How Russo Is Revitalizing Rossi

On a summer-like fall day in Paris, Francesco Russo is holding court in the Ritz’s Bar Vendôme.

The Sergio Rossi creative director, who resides in the City of Light, is obviously at home in this unofficial gathering point, where he bumps into Carine Roitfeld and other friends, who pop in and out between Paris Fashion Week shows and appointments.

While spring ’12 is still on the runways, Russo is already turning his attention to fall. (His spring collection was unveiled in Milan a week earlier.)

“I am always depressed the first month after presenting a collection,” said the designer. “Then, normally, I see something or remember something and get very excited [about the next season].”

It’s been three years since Russo took the creative helm at Sergio Rossi, owned by PPR, and by all accounts, he’s made a big impression.

“Sergio Rossi was quiet for a couple of years, but Francesco has contributed to making the brand a standout by designing rare and exclusive patterns. The label [is] one of the most beautifully crafted and designed [collections] in the market today,” said Daniella Vitale, chief merchant and EVP at Barneys New York, adding that the line has a strong price-value relationship that helps differentiate it in a crowded luxury market.

Sergio Rossi President and CEO Christophe Mélard credits Russo — who previously worked at Yves Saint Laurent, Miu Miu and Costume National — for not only expanding the brand’s desirability but helping to move Sergio Rossi into the 21st century.

“Francesco is perfectly reinterpreting the identity of the brand in a contemporary way, giving it a unique and artistic twist,” Mélard said.

And while Russo fuels excitement on the design side, the brand’s executive team is plotting aggressive global retail expansion, with 38 directly-operated stores and 28 franchised locations.

At the top of the retail agenda is China, where the brand is experiencing double-digit growth this year. Sergio Rossi recently bought back five franchise locations there, and is now plotting its growth in second- and third-tier cities.

The label, which introduced a new store concept last year, also is targeting key European cities such as Geneva and London, where it reopened its Sloane Street store last month. “London is a strategic city with many trendsetters and clients from China, the Middle East and Russia,” Mélard said. “Having a store [there] gives the brand the possibility to reach all these consumers.”

Aside from geographic expansion, Sergio Rossi also is pushing further into the men’s market, which has been a fast-growing category for many luxury footwear players. Last year, the brand unveiled a men’s-only concept store in Milan, recently opened a dedicated space in Tokyo’s Hankyu Department Store and will bow another location in Galeries Lafayette in Casablanca, Morocco, in December.

“[Men’s] will take some time, [but] we’re investing in it because we believe in it,” Russo said. “We have legitimacy and we want to push it farther.”

You recently marked three years at Sergio Rossi. What kind of stamp have you made on the brand?
It’s like moving into an apartment that’s already been inhabited. You paint and decorate and little by little it becomes your own. I am very respectful of [the brand’s] 40-year heritage. But it’s my job to bring in my ideas, and little by little my [vision] is coming through. For anyone who does a creative job, it’s always about including your own personality.

How does working for a large fashion house like PPR affect your design process?
Working for a big company makes life easier. When you’re a small company [or an independent designer], you don’t often have the means to do what you dream. It’s hard to turn [your vision] into reality. Of course I feel frustrated sometimes, too, if people tell me something is horrible or not doable, but most of the time I feel very reassured about what I have available here. I [have a lot of] freedom, but it comes from a place of experience. It’s a sort of mature freedom, it’s about respecting the company and the hundreds of people who work [here].

You’ve become known for your sometimes-fantastical inspirations. Will that continue in the new spring collection?
I wanted to do something extremely sensual [for spring]. I was fascinated with Shibuya or Japanese bondage. In my mind, [the idea] became much warmer when I took these references and put them into more exotic spaces, such as Hawaii, Bali or Thailand. [I used a] mix of flowers and colors that are almost psychedelic. So we have high-heel sandals with knotted silk cords, and sandals made out of painted, embroidered flowers. Also, this season I was trying to explore all the parts of the body. The elements from the shoes became belts, necklaces, cuffs. It’s something I did because I needed to explore the universe [beyond shoes], but now it’s [adding to] the business.

Drawing on such rich inspirations, do you ever feel pressured to top yourself for the next season?
Of course. I am always depressed the first month after presenting a collection. Then, normally, I see something or remember something and get very excited. Then I create the collection and have the presentation. Then it is back to emptiness until I find my next idea. I know what I’d like to do for next season, or I know what intrigues me, but I don’t know what [will come out of it]. It’s an open road.

Do you design with a specific muse in mind?
It’s a specific woman, but she doesn’t have a face or name. She’s in my imagination. She’s a woman who knows what she stands for, and she’s definitely not shy about her personality or her body. She is confident. I like the idea of someone who comes in the room and all the heads turn around, asking, “Who is she?” That’s her.

You recently crafted a shoe for Carine Roitfeld. How did that come about?
It was very spontaneous. I’ve known Carine for 11 years, since I first joined YSL under Gucci Group and was working with Tom Ford. Since the very first collection, Tom kept introducing me to Carine, and she has always been very sweet and respectful. I like her personality and style. Every time I do something that reminds me of her, I send it to her as a gift. And so far, everything I have sent has become something she has really adored, [and often it] becomes the thing of the season. So when Barneys [picked us up for resort], I knew they were doing a window on Carine and I asked her if she would like me to dedicate [my olive-green python sandal] to her since it sort of became her shoe.

How important are celebrities to the growth of the brand?
Celebrity has become a [necessary] form of communication, a form of marketing, and it is important to the brand for selling. But it’s really the end of a long process. You have a creation, you have a collection, and then it appeals to people who like what you do. Of course I design shoes that [I feel] would be good for the red carpet, but whether it’s Penelope Cruz or Cameron Diaz inside the shoes is not what I think about. It’s more abstract glamour.

You’re targeting a lot of diverse markets, from the U.S. to Europe to China. How does that impact your designs?
A brand is [the same] no matter what country you’re in. That’s what makes a brand strong. Of course, we are careful to incorporate designs that are [targeted] to specific markets, but it’s more about technical differences.

Tell us about the new retail design concept. How does that fit into your image of the brand?
For me, it’s the space where our woman would live. And it captures the idea of duality. There is the front stage, which is very proper, very chic and exposed to the world, and then there is the back stage that is like a woman’s room — very intimate — where anything can happen. I imagined this room to be very sensual with a deep color. As you can see, I am fascinated by blue. I never wear black because I find it depressing. So the back stage [of the new stores] becomes blue.

You have been putting more focus on the male consumer in the last year. How would you compare the men’s and women’s businesses?
It’s a completely different approach. I do think about the provocative side of a man [as well as] a woman, but our man is so masculine and our woman is extremely feminine, so they occupy different spaces. The women’s business is more important [in terms of size], but men’s is still new. It will take some time, [but] we will invest in it because we believe in it. We have legitimacy [in shoes] and we want to push it further.

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