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
LUNCH WITH THE FT
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.■