Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Nathalie Atkinson.
Nathalie Atkinson.

Nathalie Atkinson: The enduring importance of family heritage in luxury retail Add to ...

Although they all started as main street one-offs, most heritage luxury retailers now either are a global conglomerate or have become partly owned by one. The complicated organizational charts and equity equations seem divorced from the original mom-and-pop-shop roots, but ring the figurative service bell and, for many of these brands, there’s almost always family continuity, even if it’s behind the scenes. (This isn’t unique to luxury retail: According to Harvard Business Review, in 2015, family-owned or –controlled businesses account for an estimated 80 per cent of companies worldwide and were the largest source of long-term employment in most countries.)

At Salvatore Ferragamo (est. 1927), Wanda, widow of the founder, is honorary chair, while eldest son Ferruccio is chair and third-generation James is the women’s leather product director. Donatella Versace had already been working on the business side of Versace (and was a long-time muse) when she had to assume the reins after her designerbrother Gianni’s 1997 murder; today she’s vice-president of the Milanese design house, while brother Santo is president and co-chief executive.

The enduring importance of that family factor in luxury hits on something Brunello Cucinelli (est. 1978) remarked to me a few years ago, as I was touring his factory in Umbria. “There is a nuance between being an owner and being a guardian or custodian,” he said. “The important thing is to be a custodian.” It was an offhand comment but is the essence of thriving luxury and heritage retail.

Cucinelli is admittedly more unusual than most luxury founders – he’s known as the philosopher-king of Italian cashmere and lives with his family in the utopian hamlet of Solomeo; both his daughters Carolina, 34, and Camilla, 26, now work in the business (the former an accessory designer, with her husband Riccardo Stefanelli in sales, and the latter co-chair of the design department). But he’s not alone in sharing and preserving brand values.

“It’s about honesty, integrity, doing things right – the very basic kinds of values that we use as a compass, how we treat people,” says Val Monk, executive professor in residence at the Alberta School of Business’s Alberta Business Family Institute. “When these are actually integrated into all the business practices then the business is more likely to succeed.” Monk is an expert in psychology and business systems and has dealt with international family-owned companies across many industries.

The dynastic factor is not just helpful for optics in the romance of retail marketing. There’s something to the presence of DNA, of the original values that created a corporate culture even if they’ve evolved, otherwise the only differentiation between the many luxury haunts would be superficial – empty decor, logo and branding.

Greek silversmith Konstantinos Voulgaris founded Bulgari in 1878 and his great-great-grandsons are chair and vice-chair, though the company is now controlled by LVMH (a multi-national that owns majority stakes in many family companies and is itself one, run by patriarch Bernard Arnault). Roman label Fendi (est. 1925) is largely owned by LVMH but the family retain a small financial stake and significant creative control. The quintet of Fendi sisters further developed their parents’ modest fur and leather brand in the 1960s and now granddaughter Silvia Venturini Fendi is creative director; her daughter – fourth generation – Delfina Delettrez has made her own name with a line of fine jewellery. Yet they avoid being clannish with judicious hiring of outsiders: Karl Lagerfeld has been Fendi’s chief design collaborator for over 50 years. There’s often external talent and impartial business perspective in the mix (it’s not dissimilar from the history of bluebloods who strengthened their aristocratic line by marrying outside the court; inbreeding isn’t any more conducive to successful business than it is for a healthy gene pool).

“Meritocracy trumps entitlement,” Monk says, adding that integrity is what makes for long-term success in any family affair. “Being willing to compete in an open market with other people brings value to the business.” Benoît Vuitton, for instance, grew up in Asnières, France, where his grandfather was head of the leather workshop, but he started as an intern and spent time in the Louis Vuitton timepiece division before becoming head of the Toronto maison.

At Hermès, there are dozens of heirs involved on the creative and business sides. The house’s current artistic director is family descendant Pierre-Alexis Dumas, son of Jean-Louis Dumas, late Hermès CEO. Chic hotels (like the Pergolèse) were designed by his mother, Greek-born architect Rena Dumas, who through her firm was also responsible for the elegant design of all the Hermès stores worldwide; cousin Axel Dumas is CEO. But Henri d’Origny, an artistic director who designed with the company for nearly 60 years, is of no relation (though is de facto family). Among his many innovations, d’Origny’s idle sketches while a young sales associate in the late 1950s make him famously responsible for the company’s whimsical – and profitable – men’s tie business. But that the doodles were spotted at all, let alone capitalized on, is by virtue of the fact that an Hermès family member was walking the shop floor that day and was curious and amenable to new ideas.

“Heritage doesn’t necessarily mean making a clone,” Monk says. “Often a founder wants to duplicate, but it’s important for the current leader to be willing to shift and recognize some of the different strengths and priorities. Every generation brings in something new.”

Pascale Mussard, for example, sixth-generation descendant of founder Thierry Hermès, was formerly the house’s co-artistic director. Then in 2010 she pitched her passion project – recycling. Mussard grew up in the shadow of post-Second World War rationing and was always interested in sustainability. Her new division, Petit h, started small. She carried the economies already built into the traditional production processes of their core luxury goods a step further into creative re-use. What was initially on paper a rather counter-intuitive and decidedly labour-intensive upcycling of off-cuts and other materials into one-off toys, furniture and unusual objects, has become a hit and is now a major attraction at retail pop-ups and installations as it tours Hermès’ global stores.

Monk stresses how those from the family working in the business have both an “emotional relationship to the story, and the stewardship of the story” – the very distinction Cucinelli highlighted. “They’ve learned what hard work and risks are involved, the start, the growth, maintaining and sustaining it,” Monk adds, and “it’s not just a logical, analytical decision that is being made, it’s the human factor.” There are reassurances in the fact that the name on the shingle above the door is, in some way, still connected to who’s minding the store.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @NathAt

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular