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Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini Reveals the Brand's Secrets to Success

"If you do not trust the person on the other side, then you create panic — and panic is the biggest enemy of creativity."
Jo Ellison and Francesca Bellettini. Photo: Financial Times Live

Jo Ellison and Francesca Bellettini. Photo: Financial Times Live

If you follow the fashion biz, you may have heard that because of factors like slow tourism, currency fluctuation and millennials' interest in spending their money on experiences instead of products, luxury brands' sales growth has abruptly slowed down over the last couple of years, with one major exception: Saint Laurent. The fastest-growing Kering-owned label has seen sales increase by double-digit percentages in every quarter since former Creative Director Hedi Slimane's first designs arrived in stores in 2013 (after being panned by many critics). Overall, the brand's business more than doubled during his tenure.

Of course, responsibility for Saint Laurent's success is not only Slimane's; it also belongs to Francesca Bellettini, who joined Saint Laurent as CEO in the summer of 2013. In her first big decision for the brand, she promptly gave Slimane more autonomy and responsibility over the house's creative direction (this was after he'd already dropped the Yves). The label has since undergone a major overhaul — both in terms of image and business organization — and Bellettini, along with newly appointed Creative Director Anthony Vaccarello, will be tasked with keeping up that momentum now that Slimane has left.

As she explained on Monday at the Financial Times Business of Luxury Summit in San Francisco in conversation with the paper's Fashion Editor Jo Ellison, Bellettini believes strongly in giving a creative director (and anyone else in a leadership role, for that matter) autonomy and trust, as well as the importance of continuously evolving a brand; and those two beliefs have very much informed Saint Laurent's trajectory since she took over. 

Touching upon everything from Slimane's control and ignoring early critical reception to why Saint Laurent has fared better than other labels and how Vaccarello will "evolve" the house, Bellettini spoke with clarity and confidence. Some of it did overlap with this recent Business of Fashion interview, which is worth a read, but not all. Read on for the most fascinating takeaways.

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Wholesale is still important

While competitors have seen a decline in wholesale business and thus focused more on building out directly-operated retail networks, Saint Laurent's wholesale business is growing (it now represents 30 percent of the company's business) and Bellettini still sees it as a priority as part of a strategy that is balanced across channels and categories. "The people who believed the most in [Slimane's first collections] were the wholesalers," said Bellettini, noting how greatly the response from buyers differed from that of the press. "The most important thing for organic growth is focusing on local clients, and you need to accept that local clients want to shop wherever they like. I'm not obsessed with a concession model where we are responsible for everything, because at the end of the day, you just need to pick the right partnership and trust [them] and make sure the message is delivered in the right way to the client."

The response from critics is less important

When asked whether she cared about the negative media attention Slimane's collections received, she responded, "If you're not believing in what you do, and not showing confidence in what you're doing, how can people believe in you?"

A permanent collection of classics can drive sales — but the customer needs to be reminded of it

Much of Saint Laurent's success has rested on key products the brand reproduces every season and never marks down, like the Sac du Jour handbag, chelsea boots, "Le Smoking" suiting and leather jackets that "consumers recognize as part of the brand," said Bellettini. "It gives confidence to the customer." Still, Saint Laurent has to keep them modern by producing "seasonal variations." This way, the customer sees "that black leather jacket... they end up buying in black is still presented in the [new] collection in sparkling gold." Then if the gold one doesn't sell, Saint Laurent liquidates it, a process that doesn't dilute its brand as much as some might think: Bellettini points out that there is only a 2 percent overlap between outlet customers and full-price customers.

She trusted Slimane 100 percent

"I believe a lot in autonomy and trust on the creative side of the business. The CEO is the CEO and the creative director is the creative director," she said. Slimane's power over the brand reflected her preferred working style. "If you do not trust the person on the other side, then you create panic, and panic is the biggest enemy of creativity," she explained. "[You] need to make people responsible for what they do. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen of creativity, then the cake doesn't get cooked in the right way."

And here's where Anthony Vaccarello comes in

While Vacarello will presumably enjoy the same creative autonomy Slimane did, he won't be giving Saint Laurent the head-to-toe revamp that Slimane gave it. "The new creative director will be able to interpret these codes with his language, respecting the DNA of the brand," she said. "We don't need another revolution because now the brand is clear. What we need is an evolution because in fashion and in luxury, if you don't evolve, you're dead."

Finally, when asked whether we can expect "consistency" or a "a whole new era" from Vaccarello's debut collection, Bellettini said only, "surprise!"