Dior Cou­ture’s boss tells Jo El­li­son how he ta­ck­led the Gal­lia­no ra­cism row, why he’s in no rush to ap­point a de­si­gner, and why you won’t fix pro­blems by loo­king at num­bers

La Presse Business (Tunisia) - - SOMMAIRE - By Jo EL­LI­SON


If the fa­shion in­dus­try has been in a state of ago­ni­sed an­ti­ci­pa­tion in recent months, you can lay the blame at the feet of the smart, sil­ver-hai­red man with a wol­fish smile who has just en­te­red Le Re­lais Pla­za on Ave­nue Mon­taigne. As chief exe­cu­tive of Dior Cou­ture, Sidney Toledano is res­pon­sible for one of the world’s big­gest luxu­ry fa­shion houses - and since the unex­pec­ted de­par­ture of Raf Si­mons as crea­tive di­rec­tor of Dior wo­mens wear last Oc­to­ber, he is al­so the man char­ged with ap­poin­ting a suc­ces­sor to one of fa­shion ’s most vi­sible roles. Toledano sounds by re­pu­ta­tion in­ti­mi­da­ting if not fear­some. He over­sees an ever-ex­pan­ding em­pire that brings in com­bi­ned an­nual re­ve­nues of about €5bn. He is one of the people clo­sest to Ber­nard Ar­nault, chair­man and chief exe­cu­tive of the LVMH group, the pa­rent com­pa­ny. It was Toledano who, in 2011, stee­red the house through the in­ter­na­tio­nal scan­dal cau­sed by Dior de­si­gner John Gal­lia­no’s ra­cist out­burst and sub­sequent sa­cking and still re­tur­ned a 21 per cent in­crease in sales fi­gures. But the fi­gure who greets me at Le Re­lais Pla­za is di­sar­min­gly char­ming. He shares such an ea­sy in­ti­ma­cy with the head wai­ter, I no­tice, that he even al­lows him to brush off his ja­cket shoul­ders while they ex­change their hel­los. The res­tau­rant, just op­po­site Dior’s head­quar­ters, is one of Toledano’s fa­vou­rite Pa­ris lunch spots; the di­ning room, with its pale cream uphol­ste­ry and gentle hum of po­li­tesse, has the warmth of an old-world es­ta­blish­ment. It’s al­so mar­vel­lous­ly on­brand. “Ch­ris­tian Dior came to this res­tau­rant, even before he had the ate­lier,” he tells me. “We al­so used to show John [Gal­lia­no’s] cou­ture shows here.” Toledano, 64, has a couple of pre­fer­red tables: “This one, when we want to be pri­vate. And, if I real­ly

want to be en­ter­tai­ned, I stay in the middle and then I say ‘Hel­lo’.” (Plen­ty of people say hel­lo any­way, in­clu­ding one gent­le­man who in­tro­duces Toledano to his ac­quain­tance as “Mon­sieur In­croyable”.)

The me­nu of­fers a wide range of ty­pi­cal­ly Pa­ri­sian dishes but we fol­low the chef’s re­com­men­da­tion and or­der a lan­gous­tine star­ter, ser­ved with a grain sa­lad and a ver­dant sauce. I go for the fillet of boeuf, while Toledano, who “ate meat yes­ter­day”, chooses fish. He or­ders a to­ma­to juice, “not too spi­cy”, and after some dis­cus­sion of wine, to which my contri­bu­tion is, “I’ll drink any­thing”, se­lects two glasses of bur­gun­dy. Ini­tial conver­sa­tion is in­ter­rup­ted by the ar­ri­val of va­rious ap­pe­ti­sers: Gruyère puffs, bread de cam­pagne and a small toast amuse-bouche top­ped with what, on fur­ther in­qui­ry, turns out to be a “rillette of sar­dine”.

I want to crack on im­me­dia­te­ly with a dis­cus­sion of the de­si­gner ap­point­ment. The long wait for Toledano’s an­noun­ce­ment has been punc­tua­ted by mo­ments of wild spe­cu­la­tion. Will Sa­rah Bur­ton be lu­red from Alexan­der Mc­Queen? Will He­di Sli­mane, new­ly li­be­ra­ted from YSL, come back to Toledano, the man who first ap­poin­ted him head of Dior Homme? Will it be an in­side job? But, seeing as we have three courses and a bit of wine co­ming, I ask him ins­tead about his child­hood in Ca­sa­blan­ca, and how a student of maths and en­gi­nee­ring from Mo­roc­co en­ded up ma­na­ging a ma­jor fa­shion house.

