Serge Brunschwig: The Arlesian in Rome
It’s unlikely any fashion CEO will oversee a more epic runway show this year than Serge Brunschwig, the chief executive of Fendi, whose Roman luxury house held a historic show inside ancient Rome's oldest temple on Thursday night.
Brunschwig took command of Fendi in early 2018, leaving a position as president of Dior Homme. Part of a waltz of CEOs within the LVMH group, which saw his predecessor at Fendi, Pietro Beccari, take command at Christian Dior, and his former Dior boss, Sidney Toledano leave to manage all of LVMH's "smaller" brands. An odd idea, seeing as this stable of houses boasts a combined turnover in excess of 3 billion euros.
Born in Arles, 52-year-old Brunschwig has had to negotiate the passing of Karl Lagerfeld, who was creative director of Fendi for 54 years – the longest reign in history of any designer at a luxury marque. A delicate task requiring subtlety and sensitivity, the latest step of which was Thursday’s show in the Temple of Venus and Roma, the first couture show, or Fendi Fourrure, since the late great Lagerfeld left this world.
Brunschwig only decided to stage the show in the Forum with Lagerfeld approval. And the show was ultimately a homage to the German couturier, who created the famed double F logo of Fendi, and basically reinvented the entire fur industry by treating fur as a raw material that could be shaved, smeared, knitted and woven into the most complicated designs.
The show was a decided triumph: from the "new materials" like intarsia fur that mimicked ancient Roman marble floors to the staging before the illuminated Colosseum to the exotic audience – Susan Sarandon, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Zendaya and scores of beautiful Italian noblewomen and actresses, strolling through the ancient ruins of the Eternal City.
Most observers believe Brunschwig has two tough acts to follow: his immediate predecessor Beccari drove Fendi’s turnover to over 1 billion euros, using brand power and notably developing a whole category of fur fashion accessories and toys – most famously the Karlito bag charm. Before him, Michael Burke who took command after LVMH acquired majority control of Fendi in 2001, is judged to have done an excellent job right-sizing and streamlining a mid-sized family fur business run by five sisters.
Brunschwig appears to have gotten off to a good start. Then again he is highly experienced, as his CV shows. He worked in New York with McKinsey and later moved to Hong Kong, where he managed Vuitton Asia, from 1996 to 2000, reporting "to my great boss" Yves Carcelle. Subsequently, he did stints at Sephora and Celine – the latter as president – before moving to Dior.
In person, Brunschwig has the brisk energy of a senior LVMH exec, modulated by a Cartesian manner of reasoning and the no-nonsense approach of a Provençal. He hails from Arles, the ancient Phoenician walled city in the Camargue that was eventual home of Vincent van Gogh, and the historic success of which was assured by siding with Julius Caesar in Rome’s Civil War.
So, we caught up with Brunschwig on the afternoon of the show in Palazzo della Civilità Italiana, a giant Rationalist building that looks as though it has been lifted from a de Chirico dream, and was built in the 1930s. Here is his take on managing a hinge moment in Fendi history, fine-tuning the house’s retail business, creating spectacular events, and managing the house’s digital future.
FashionNetwork.com: Why stage this show in Rome?
Serge Brunschwig: Lots of reasons. I believe as a Roman house we have to show in this city sometimes. And this is the right time. When I arrived here I thought Fendi had to maintain its tradition of great fashion runways – like models walking on water at the Trevi Fountain or marching along the Great Wall of China.
In September, I found myself in the temple of Venus and I went 'wow!' So, we created a dossier and I spent an evening showing it to Karl and his response was ‘Très bien! Let’s do it.’
But then he was not well, and very sadly he passed. Still, we relooked at the idea and said let’s do this project it’s the right moment for an homage to Karl.
FNW: The wheels of Roman bureaucracy are famously slow and complicated. Was it difficult to obtain permission?
SB: Frankly it was not so hard to get the rights. It’s an archaeological park – and the arrangement we made was to restore this temple. We have committed 2.5 million euros. Moreover, it’s also interesting for the Forum to have a moment of such beauty. That leaves a trace and helps the city of Rome.
FNW: How does managing a Roman brand like Fendi differ from a Paris couture house like Dior?
