likely the last country [in] which we are making major investments. And then it will be investment in the retail network based on opportunity, something very specific.

BoF: I’d be foolish not to ask about the US market, because we are here sitting in New York.

SS: In the United States, we are making a very important effort, because compared to some other peers, Valentino has still got a big wholesale business, around 55 percent is retail, 45 percent is wholesale. We are trying to move more and more to this concept of managing the wholesale like retail.

BoF: Indeed, a lot of people here are questioning the value of the wholesale model. People talk about the American department store as being broken. Do you still see a role for wholesale in your business model?

SS: Absolutely. I think so. I agree with the fact that some business models can be really evaluated or reshuffled. But I think there are some wholesale locations that are crucial to send a message [to consumers]. And crucial because of traffic. The issue is that the presentation of the brand should be at the level that is required. We are trying to transform all the common areas into this specific area in which the brand can be presented in a totally different way

Imran Amed travelled to New York as a guest of Valentino.

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