Born to a Spa­nish Mo­roc­can fa­ther and Tur­kish mo­ther, Toledano was rai­sed in a Je­wish hou­se­hold in a ci­ty de­fi­ned by its mixed cultu­ral mi­lieu. “I left in ’69,” he ex­plains. “But it was ra­ther dif­ferent. There were ex­cellent re­la­tion­ships bet­ween the com­mu­ni­ties: French, Ita­lian, Jews, Mus­lims, Ca­tho­lics. I ne­ver heard the term ‘ra­cist’ gro­wing up. One rea­son my name is Sidney is that I was na­med after one of the Ame­ri­can sol­diers who li­be­ra­ted Mo­roc­co from Vi­chy rule in Ca­sa­blan­ca in 1942.”

His ear­ly in­te­rest in fa­shion al­so owed so­me­thing to the Ame­ri­cans. “My fa­ther bought pa­ra­chutes from the US ar­my and made shirts from the silks. My grand­fa­ther from Tur­key star­ted one of the first fac­to­ries of knit­wear in Ca­sa­blan­ca.” Fa­shion per­mea­ted the cul­ture of Mo­roc­co and ma­ny of his child­hood friends work in the in­dus­try. Jo­seph Et­ted­gui, of Jo­seph, used to cut his mo­ther’s hair; he sat next to Puig’s pre­sident Ralph Toledano in class. “I can drop a lot of names from Ca­sa­blan­ca,” he says. “We like fa­shion.”

Even so, after at­ten­ding en­gi­nee­ring col­lege in Pa­ris, his first job was as an in­tern in the steel in­dus­try. When this fai­led to ins­pire him, Toledano ans­we­red an ad to join the mar­ke­ting com­pa­ny AC Niel­sen, where he ac­qui­red work ex­pe­rience in Bra­zil and a to­le­rance for “after-hours drin­king” in Min­nea­po­lis. He mo­ved in­to the fa­shion in­dus­try in the 1980s at Ki­ckers, then the French lea­ther house Lan­cel.

In 1994 he star­ted at Dior, where an ear­ly triumph found him over­seeing the launch of the La­dy Dior hand­bag, which has gone on to be­come as sy­no­ny­mous with the brand as the ear­ly Bar ja­ckets and skirts of the New Look. “I have a pas­sion for pro­ducts,” he says, “so­me­times I say, ‘The bags talk to me.’ ” Toledano re­mains ex­tre­me­ly hand­son about re­tail: he’s been known to rear­range the rails in store when they fail to ex­cite him.

Made pre­sident and chief exe­cu­tive in 1998, his te­nure has coin­ci­ded with a per­iod of im­mense growth for Dior, with the ope­ning of 200 new stores. “Turnover was about €134m when I star­ted,” he tells me over the lan­gous­tines, the de­li­cate fla­vours com­ple­men­ted by the pi­quant green sauce. “We al­rea­dy had the cul­ture at Dior, but we had to be more agile and reac­tive,” he ex­plains. “This is why I al­ways say, ‘If bu­si­ness is not good, don’t stay in the of­fice’. Some people try to find out what’s wrong through the num­bers. But if you stay in the of­fice, no­thing will change.”

For a ma­the­ma­ti­cian, Toledano is ca­sual­ly dis­mis­sive of too much fi­nan­cial ana­ly­sis. “My fa­ther taught me it’s bet­ter to have no ex­pla­na­tion for suc­cess than a lot of ex­pla­na­tions for a fai­lure. Suc­cess is in­tui­tion, ac­tion, de­ci­sion and take some risks. Frank­ly, num­bers; I see them eve­ry day when I get the world­wide up­date. I can see eve­ry single fi­gure for eve­ry single piece. But I don’t spend more than 10 to 15 mi­nutes on it be­cause I fol­low them eve­ry day.

“It’s like a good doc­tor. They see the num­bers ve­ry qui­ck­ly - tem­pe­ra­ture, wha­te­ver - but they talk to the pa­tient. I’ve ne­ver seen a doc­tor fixing a pro­blem with a ther­mo­me­ter. And you ne­ver fix a pro­blem with the num­bers. Don’t look and you miss eve­ry­thing.” Toledano shares sto­ries with wit and a sort of be­ne­volent pa­ter­na­lism. “I took a plane one day and I was sit­ting be­side a young man, thir­ty­so­me­thing years old,” he ex­plains as we be­gin our en­trées: my fillet, which is ex­tra­va­gant­ly large, per­fect­ly rare and sat on a bed of but­te­red as­pa­ra­gus; his sea bass, grilled, and ser­ved with a ve­ge­table ca­po­na­ta. “As soon as we took off he took out his lap­top. He didn’t say even hel­lo to me. I ne­ver take do­cu­ments with me be­cause I don’t want to be spied on. And I like to talk to people. This guy was wor­king in the luxu­ry in­dus­try. He didn’t look at me at all. It’s not that he should have re­co­gni­sed me. But he could have tal­ked with me, maybe got an op­por­tu­ni­ty for a job, lear­ned so­me­thing. You have to un­ders­tand, even ma­na­ging, what’s hap­pe­ning in the world, what people are - what the mood is.”

