OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — These days, Saint Laurent chief executive Francesca Bellettini spends more time fielding questions about her former colleague, current Celine creative director Hedi Slimane, than she would perhaps like. But when BoF founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed asked Bellettini what she thought of Slimane's polarising Celine debut onstage at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, the longtime Kering executive was unruffled.
"I looked at the show, of course," said Bellenttini, who joined , who joined Saint Laurent in 2013. "I was happy for Hedi for his comeback. He's an incredibly talented designer. This is good for all of us."
Bellettini's poker face is perhaps unsurprising given her current position as the steward of the legendary fashion house that Slimane famously reinvigorated when he arrived in 2012. The industry has been abuzz since his return to fashion, leading a brand at Kering's greatest rival, LVMH. His debut collection, as many noted, was eerily similar to his final at Saint Laurent.
And while Saint Laurent's current creative director, designer Anthony Vaccarello, has brought new ideas to the brand, he has fallen closely in line with Slimane's established vision, with many questioning if there is room for both labels in the hearts of discerning consumers. In 2017, sales growth began to slow at Saint Laurent, up 23 percent year-over-year compared to 25 percent growth in 2016. And this pattern has continued. In the third quarter of 2018, revenues reached €447 million, up 16 percent on a comparable basis. That said, the YSL business is still growing much faster than the 6-to-8 percent growth of the overall luxury market, according to Bain & Company. And the business is on target to reach Bellettini's stated revenue target of €2 billion by 2022, making it the second largest business in the Kering stable after Gucci.
But the thinking behind Bellettini's cucumber-cool demeanor reveals a deeper philosophy about brand building.
It's better to present yourself the way you really are…Be authentic. If they choose you, they remain with you.
"When a creative director leaves a brand, the fans disappear almost immediately," she said, noting that Slimane's most ardent supporters — such as a cohort of Japanese men — fled within six months of his departure in 2016, meaning that the company has had time to make up for that deficit with new admirers who now follow Vaccarello. "I am quite confident and relaxed that we already went through that stage. A big chunk are fans of the brand itself." In fact, Bellettini went on to reveal that the best-selling style ever in the history of the fashion house was one created by Vaccarello in 2017.
What it was, she wouldn't say. "[Vaccarello] has pushed the brand even more to the limit, clarifying what we stand for," she added. The results, she said, are both in revenues and profitability of the brand. "It could be seen quite easy to grow your top line, when in reality it's the profit that makes your business sustainable."
So with that, Bellettini is focused on the future, still bullish on China — on track to become the world's largest luxury market in 2018 — where she is set on building stronger relationships with local customers as the brand readies itself to open its first Chinese flagship. "For us, the market is still full of opportunities," she said.
That focus on locals, however, is applicable globally. "I'm a huge believer of building business first with local clients," she said. "Conquer a consumer at home, then when they travel they follow."
Bellettini said that authenticity is that the core of building meaningful relationships with the Saint Laurent customer, starting first with the employees. "I hate when I go to stores and I see sales associates that give you a speech that they've been given and you can tell they don't know what they're talking about," she said. "It's better to present yourself the way you really are…Be authentic. If they choose you, they remain with you."
To learn more about VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.