Gucci names Unilever ice cream man as new chief

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Gucci snubbed the fashion world yesterday by naming an ice-cream executive to replace Domenico De Sole, the man who turned the struggling group into one of the world's most sought-after fashion labels during his 11 years at the helm.

Robert Polet, 48, will take over as chief executive on 1 July, by which time the Italian luxury house will be part of the French retail conglomerate Pinault Printemps Redoute.

Mr Polet's appointment shocked both luxury goods and consumer goods analysts, who pointed to his lack of experience in the fashion world. As head of the Gucci Group, Mr Polet will oversee a raft of catwalk labels, from Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney to Alexander McQueen and Gucci itself, which accounts for the majority of the company's sales and profits.

Mr Polet, a Unilever lifer, worked his way up through the ranks at the Anglo-Dutch food and household products group. Most recently, he headed the consumer giant's $7.8bn ice-cream business, which spans brands from Wall's Cornetto to Ben & Jerry's.

Analysts, most of whom had never laid eyes on Mr Polet, questioned whether he would be able to stand up to Serge Weinberg, PPR's chairman, whose authoritarian inclinations prompted the departure of the so-called "dream team" - Mr De Sole and his designer Tom Ford. Messrs De Sole and Ford resigned last November, frustrated at the prospect of being reined in by Mr Weinberg.

But Mr Weinberg pledged yesterday that Gucci would be free to make its own operating decisions, despite making it clear that PPR would hold the financial purse strings. "He [Mr Polet] is the boss," he said.

Mr Weinberg said Mr Polet's "broad experience in developing brands, his entrepreneurial and managerial talents and his ability to be both a leader and team player make him an ideal choice to run Gucci". Adrian Bellamy, Gucci's chairman, said Mr Polet brought "a deep knowledge of consumer brands". The decision to appoint Mr Polet completes PPR's low-key line up for the glitzy catwalk label. It ended the group's era of superstar designers last month when it opted to split Mr Ford's role at the fashion helm of Gucci and YSL between four low-profile designers.

Moira Benigson, a headhunter specialising in the fashion industry, questioned whether Mr Polet would know how to continue the momentum built up by Messrs De Sole and Ford. "I don't think that a person so far away from fashion will know what to do with the brand," she said.