Toledano’s stra­te­gy, as de­fi­ned by him­self and Ar­nault, is simple. You have to think long-term, re­gard­less of an Asian eco­no­mic col­lapse, Brexit (he’s against), or a ra­cist out­burst by a fe­ted but al­co­ho­lic de­si­gner who ver­bal­ly at­tacks di­ners in a lo­cal bar. “Dior has to be one of the top glo­bal fa­shion brands for the next 10 years; maybe 50. So, you can­not do any­thing that could put in dan­ger the name of Dior. Pro­tect the brand, the re­pu­ta­tion of the brand. They used to say in the in­dus­try: lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion, lo­ca­tion. I say people, people, people; you in­vest in stores, you in­vest in events, but in­vest­ment in people is the most im­por­tant.” Which brings us ra­ther neat­ly to the ap­point­ment of the new Dior wo­mens­wear de­si­gner. He’s clear­ly ta­ken the long-term view on that as well? “It’s on­ly been six months,” laughs Toledano. “It was one year last time. Re­mem­ber? With John [Gal­lia­no], it was over a year . . . The people in­side are not wor­ried. The on­ly im­pa­tience is among the press. The stores are re­cei­ving the col­lec­tion, and no­bo­dy’s as­king who the de­si­gner is. No­bo­dy!” In­deed, in spite of the crea­tive ab­sence, Dior has been get­ting on with bu­si­ness in ty­pi­cal­ly bom­bas­tic style. Over the next week, the French fa­shion house will present a stan­da­lone cruise show at Blen­heim Pa­lace, and snip the rib­bon on a vast flag­ship store on Lon­don’s New Bond Street. The shows go on. But, even so . . . I sug­gest that I list names and he can twitch his eye when I hit the right one. He­di Sli­mane is avai­lable, for example. So is Al­ber El­baz, the for­mer Lan­vin de­si­gner who shares the same ul­tra-fe­mi­nine aes­the­tic - and car­riage - as Dior’s foun­ding fa­ther. “I will eat my fish, and I will not look you in the eyes,” says Toledano, who then de­flects the sub­ject by pro­bing me about my pro­fes­sio­nal ca­reer and la­men­ting the current stan­dards of fa­shion wri­ting. “You should talk more, if I may, about fa­shion it­self,” he ad­vises. “About the garment. There’s too much tal­king about the over­view, what’s hap­pe­ning, the ce­le­bri­ty, the ve­nue, the po­li­tics . . . ” The crea­tive mo­ve­ment, I add lea­din­gly. All those de­si­gner exits and en­trances . . . “You keep co­ming back to this.” He says. “You know, this res­tau­rant has ma­ny exits and ma­ny en­trances al­so.” He concedes. “Do we need a de­si­gner? Yes. More than any­bo­dy else I want a de­si­gner be­cause I know my ma­chine, I know the or­ga­ni­sa­tion. But a com­pa­ny is like a sa­tel­lite,” he conti­nues. “To start you need a lot of ener­gy and then it will pro­pel it­self for a while. And when you want to change you need ener­gy and the de­si­gner gives it a new vi­sion. But that doesn’t mean, when the pre­vious one is lea­ving, that there’s an emer­gen­cy. The im­pulse pro­vi­ded by the pre­vious de­si­gner will al­low the com­pa­ny to move ahead - and that gives us time to re­de­fine who will be the per­fect fit.” The mains are clea­red and we are pre­sen­ted with a des­sert me­nu of ob­noxious­ly un­heal­thy temp­ta­tions. We de­cide to share a re­li­gieuse, an un­ho­ly confec­tion of choux pas­try, fon­dant icing and a sal­ted ca­ra­mel cream filling. I won­der if a re­la­tive lack of crea­tive au­to­no­my at Dior has been a sti­cking point with po­ten­tial can­di­dates? Toledano sighs. “First of all, a de­si­gner needs to give a vi­sion as much as they can. And if you are a small com­pa­ny, then you can give more ideas. But when the com­pa­ny’s big . . . ” He shakes his head. “Do you think that Karl La­ger­feld is doing the stores for Cha­nel? No. Mr Pe­ter Ma­ri­no [the ar­chi­tect] is doing the stores at Cha­nel, just as he’s doing the stores at Dior. “You can­not ask the de­si­gner to be in­vol­ved in eve­ry­thing in a big com­pa­ny,” he adds. “They won’t do that.

