Saint Laurent’s Francesca Bellettini on empowerment and brand identity
“I have known from a very young age that I wanted to run a company. Thank God nobody ever told me it was impossible,” says Italian-born Francesca Bellettini. With a degree from Milan’s Bocconi University, the woman who was once responsible for operations at Helmut Lang began her career in the world of finance, at Goldman Sachs.
“Fashion would come later,” she laughs, having spent many years at Kering holding a variety of roles within Gucci, Bottega Veneta and finally, Saint Laurent. When she was named CEO of the latter, the brand was still known as Yves Saint Laurent, it had annual sales of over €557 million and Hedi Slimane was in charge of the creative direction. Five years later, the brand ended the year with revenues of €1.74 million, driven by the designs of Anthony Vaccarello. Francesca Bellettini analyses the key to the company’s success at the Vogue Fashion Festival.
“Don’t copy Yves,” Pierre Bergé warned her upon her arrival at the French house. “It was his first lesson for me. We should respect our heritage, but not copy it,” says the chief executive officer. “You have to learn and embrace the history of the brand, and then express it authentically. You have to do it in a modern and contemporary way, nobody wants to seem obsolete,” she says about the pressure of leading a brand that was founded in 1961. “When you work with a brand that has such a rich heritage, you run the risk of it becoming a trap that keeps you anchored to the past.”
To avoid this, the brand underwent a complete transformation with the arrival of Hedi Slimane in 2012. Over the years, Yves Saint Laurent changed its name and logo, adopted a more rock-and-roll attitude and even travelled to Sunset Boulevard. Sales surged. Four years later, Slimane took a break and Anthony Vaccarello joined from Versus Versace. Since then, sales have continued to grow.
“When I joined, I realised that Saint Laurent had many things we could use to push the brand to the next level. You have to be able to feel our times and then reinterpret and rewrite them. And all of this while upholding the values of Saint Laurent: freedom of expression, sophistication, desire.. And that is exactly what Anthony Vaccarello has achieved. Whatever he does, it’s always contemporary, even when he’s referencing the past,” says Bellettini.
She has clear priorities: “The decision to place creativity at the centre of the brand is fundamental. This beats any strategy; it’s what makes people dream,” she says, adding that “this applies to all luxury brands, but at Saint Laurent, it is indispensable. There is no other way, because it forms part of the brand’s DNA. I’m happy to work with a group that supports us and encourages us to accentuate this idea.” For Francesca Bellettini, security is key in this process. “The number one enemy of creativity is fear. If you are afraid of failure, you will never overcome any obstacles.”
This philosophy dictates the way she runs things with the brand’s artistic director. “I have a very authentic relationship with him, he is my adventure partner. We both have a responsibility for the success of the maison,” she says.
“Vaccarello is the first person I’ll call if I have to make a big decision in the company, regardless of whether it’s on the business side or not. Our relationship is 100% based on trust and respect. I’m not the type of CEO who would control, either directly or indirectly, Vaccarello’s work. That would spark fear and that’s one of the biggest issues in fashion,” she says, proud of the unique character the designer brings to the luxury house.
“I think it’s all too easy to criticise anyone who’s different. I believe in freedom of speech, I love differentiation and hate homologation. I’m not looking for what is politically correct. Puritanism goes hand in hand with standardisation and I think we have to stay away from it,” she continues.
"François-Henri Pinault has no gender issues. He’ll give you a position if you are the right person for it”
These values extend to all levels of Saint Laurent. “In a company it’s essential to promote a culture that is in line with the values of the brand. To build this culture, it’s necessary to adopt a behaviour that is consistent with these values. To do otherwise would be inauthentic,” she says.
She believes in this to such an extent, that she tries to lead by example. “When I arrive at the office, I always put my phone away,” she says as she explains the importance of saying good morning to the teams, just like store staff are expected to greet customers. Additionally, Francesca Bellettini talks about the initiatives the company takes internally, from the organisation of seminars to business trips to Paris and Morocco. “It makes me happy when our employees end up becoming brand ambassadors. For me, that is a clear KPI of the state and health of the company,” she indicates.
And what does one of the industry’s leading female leaders think about feminism? “I have a complicated relationship wIth the idea of ‘empowerment’,” she admits, explaining that she doesn’t fully subscribe to certain connotations of the word.
“For me, it means that someone gives you power. I prefer the word ‘liberation’, it means that it comes from me, that it’s under my control,” she says. “I think liberation first comes from within and then.. It’s very important to stay away from people who put you down. I’ve been lucky. From my own family to François-Henri Pinault, who has no gender issues. He’ll give you a position if you are the right person for it, if you have all the right skills,” she says.
And as the session draws to a close, she pays homage to Yves Saint Laurent: “When he gave women the opportunity to wear a tuxedo instead of a dress, he wasn’t giving power to women, it was about opening up an opportunity for them.”
A challenge she has accepted with pride and confidence as the chief executive officer of one of the world’s most prestigious luxury fashion firms. “We are not in this business for fun; we are here to make it successful.” And for the moment, Kering's gamble seems to be paying off.
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