Hubert Burda Media

Domenico de Sole: Fashion’s Grand Archduke

Domenico de Sole is many things: A great business mind, efficacious negotiator and so on. One thing he isn’t is being top-down.

Tom Ford International has opened at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands. how did that happen?
Oh, it was very simple. It’s back from the Gucci days [when FJ Benjamin was its franchisee in Singapore]. The Benjamin family has been working with Gucci for 30 years, so I have known them forever.
So who approached who?
I think they approached us. They talked to a Tom Ford representative and I got wind of it, and called them right away because I know the whole family very well. When I first left Gucci I remember getting a very nice letter from Mr Benjamin. He said that if Tom and I do something new together, we should keep him in mind, so he can join us. And it’s been really exciting.
So when I started thinking about opening in Southeast Asia, starting with Singapore, we reconnected and it happened pretty easily.
You’d said you wanted Tom Ford International to become the number one luxury brand in the world. That’s a very audacious statement.
In every business, in every endeavour in life, you have to have a grand vision. If you start thinking you’re going to be a number 30 brand, you’re not going to go very far.
When we say number one, it’s just a generic aim to say we want to be a really great, relevant brand in terms of prestige. Obviously there are brands that are larger because of history but not necessarily in terms of sales.
Is part of the strategy also the ability to conquer the Asian market, possibly the world’s last under-exploited luxury market?
It’s a fact that you can never become a great, worthwhile luxury brand unless you’re strong in Asia. So that’s why we really didn’t wait. As early as 2007, we entered the China market and then Wall Street collapsed in 2008; 2009 became a very difficult time for every luxury brand. But we tried again in 2010 as the economy recovered. So we have been very quick.
How does the Asian male consumer differ from, say, the European or American consumer, in terms of luxury menswear?
What makes China stand out is its very strong male market. If you look at all the other parts of the world, the ladies’ part of the business is always predominant. But in Asia, men’s ready-to-wear is the leading business product in China (just look at the success of Ermenegildo Zegna, for example). There is also a strong, unique appetite for accessories. In fact, the first time I came to China, a long, long time ago, there was a gentleman in a suit and he kept shaking my hand. I didn’t understand why he was so friendly; I couldn’t to talk to him because I couldn’t speak Mandarin. And then I discovered he was very proud of his Zegna suit. He still had the label on his sleeve because he wanted others to understand that he was a very sophisticated gentleman.
With expansion plans in Singapore and China, followed by Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, what are the market differences across China, East Asia and Southeast Asia?
It really is difficult to divide, as far as I’m concerned. But I think Singapore specifically is one of the really unique markets because of its young and super sophisticated population. Because of this sophistication, tourists come here to shop and thus learn about brands they don’t have back home. So you see, we can still do a lot of business when people can see what you are doing with your brand in Singapore outside of developing markets such as China. Singapore also have a large tourist consumer base from mainland China, so it’s really very, very attractive to us.
When you were with Gucci, you were lauded for using what economists call an American style of leadership. As you continue to develop Tom Ford International, is this still going to be your management wild card?
I think what they meant by American is that it’s much more open and less hierarchical than the European style. I like to hire great people and hear what they have to say. I want everybody’s opinion and I communicate with everybody to try to make sure all are on board; everybody understands. People knew I was in charge, as the president, but having said that, I’m respectful that everybody at their own level make their own decisions, take their own responsibilities. In an Italian company, you know, the CEO, the owner makes all the decisions — I don’t think it’s a good idea. And people very often just go along with whatever the CEO says; that’s it. I don’t believe in that, I think that you need to have people who stand up for what they believe is right because that creates a very, very vibrant environment.
Both you and Mr. Ford have an excellent working relationship. What are some of the things that both of you most disagree on?
Basically we don’t disagree on a lot of things. At the end of the day, any disagreements tend to be irrelevant and minor because then we go back to the shared vision for the brand: Where are we going, what’s our strategy to get there, what’s our plan? These have to be really shared, otherwise I cannot work with anyone. For instance, if we look at location, if I don’t want to open a store there, I promise you Tom doesn’t want to open a store there either. If you understand the principle, then you’re not going to have a lot of fights.
Is that the secret to the success of the Tom & Dom business model?
I really do believe that to be successful, a business has to have heroes. I’ll give you an example: Microsoft. The heroes of the company are the programmers who develop software. You can be a great financial guy there but you’re not the hero. In the past, some CEOs and merchants decided they want to be creative directors and they started to design. That is a very dangerous thing. Because it’s one thing to understand the collection (if it’s a good or bad one) and another to actually design it yourself. You will need to know what your limitations are. Sure, you can learn about retail, you can learn about the collection, you can learn about products, but not creating them. So who’s the hero? Who really drives the company? The ability to write amazing software. In our business, the real driver is creativity. What we really did at Gucci with Tom originally, we said, this isn’t about family, this is not about the CEO — it’s about creative direction, and about what product you create. Tom’s the creative genius, not me. So for me in this business, that’s the most important.
And now, once for and for all, what exactly is this creative vision?
What he had in mind was that we would launch the first true luxury brand of the 21st century. This will be based on superior design, extremely high-end products with the finest quality, the greatest craftsmanship and the most amazing attention paid to all the details. And last but not the least, everything will be made in Italy. Tom had in mind to create an exclusive and luxurious world for menswear and womenswear. He used to say something very funny: If Cary Grant was alive today, where will he go, which store will he go to in New York? Well, that store he will go to opened in April 12, 2007, as we launched our first Tom Ford store in New York. And in 2011, we launched cosmetics, which did very well and very quickly expanded the men’s’ collection beyond New York, to North America and then to Milan.
How did the vision for the womenswear line come about?
I knew that this was going to happen but I never really asked Tom when the time would be right, till one day — I think it was December 24, 2009 — when I got a phone call from him, which was very surprising because Tom and I talk every morning and on the 25, we wished each other Merry Christmas.
But he called me the night before and I thought there was a problem with one of the stores or something. And instead he said, we are going to launch ladies ready-to-wear next year. So there it was, a new adventure.
Ah, your career history always seems to be full of those.
Maybe it’s because I like sailing. I love sailboats and I own two. One is called Ciro, after a Southern Italian town where my family is from. But the boat that I really use all the time is a 20-ft racing sailboat called Slingshot. It’s a one-design class [this means all racers compete using the same boat design]. It’s pretty intense but I really enjoy it. I know people who are really smart and they retire from the business. I’m sure they’re going to go to another business and then they become obsessed with golf. They travel all over the world just to play golf. It’s too all-consuming a hobby for me.
So, we suppose you’ll have to postpone your retirement again?
Well, if we’re going to be the number one luxury brand in the world, we’ve got to go very, very fast because I’m getting very old very, very quickly.