They com­plain al­rea­dy they have too much work. They can­not com­plain on one side and say we need time to be crea­tive, and then ask for full po­wer.” It is a strange pa­ra­dox that Si­mons’ de­par­ture was bla­med both on the num­ber of col­lec­tions he was ex­pec­ted to de­li­ver and the fact he didn’t have full crea­tive control. But Toledano is fair­ly un­sym­pa­the­tic to the pres­sures fa­ced by the mo­dern de­si­gner. “We had ma­ny shows at the time of Ch­ris­tian Dior him­self,” says Toledano. “They were tra­vel­ling a lot, shows in Mos­cow, in Rio, in Bue­nos Aires, in Mexi­co - you can’t ima­gine. They were wor­king ve­ry hard. People have no idea how dif­fi­cult it was. Dior took the boat to the US. He had to go to Texas to meet Nei­man Mar­cus.” It’s worth no­ting that a de­cade after foun­ding his house in 1946 Dior died while on ho­li­day in Ita­ly. Al­though the exact cause of death isn’t known (some say he had a heart at­tack while ha­ving in­ter­course, others that he cho­ked on a fi­sh­bone), it seems his ra­pa­cious work ethic, and pas­sion for food, pro­ved a ha­bit even more in­ju­rious than Gal­lia­no’s ad­dic­tions 60 years la­ter. Being a de­si­gner has al­ways been a dan­ge­rous job. As for Toledano, he’s been around long en­ough to know how to wea­ther change, and has a ful­filling fa­mi­ly life to dis­tract him. Mar­ried since 1981 to Ka­tia, their three chil­dren are now aged 33, 29 and 23. He was a fair­ly in­dul­gent pa­rent who al­lo­wed his chil­dren ma­ny free­doms, he says, but he had some rules and they seem equal­ly re­le­vant as ma­na­ge­ment tips. “To res­pect and va­lue things, don’t spoil, don’t waste and be­have. That’s it. You have to be­have.” I won­der how he be­haves in a cri­sis? “We had pro­blems when John left,” he says. “But that was a mo­ment where I had to be calm, sup­por­tive. I tal­ked to people, I tal­ked to my team. When a si­tua­tion is real­ly bad I think I’m ve­ry calm. But if so­me­bo­dy doesn’t do things right on a de­tail . . . ” He mo­tions to our des­sert, ex­pert­ly spli­ced in two and now oo­zing ca­ra­mel on to the plate. “Say we had to cut this cake and you don’t do it, just be­cause you have no res­pect for what we say, ve­ry clear­ly, then I’m not so sweet. But I don’t hu­mi­liate, I hate that.” He is at an age when he might rea­so­na­bly consi­der re­ti­re­ment. A few of his close friends have died re­cent­ly. His mo­ther died while he was still a student but his fa­ther, Bo­ris, is still ac­tive in Mo­roc­co aged 96. Is Toledano si­mi­lar­ly heal­thy? “So far, so good,” he shrugs. “But from time to time . . . ” he waves to­wards the re­mai­ning spoon­ful of cake. “I like life.” He says his ap­pe­tites are symp­to­ma­tic of his “Me­di­ter­ra­nean blood”. He reads books eve­ry day, “all the pa­pers”, and loves film: he once wan­ted to be a film di­rec­tor and saw Hi­ro­shi­ma Mon Amour, the 1959 film by Alain Res­nais, 12 times be­cause he “wan­ted to un­ders­tand it”. He al­so en­joys tra­vel, ex­cept for the Air France flight on which he, his wife and the ac­tress Ma­rion Co­tillard - en route to a Dior event in New York - plum­me­ted 700 metres and had to turn back to Pa­ris due to ca­bin staff in­ju­ry. He sug­ges­ted that Dior might be for­ced to exa­mine its ex­tre­me­ly ge­ne­rous re­la­tion­ship with the air­line un­less its pre­sident of­fe­red a rea­so­nable ex­pla­na­tion for the in­con­ve­nience. The pre­sident took the call. It’s hard to ima­gine a man with this kind of in­fluence re­lin­qui­shing the role of cor­po­rate pa­ter­fa­mi­lias soon. We’ve been spea­king for more than two hours, had three glasses of wine, and two cof­fees. Toledano’s phone rings. “Oui, Oui,” he re­plies. “J’ar­rive.” We say good­bye and he makes his way, quite un­hur­ried­ly, to­wards the door. Ra­ther like those awai­ting news of the next Dior de­si­gner, whoe­ver it is will have to wait a bit lon­ger.■

Newspapers in French

Newspapers from Tunisia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.