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Domenico De Sole is taking our Zoom call from a hotel room in Sicily. He’s on vacation with his wife Eleanore and their friends, and before he gets down to the business of the conversation — a discussion of his career in fashion and the CFDA Founder’s Award he’ll receive on 6 November — he spins his camera phone around to show off the view. Beyond the pool, just below the balcony, Mount Etna, the island’s famous volcano, rises in the distance.
“Don’t go to Sicily without going to Taormina [the town nearest to Mount Etna],” he says, “and no matter what, give me a call, and I’ll let you know where to go and what to do.”
De Sole, who is 79, speaks with such enthusiasm and effuses so much warmth it can be easy to forget that two-and-a-half decades ago, he was at the centre of one of fashion’s most dramatic and drawn-out feuds: a two-and-a-half year battle over control of the house of Gucci. Together, Tom Ford and De Sole brought the Italian brand back from the brink of bankruptcy, turning it into one of the ’90s hottest labels and the first global superbrand — a prize that was fought over by two of Europe’s richest men, Bernard Arnault and François Pinault.
When Pinault came out the victor, De Sole was made president and CEO of the Gucci Group (now Kering), which went on to acquire Yves Saint Laurent, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney before De Sole and Ford exited together in 2004, with the designer taking his final bow under a shower of rose petals. A year later, they founded the Tom Ford brand, launching beauty and eyewear, followed by men’s and womenswear, becoming one of the biggest success stories of 21st-century American fashion. For his first-ever women’s collection for spring 2011, Ford enlisted Beyoncé, Julianne Moore, and Lauren Hutton to walk the runway and didn’t let a single outlet take pictures. It was the most talked-about show of the season.
If ours is not an era of top designers putting their own names on labels, that’s partly because of the globe-spanning conglomerates that rule the industry. But De Sole downplays the relevance of the huge groups, even as he acknowledges that he helped build one. “I’m a true believer that in business, there is always room for talent and competence. Brunello Cucinelli, for example, did not exist, really, 20 years ago, or at least not at the size it is today. If you have discipline and a willingness to work, there’s always room for new plays.”
The key to a brand’s success, according to De Sole, is its creative force. “People are not buying Domenico De Sole; they’re buying Tom Ford,” he points out with a chuckle. It helps, though, to have a strong partner managing the financials. In the lore that built up around Ford’s rise, De Sole’s business acumen never went unmentioned. De Sole, in turn, is quick to point out Ford’s own business savvy. “Tom, in my view, is not only one of the great creative designers of the last 50 years, he’s also an extremely competent business person, very astute, extremely disciplined,” he says. “It made our partnership really good for me.”
In April this year, Ford and De Sole sold the brand to the Estée Lauder Companies for $2.25 billion. “Life has changed,” he admits. “I used to work 100 hours a day all the time, including the weekends. So it’s a little bit weird, to be candid, to have so much time.” He’s far from retired, however. He sits on the boards of Pirelli, Design Miami, and the Zegna Group, which holds the license for Tom Ford fashion.
As a chairman emeritus, he’s been giving a lot of advice. “When young people call me, I say, it doesn’t matter where you’re studying, it doesn’t matter what you want to do, take a course in accounting. A basic understanding of business and finance is very important for anyone who would like to start a brand and the ability to generate cash. People start generating profit. That’s great, but if you don’t generate cash, it doesn’t matter. You go bankrupt.”
Another important skill for start-uppers: “understanding what is must-have, versus what is nice to have”. Fashion shows, in De Sole’s view, remain a must. “They’re still the most efficient way to reach everybody.” De Sole was front row at Peter Hawkings’s Tom Ford runway debut during Milan Fashion Week. “Peter worked with Tom for a long time, since Gucci. He’s very creative, and I’m convinced he’s going to do a very good job.”
Did he give Hawkings any advice in the lead-up to the show? “The credit is Peter’s. He did the show, I didn’t do the show, but I always say there is no substitute for hard work. I have met a lot of successful people in my life, and what they all have in common, all these very different people, I can tell you, it’s only one thing: hard work.”
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