SB: If you like, the difference is clear and in some ways there is none. Both are fashion and luxury brands. So the same principles apply: one must have creativity, excellence and the will to do well.
That said, in Italy, one finds a potential to create and a speed to certify that is extraordinary. Sure, we also have that in France. But in Italy, when you suggest something at a conference table, in three weeks they come back with a small mountain of ideas; plus they say, ‘why not that or this?’
It’s a pleasure to work here. The people are very simpatico and always in good humor. I love France but when you are French you are well appreciated here. If you like, it's super agreeable – to live in Rome and Italy is a dream come true!
FNW: What are your annul revenues and what sort of year are you having?
SB: As you know, Godfrey, in LVMH we don’t break out the annual turnover of our brands.
FNW: What are your plans for retail expansion?
SB: The idea is to make not more stores but even more interesting stores; suitably big and with a great sales team and a great variety of products. Less stores but more beautiful.
Digital is all about convenience. So, the exigency has risen for any store. It has to be a whole new phenomenon. To me, when you went in a boutique 20 years ago, that’s what you get today in digital.
FNW: The big buzzword in retailing is omnichannel. What is Fendi’s mix of e-tailing, brick-and-mortar, pop-up and order-online-collect-in-store?
SB: Omnichannel, hmmm. To me what’s important is great service. The client comes to a store to be served and not just so we can show him a lot of screens. Naturally, screens help a client to know about the brand. But we must not fool ourselves about why people come into our stores.
Fendi is a very rich brand – in men, women, fur and accessories we have tremendous choices. If you look at our Rome boutique, it works even better than it should. What will be the eventual breakdown in retailing? That is impossible to say, but in my mind digital will always remain a minority.
FNW: What’s your definition of Fendi’s DNA?
SB: I can only speak for today. It’s a house bursting with ideas to develop new products – within our codes and techniques. Right now, I think this brand has plenty to say. During 54 years of Karl Lagerfeld it never stopped changing and that should continue for sure.
FNW: Just judging from the quantity of Chinese guests at Fendi shows, China must be a huge market?
SB: It’s one of our biggest markets – and should be our biggest. Our priority is growing existing boutiques. And we’ve been busy. We recently did a great show in Shanghai – men and women added together – in the Powerlong Museum – une spirale blanche. Not a small thing.
FNW: Given Karl’s passing this is a fulcrum moment for the house, in what direction do you see Fendi developing in the future?
SB: Karl he left us in full action. He worked until the very end and left the sense of a record for that reason. He left without saying goodbye in a certain way – but with his breath still blowing through the house. It’s like he still is here in a certain way.
FNW: You have a small Fendi Inn in central Rome. When can we have a great Fendi hotel? What new product categories do you want to develop?
SB: We have interior license for Fendi Casa with Luxury Living, an Italian company managed very well by Signor Alberto Vignatelli. Our only other license is for sunglasses. Perfume? We don’t have one, and we have to reflect about that.
FNW: The big buzz word of the moment is sustainability? What has Fendi been doing?
SB: Sustainability is important. The world needs all our support. But to me, it’s a question for Fendi of savoir-faire – of human tranquillity in the company. Offering our great jobs, and great products. Formation is essential, so is making the métier of craftsmanship more attractive for the population. In my view, it has an image deficit. Look at cooking: 20 years ago, working in a kitchen was not so cool. Now being a
chef has now become very attractive. They are stars. So we need to work on that. Especially in Italy. Since this country needs more jobs.
FNW: London Fashion Week has officially banned furs from all its catwalks and every month a new house – from Gucci to Ralph Lauren to Burberry – announce that they are quitting fur. What is your plan?
SB: In terms of the environment, we work on our supply chain and the impact we have on nature. Using natural materials as much as possible – like all furs as a matter of fact. And, respecting the rights of animals, all our fur supplies are traceable. We do our jobs and we are proud to work with furs and we do this creatively.
You have to be proud of what you do. It is nothing illegal and in a sense this change makes things easier for us. But we respect the choices of our colleagues.
FNW: Could you define the Fendi client?
SB: Clients are like a pyramid. We are at the highest point of all the Italian brands.The same as Chanel and Dior, that’s why we do couture. But the plan is also to go large. And create charming accessories. Hence, we have a pretty wide clientele and they are all very welcome.
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