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High-profile executive hires show prospects and pitfalls in fashion turnarounds

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Clockwise from top left: Francesca Bellettini, ceo of Saint Laurent - Richard Dickson, ceo of Gap - Rapper Future, guest designer at Lanvin. Credits: Clockwise from top left: Courtesy of Kering, Gap Inc, Lanvin.

It is a common practice for companies to hire high-profile executives with a track record of success in order to replicate that success within their own brands. These executives are often sought after for their leadership skills, expertise, and ability to drive growth and innovation. This expertise is meant to deliver deep industry insight, savviness in trend, and the recipe for tackling hurdles all in one package.

This may be one of the reasons Kering put Saint Laurent’s trusted chief, Francesca Bellettini, in charge of the group’s brand development of its portfolio, as deputy CEO of Kering. Ms. Bellettini, who has a 10-year track record and has shown the ability to lead Saint Laurent through challenges such as navigating Hedi Slimane’s exit and stabilising the business in its design transition under current creative officer Anthony Vaccarello, subsequently charted a serious path to growth. Saint Laurent’s revenue has surged by around fivefold, reaching 2.52 billion euros in sales under the leadership of Ms Bellettini.

Francesca Bellettini Credits: Kering

Growth is also central to the Rihanna-founded lingerie brand Fenty, which saw the company recently appoint Hillary Super. During her tenure at Urban Outfitters group, which is also the parent company of Anthropologie, she boosted its omni-channel presence to over 1 billion dollars in digital sales. With the experience of managing a diverse portfolio of brands with different categories, from Anthropologie’s popular A+ line, its plus-size range, to driving retail and communities around its core customers, Ms. Super is a leader that can navigate expansion. “We have a highly engaged customer base with our DTC model and also recognize that there is an opportunity for us to expand further by meeting customers where they are and offering other avenues of accessibility,” Fenty told Vogue Business when the appointment was announced.

It is precisely the reputation and networks of high-profile executives and their standing within the industry that can open doors to partnerships, collaborations, and resources that might otherwise be difficult to access. When Lanvin announced award-winning American rapper Future to develop new ideas and concepts for the French house it was a triad of networks, reputation, and influence that may open doors to untapped realms for the brand. This is especially valid when companies are looking to revitalise their collections and build a distinct culture with their audiences. Certainly Future’s Instagram following of 25 million (at the time of writing) will bring a decided buzz to the brand.

Credits: Rapper Future becomes a guest designer at Lanvin. Image: Lanvin

Securing investor confidence

The recent shake-up at Gap saw Richard Dickson, a veteran from Barbie’s parent company Mattel, takeover the reins at the US-based retailer. Mr. Dickson’s appointment will have in part been due to the investor and stakeholder confidence that comes paired with hiring a well-known executive, boosting board confidence and potentially leading to increased investment, if not positive media coverage. The phenomenon of the recent Barbie film, having grossed over 1.28 billion dollars at the global box office, means Gap is hoping he will restore the same growth for its brands as Mr. Dickson executed at the toy company.

Here, shareholders are more focused on how sales can be driven over direct experience with fashion and fashion product. “Richard has invaluable expertise in areas critical to the work Gap Inc. is doing to strengthen the company for the long term,” Mayo A. Shattuck, III, Gap’s Lead Independent Director said in a release announcing the appointment. “And we are thrilled to have his visionary leadership as the company redefines the future potential of Gap Inc. and its renowned American fashion brands.”

Gap has both the PR disaster of its Yeezy collaboration to overcome, in addition to dwindling sales. "Gap has lost its brand relevance with its core consumer," Jonathan Reid, director of retail and consumer at Fitch Ratings, told The New York Times. "It's unclear where the brand sits. That was Mattel a few years ago."

Delivering confidence

When it comes to turnaround situations, where a brand is facing challenges or underperforming, hiring an executive known for turning around struggling companies can signal to investors and the market that the company is taking proactive steps to improve its situation.

In today's fashion landscape, successful CEOs often need to have a well-rounded skill set that includes understanding not only management principles but also marketing and product development. This is especially true in industries like fashion where consumer preferences are constantly evolving, and effective marketing and product strategies are essential for sustained growth.

Richard Dickson Credits: Gap Inc.

At Gap, Mr. Dickson replaces Sonia Syngal, who was fired in 2022 as its stock took a beating and the business faced increasing costs. But previous hires at Gap also ended badly. Gap Inc. has long struggled with declining sales and shifting consumer preferences. CEOs such as Art Peck and Glenn Murphy left the company after facing challenges in turning the business around. It may be more of a case of finding Gap’s ‘pink’ moment, like Barbie. Yet in fashion, it will take more than one season of growth and great product to skew consumer sentiment and make a positive dent in sales.

And herein lies the crux. Not all past successful track records guarantee future replicas of success. In 2013, Lululemon's founder and CEO, Chip Wilson, stepped down amid controversies over product quality issues and insensitive remarks. Laurent Potdevin, an LVMH veteran who grew sales at Toms Shoes and Burton, succeeded Wilson yet abruptly left the company a few years later following allegations of misconduct and lagging sales.

Past track records? Not all gold guarantees future gleam

At Ralph Lauren, Stefan Larsson was brought in as its new CEO in 2015 to help turn around the company's declining sales and brand image. Mr. Larsson’s impressive CV from H&M to adding one billion dollars of sales at Old Navy was not enough to replicate the success at America’s best-loved luxury house. Creative differences with the company's founder and executive chairman, Mr Ralph Lauren himself, saw Mr. Larsson leave the company just two years later.

Changes in leadership are as common in the fashion industry as they are in the rest of the business world and can happen for various reasons. But each business is unique, influenced by a complex interplay of internal factors (such as leadership, culture, and resources) and external factors (such as market trends, competition, and economic conditions). There is no formula that will guarantee growth or that can replicate past successes. Good leaders learn from the past and apply the same principles and strategies that align with a business's unique context and goals.

But the secret sauce? It is likely an unreplicable blend.

Francesca Belletini
Richard Dickson