Who knew one of fashion’s leading innovators was also a neighbor?
Domenico De Sole, a resident of Hilton Head, S.C., led the venerable House of Gucci out of bankruptcy in 1995 by rebuilding relationships with committed craftsmen, re-establishing the company’s historical fashion-forward mission at all levels, reimagining storefronts and, most important, hiring Tom Ford as the company’s creative director. Within three years after taking the reins, Gucci had recorded a billion dollars in sales and Ford had become an international superstar.
He “retired” with his wife Eleanor to her native South Carolina in 2004. Not long after, Ford came a callin’ and asked Domenico to lead his eponymous fashion firm—a proposition Domenico could not refuse.
Speaking at SCAD Style 2013, Domenico delivered some lessons he learned in luxury to a rapt audience of students and fashion-savvy Savannahians. Some takeaways:
- Recognize great talent. Hire the best possible, most competent and aggressive people.
- If you make mistakes, figure it out instead of assigning blame so that you can correct the process.
- Listen to people and let them do their jobs.
- Learn your trade from the bottom up.
Sage advice, no matter the profession.
SM: Our May/June issue—our epicures issue—celebrates the good life here in Savannah. Yet, we grapple with answering the question of how do you define luxury in this age of economic uncertain and the fact that a lot of brand names sell at all different price points. How do you define luxury?
Domenico: It’s very difficult to define, but at the end of the day, to me, luxury is a mix of a few things: High taste level and standards of elegance. It’s an issue of quality of product. An issue of craftsmanship. And then there is an issue of a little bit of scarcity—something people aspire to. Something difficult to define in a more precise way, but that is what I look for in a luxury product—this combination of design, quality, craftsmanship and scarcity.
SM: What are some of those markers for “standards of elegance”?
Domenico: It’s one of those things where if I see it, I can tell you. It’s hard to define in an abstract way…but let me give you an example. I love contemporary art and architecture, and I can go to a place and say this is really beautiful, and it’s really close to me and my taste level. But I can go to an old house with more traditional furniture, and I can see that this may not be my personal taste, but this is really beautiful. You can be really beautiful and luxurious in a lot of different ways with a lot of different looks.
SM: When we talk about aspiring to luxury, how does someone develop good taste and not simply define luxury by a label?
Domenico: The issue there is a little bit of the strength of brands. What happens—and this is true not only with traditional luxury goods but true with a lot of expression. I’ll give you an example—hotels. I travel all the time. Let’s assume I’m going to a place I’ve never been before—Kuala Lumpur. I don’t know where the best hotels in Kuala Lumpur are. I’m sure there are a lot of local names that can be magnificent. But, if I see a Four Seasons, or a Park Hyatt—I would pick it. I don’t know anything … but at least I know if I go to a Four Seasons the brand gives me something that is attractive, beautiful and first-rate service. I’m sure I’m going to be happy. Then, is that the most beautiful place in Kuala Lumpur? I don’t know. But, I know that I can trust that brand to provide me an experience I’m going to enjoy.
All great brands have a point of view. Hermes tends to be very classic. That’s what they’re all about. Prada is very, very trendy…and beautifully manufactured.
SM: If someone is in Savannah and makes handcrafted, one-of-a-kind things—we see these as a local luxury. But, how would an artisan in Savannah grow into a luxury brand?
Domenico: The way to grow a new brand in luxury, in general, the thing that really helps you at the beginning is the wholesale business because stores are very expensive. But if you can afford to open a shop in Savannah, do it, so people can come and visit. And second, I would contact the big department stores—the Neiman Marcus, Saks, Nordstroms. That’s the way you can get known. You have to have a great talent to drive the brand.