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Ferragamo // ODLR

The Georgetown Retail & Luxury Association, in collaboration with the Italian Embassy in D.C., hosted an event featuring luxury fashion houses with roots in Italy or Italian manufacturing. The two guests were Massimo Ferragamo, youngest son of Salvatore Ferragamo and chair of Ferragamo USA, and Alex Bolen, C.E.O. of Oscar de la Renta. To begin the conference, both men gave a short history of their respective companies…

Massimo Ferragamo put a strong emphasis on the family aspect of his company, beginning with the story of his father, Salvatore. Ferragamo was born in 1898 (yes, 1898) in Italy. By the time he was a young teenager, he had already developed his love for shoe making – he opened his own business at the age of 14. Salvatore then moved to Santa Barbara, California to follow a dream of entrepreneurship in the United States. After some time, he relocated to Beverly Hills and opened a custom (made-to-measure) shoe boutique there, where he quickly built a star-studded clientele base. He moved back to Florence, Italy before the 1930s, striving to build his business even through severe economic crises and the Second World War. Salvatore Ferragamo died in 1960. His wife and daughters, despite hardship, decided that they could not let his dream die; they continued the business and expanded it to cover more markets than just women’s shoes. Today, Ferragamo – though a public company – is still owned and operated by its founding family, including Massimo who chairs the United States division.

Alex Bolen, while not a direct relative of Oscar de la Renta, also stressed the community and family atmosphere that exists within ODLR. Oscar de la Renta was born in the Dominican Republic. As a young man, he traveled to Spain with dreams of becoming an artist. For some extra pocket change, he sketched dresses for local fashion houses. Oscar was quickly noticed, and was soon hired to design a gown for the U.S. Ambassador to Spain. Bolen told us that this dress, which appeared on the cover of Life magazine, was what Oscar looked to as the beginning of his fashion career. ODLR then began an apprenticeship with Cristobal Balenciaga (casual, right?), and his career grew from there. After years working for other designers, he began his own couture brand. His specialty was evening gowns and bridal. He then moved into the world of ready-to-wear, where ODLR has remained to this day. The company, unlike Ferragamo, has remained private. Two long-time designers for ODLR – Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia – have recently taken over positions as co-creative directors for the company.

On to the meat of the conference: the questions.

The first question dealt with public vs. private companies (as far as being publicly traded). As previously mentioned, Ferragamo is a public company, with 48% of its shares on the market, while ODLR is not. Despite this difference, both men agreed that running a business in this industry is not necessarily about who owns the shares, but the way the business is cared for. Community and passion for the brand ties into the way the brand connects with the public, and therefore dictates how the business will run.

Second question: how has social media and digital technology changed the way the fashion and retail world operates? Both Bolen and Ferragamo, though they are (admittedly) personally behind in the social media spectrum, believe that the new digital world has had a very prominent impact on the world of fashion, especially because it is a visual industry. Bolen championed designers like Tom Ford, who have forgone the idea of having a runway shoe in favor of doing social media and video campaigns. Bolen believes that an investment in social media can only lead to a positive return (spoken like a true finance man). Ferragamo, in answering a sub-question (how do you “treat customers like princesses” if they are clicking an add-to-cart button online?), focused more on the content aspect. He believes that women can still feel like princesses online if they are given exclusive access – a backstage take on the brand and on the fashion world. It’s the custom care that has made Ferragamo the brand it is today, after all.

The third question: what are your views on the “see now, buy now” concept that has appeared in recent seasons? Bolen stressed that ODLR, as a company, was against this concept for themselves, but thought it was an interesting idea for other brands. He says that digital media has created and now offers an important service to fashion customers, however the happy medium between traditional selling style and “see now, buy now” is a fine line to walk. Ferragamo gave an entirely different answer, saying that there should be “no seasons,” and that in the coming years, fashion shows will be obsolete. Massimo believes that a brand should “create what [it creates!” with more focus on a “flow” rather than what is popular or trending for a certain season. Technology, says Ferragamo, might be the link to this ideal “flow” concept.

As a preview to the next question: one important aspect that tied these two brands together is their belief in the quality of Italian manufacturing – the way Italian manufacturers take the greatest care in the fashion world in order to create the highest quality products.

Now we can move on to the fourth questions… the one we were all waiting for…

Fast fashion vs. luxury brands. Bolen told us that, while fast fashion has built its own market and is great for customers’ bank accounts, the quality of it greatly suffers. One plus of fast fashion, Bolen believes, is that it gets consumers accustomed to “dressing up” and looking current, which may eventually lead them to the luxury brands. Ferragamo also commented on the quality, but advocated the thinking behind fast fashion. He says that “brand identity is important, but it can’t stay stagnant – we must always look forward as fast fashion does.”

The next question came from a woman trying to build her own luxury brand (exciting!), so pay attention, fashion students! She wanted to know how to gain the trust and favor of wholesalers and department stores. Bolen said that its “critical to stand for something,” and to create an identity within your brand. For example, if using the best fabrics available is part of your identity, capitalize on that – build a following and a solid market based on this principle. Also, Bolen said that wholesale is traditionally the first step toward building a brand, but e-commerce and digital retailing allow one to cut out the middle man – he advises this.

And now, for the final question…

What do you look for in young talent?

Ferragamo wants new, bold ideas, not just in the traditionally “fashion” aspects of the industry but in all sides; finance, marketing, social media, design, selling concepts – the works. Bolen, on the other hand, said that it’s “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” The value of hard work, for Bolen, is immeasurable and cannot be overstated. “Be the first one to show up and the last to leave,” he says, because it makes an impact on those around you, especially your higher-ups.

Moral of the story: get creative and get working, Marymount. Luxury brands are looking for people like you.

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