Gucci discovers sleek-line tonic for departure of Tom Ford

Gucci's reputation was riding on the house's menswear collection being shown last night in Milan.

Gucci's reputation was riding on the house's menswear collection being shown last night in Milan.

Since the shock exit of Gucci Group creative director Tom Ford last March, the company has faced an uncertain future.

The regime change was not smooth as John Ray, the Scotsman appointed to succeed Ford, showed a lukewarm debut collection last season. Though Ray had worked with Ford since 1996, he had a vast pair of loafers to fill.

But last night's show for autumn/winter 2005 was a crowd-pleasing, confident display with Gucci's sexy, slick DNA written right through it.

Ray defined the collection as "pure elegance, fuelled by the sophistication, integrity and passion of [Italian film maestro Luchino] Visconti.'' Distinguée Le Smoking jackets in oyster, black and silver satin were divinely decadent, while a silver velvet suit and baroque printed silk dressing gowns were straight out of Noël Coward's Private Lives .

Profits at Gucci are surely set to soar over and above the current 8 per cent growth with a collection as classy and commercial. As Ray says: "The essentials in clothing are found in their quality'', and this was a rich collection in every sense of the word.

Gucci's press office says: "Ray describes himself as an extremely private person.'' This reticence is in sharp contrast to his predecessor who was a permanent fixture on the Hollywood circuit, with dashing, movie-star looks. Gucci misses Ford's star quality, but Ray is looking increasingly comfortable in the hot seat.

The fate of Gucci, post Tom Ford, will be watched closely by Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of the rival French luxury goods group, LVMH. In 1995, the year Ford became creative director and brought the house back from the dead, Arnault acquired a 5 per cent stake in Gucci. By 1999, LVMH's stake had increased to 27 per cent. Arnault's rival, the working-class hero Francois Pinault, the richest man in France with a fortune estimated at £3.2bn, was Gucci's white knight, and acquired 100 per cent of the Gucci Group last March.

Under the direction of chief executive Domenico de Sole and Ford, Gucci Group bought Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, the jeweller Boucheron, Sergio Rossi and Yves St Laurent.

Yet within a month of Pinault's company PPR (Pinault Printemps Redoute) finally acquiring all of the Gucci Group, the men who built the empire were out. Ford and de Sole were arguably the most glamorous and successful double act in international fashion. For Gucci Group to let them go seemed like commercial suicide.

But the front row has now had time to absorb the shock of Ford's departure and is ready for the new chapter that Ray wrote last night.

The fashion industry is also waiting with bated breath for Ford's next move. Last week, the fashion website WGSN reported that he and de Sole were in talks with the Italian luxury goods group AEFFE Spa (owned by the designer Alberta Ferretti) to launch an own-label womenswear collection. Ford denies the claim but added the intriguing proviso that he would only return to fashion in partnership with de Sole.

Ford has already published a glossy tome chronicling his decade as creative director of Gucci Group. Rumours of the former actor's return in front of, or behind, the cameras have come to nothing. Fashion misses Tom Ford, and he will doubtless be back, given an appropriate deal.

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