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Tom Ford says ciao to Gucci, YSL

November 05, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Tom Ford, the American designer who helped create a new, younger generation of high-fashion customers, on Tuesday confirmed what he'd long been hinting: He will step down as designer of the Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent brands on April 30. He will also resign his post as creative director of Gucci Group. Domenico De Sole, the managerial whiz behind the fashion powerhouse, will also depart.

For months, the pair had been battling Gucci Group's largest shareholder, Pinault Printemps-Redoute, over terms of their contracts.

In the space of a decade, Ford and De Sole reinvented the Gucci brand, taking it from a fusty $200-million label to a publicly traded, $3-billion luxury conglomerate with a stable of acquired fashion labels including Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney and Balenciaga.

In 2000, Ford began designing the legendary Yves Saint Laurent label, which is still struggling financially. The American takeover of the house in 1999 was a stunning moment in the much-vaunted world of French fashion.

In a statement, Gucci and PPR said that months of negotiations "did not result in an agreement satisfactory to all concerned."

"It is with great sadness that I contemplate my future without Gucci Group," Ford said. "For the past 13 years, this company has been my life."

De Sole, 59, president and chief executive of Gucci Group, called Gucci "one of the great loves of my life." In the statement, he said his decade with the company had been "an incredible journey."

The decision follows several months of contract renewal negotiations with the Paris-based PPR, which owns 68% of the company and plans to buy the rest by the end of April. Ford and De Sole let it be known that they would renew their contracts only if they would be able to retain managerial independence from PPR, which is controlled by French tycoon Francois Pinault.

"We greatly regret not having been able to reach an agreement," Serge Weinberg, Pinault Printemps' chief executive, said in a statement. Ford and De Sole "did a remarkable job to turn around the Gucci brand, and make Gucci Group a worldwide reference in the luxury goods universe." According to the statement, Gucci Group's supervisory board will choose De Sole and Ford's successors.

"It's a very sad day for the fashion industry because Tom Ford and Domenico De Sole did something that was historically brilliant," said Andre Leon Talley, Vogue magazine's editor at large. "It's a catastrophic decision that will trickle down all the way through the great designers Tom had at his helm, like Stella McCartney, Nicolas Ghesquiere and others. Fashion had just come out of a great slump and now this."

Ford, 42, rose to stardom by giving Gucci classics a modern twist. He defined the rich, oversexed style of the 1990s, splashing tropical flower-power prints on "Jackie" bags and condom cases. He put the stodgy Gucci horse bit on covetable blue patent-leather high-heel loafers, dangled the GG logo from belts on velvet hip-huggers, and used the house's trademark bamboo to make mile-high stiletto heels.

Faye Dunaway, Heather Graham and Helen Hunt are among the celebrities who have worn Gucci gowns to the Oscars. At this year's awards, Julianne Moore wore a ruffle-front, emerald green halter gown from Ford's well-received fall YSL collection, inspired by Diana Ross and the Supremes. Last month, he showed his spring YSL collection in Paris and his spring Gucci collection in Milan.

The son of real-estate brokers, Ford grew up in Texas and attended high school in Santa Fe, N.M. In the early 1980s, he tried his hand at acting in L.A., before studying architecture at the Parsons School of Design in New York. He soon turned to fashion, working for Perry Ellis and Cathy Hardwick.

When he joined Gucci in 1990, the company was nearly bankrupt. As other members of the design staff left, Ford stayed on, earning more responsibility as turmoil rocked the company -- the 1995 murder of Gucci heir Maurizio Gucci, the complex machinations to take the company public, and a takeover attempt by Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton that was foiled in 1999 when Pinault stepped in.

His movie star looks and jet-set lifestyle excited fashionistas in the same way that Halston's and Calvin Klein's once did. His departure from Gucci points to the decline of the celebrity designer and the dearth of new talent able to inspire magazine editors and consumers alike.

As one of the first designers to revive a flagging design label, Ford's success has prompted similar hires across the fashion industry (Olivier Theyskens at Rochas, Rick Owens at Revillon and David Cardona at Cerruti). But the formula rarely works as successfully as it did at Gucci.

It's not known what Ford and De Sole will do next, although there has been speculation that they may start their own fashion brand. But in 1999, Ford told The Times: "There are a lot of things in life that interest me, and at one point I might want to walk away from designing. Maybe I'll walk away from the whole fashion business. You can't do that if your name is on a label. You're stuck. I wouldn't be able to drive by some billboard with some merchandise on it that I didn't design and maybe didn't like. And then to walk past a store that looked terrible? It would just drive me crazy."

In the meantime, fashion insiders aren't giving up hope.

"I don't feel it's a closed case," Joan Kaner, fashion director of Neiman Marcus, said Tuesday. "I feel they may be still negotiating or waiting for something to happen. One would hope Pinault would realize without the two gentlemen he wouldn't have what he has today."

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