Fashion rocked! Ford takes his leave of the house of Gucci

Three weeks ago Tom Ford, the clean-cut genius behind Gucci, was approached after his latest Yves Saint Laurent show in Paris by a greying man who placed two fervent kisses on each of his cheeks.

In the luvvy-dominated world of high fashion, empty embraces of designers from admirers are as routine as slingback stilettos and free Dom Perignon. But this one was supposed to have meaning.

The older man, accompanied by the wife of the French President, Jacques Chirac, was Francois Pinault, 67, the luxury goods tycoon whose PPR group owns nearly 70 per cent of Gucci and will next year assume total control of the Italian brand favoured by Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Posh and Becks.

For M. Pinault, the embrace was a public demonstration of his close link with Ford, the smooth-talking Texan who, with Gucci's chief executive, Domenico De Sole, turned a terminally tacky label associated with loafers and glittery belts and revenues of £130m into a £2bn fashion conglomerate in little more than a decade.

Yesterday, the significance (or lack of it) for Ford of the double embrace from one of the world's richest men - and Gucci's financial "white knight" - became clear when he and De Sole abruptly announced they were leaving Gucci after failing to reach an agreement with PPR to renew their contracts.

Despite several weeks of rumours that negotiations were in trouble, the rupture between the Ford/De Sole double act and their glittering creation was a surprise to many who had seen the delay as a tactic to squeeze concessions from PPR.

But in a statement yesterday, Ford hinted he had left only because of fundamental difficulties. "It is with great sadness that I contemplate my future without Gucci Group," he said. "For the past 13 years, this company has been my life."

Opinion is split on whether the divorce represented a serious blow to M. Pinault and PPR, who have lost two of the most admired names in the cut-throat world of couture, or whether Gucci will steer a path back to ever-greater glamour and profit.

Anna Wintour, the British editor of the US Vogue and one of fashion's power brokers, said last week that the loss of Ford would be a "catastrophe" for the Milan-based group. She told The New York Times: "He means a huge amount in terms of presenting an image of fashion to the public. You take him out of the equation and you're left with a big hole."

The departure of the 42-year-old designer certainly concludes a stellar partnership that revolutionised the fortunes of Gucci, which had been in danger of bankruptcy under an avalanche of gaudy leatherware and moribund collections before Ford's arrival.

Catwalk legend has it that the American, whose success has helped him to buy homes from Santa Fe to Chelsea, transformed Gucci's fortunes with a single collection in 1995, relying heavily on his selling point: sex appeal.

One fashion commentator said yesterday: "Tom Ford's Gucci is about a very definite sexiness and glamour. He recognised a vital truth, fashion is about selling and without a hint of sex you don't sell."

Buoyed by a rapid revival in Gucci financial fortunes after 1995, Ford and De Sole, 59, an urbane Italian-American who is the deal-maker for the group, embarked on rapid expansion through aggressive acquisition.

Ford was determined to secure talent for the future. He used his friendships with Stella McCartney and the British enfant terrible Alexander McQueen to sell their eponymous labels to the Gucci group and work under its umbrella.

The buying spree reached its height two years ago when Gucci bought nine labels, led by the £600m purchase of perhaps the most mythical name in French fashion, Yves Saint Laurent. After the departure of the label's up-and-coming designer Alber Elbaz, Ford installed himself as YSL creative director, to mixed reviews.

But on the more fundamental level of finance Ford and De Sole hit the most trouble, which caused them to seek salvation from the man with whom they yesterday parted company. In 1999, Gucci's luxury goods rival, LVMH, launched a hostile takeover bid that was only narrowly defeated when De Sole and Ford approached M. Pinault and PPR (Pinault Printemps Redoute) to buy Gucci in a counter-deal, which caused months of bitter recrimination, legal action and claims of dirty tricks.

Under this deal, M. Pinault took a 68 per cent stake in Gucci and agreed to buy the remaining 32 per cent in 2004 at a fixed price of $85 (£51)a share. The total cost of £1.6bn is now widely considered excessive.

The global luxury goods industry, to which Gucci has contributed such items as a branded yoga mat and leather travel kennel, suffered a rapid downturn after the 11 September attacks and subsequent international scares such as the Sars outbreak.

In the first quarter of 2003, Gucci Group's profits fell by 97 per cent followed by a drop of 47 per cent for the second quarter. As final negotiations were under way with PPR this summer, De Sole said that since August overall retail sales had recovered significantly but losses were continuing at Yves Saint Laurent and other labels beyond the core Gucci business.

To complete M. Pinault's dream of adding Gucci to his repertoire, his holding company, which also owns Christie's auction house, has been selling other parts of the empire to raise funds. Ford and De Sole are believed to have wanted to retain managerial control, contrary to M. Pinault's insistence on keeping a tight rein on his businesses, and that persuaded the two to leave Gucci.

Financial analysts seem to agree Gucci was a lesser enterprise without its two leading lights. Its shares were last night down €1.5 to €73.7 (£52). Claire Kent, the analyst with Morgan Stanley in London whose judgement on haute couture groups is considered as important as any catwalk critic, said last month that Gucci's "intrinsic value" was difficult to evaluate if Ford and De Sole left. Andrew Gowen, an analyst with Lehman Brothers in London, said: "In my view, they were a good management team and their loss does not instil an automatic sense of confidence."

Others insist Gucci will emerge largely unscathed. One fashion buyer said: "This is a huge company with strong names such as McQueen and Balenciaga. Important as Ford might be, he is not bigger than the brand."

Gucci, which insisted its break with Ford and De Sole was "absolutely amicable", has until next April to find their successors. Among the early runners to take over from De Sole, who described the brand as "one of the great loves of my life", is Mike Metcalf, the finance chief of Burberry, who is leaving the company in March.

The future for Ford remains more tantalising. The designer has been linked to a deal to repeat his resuscitation of Gucci at Versace, although neither party will officially confirm interest. The American, whose fortune has grown by $190m (£116m) in the past three years alone, may strike out on his own. Other observers of the domination of Ford as the senior statesman of designers and master of thousands of sexy black creations wonder whether there is much more in fashion to interest him.

Ford had said: "My fuel is no longer ambition. I don't need money any more. I don't need recognition any more. My drive is now totally personal, to do something I'm proud of."

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