Over the usual lunchtime din at New York restaurant Harry Cipriani last month, friends Joe Ouaknine and Marco Bizzarri reminisced about when they met 15 years ago.
“It was here in New York, late on a Saturday night,” Ouaknine remembered. “We just happened to be sitting next to each other in a restaurant, and we connected right away. We talked about traveling and who traveled the most. He conceded [that I did], and I couldn’t believe it. From that point on, we stayed in touch.”
Much has changed for the business leaders since that first encounter. Ouaknine has built one of the industry’s most notable shoe businesses. He is the CEO of Titan Industries, and his brand roster now includes Badgley Mischka (he’s the majority owner) and Splendid. (Ouaknine has worked with many celebrities over the years and launched Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. collection and Daya by Zendaya.)
Bizzarri, meanwhile, has risen through the luxury ranks to become one of fashion’s most-buzzed-about leaders as the CEO of Gucci. During the past two years, he has fueled the luxury label’s huge turnaround and meteoric rise. In fact, a few hours before the executive’s lunch with Footwear News and Ouaknine, Kering, the brand’s parent company, said the label posted a 49.4 percent sales increase in the third quarter. (Later that night, Bizzarri was onstage to accept the WWD Edward Nardoza Honor for CEO Creative Leadership.)
Over branzino and pasta on a rainy afternoon, the longtime friends — who normally don’t talk business — got candid on the state of fashion, risk-taking and the next generation.
Footwear News: Let’s talk about your management styles. How are you different?
Marco Bizzarri: “It’s not easy to say. We don’t know each other in that way.”
Joe Ouaknine: “Because we never discuss business.”
MB: “But as far as I can see, Joe is smart, and he’s like me. You need to work and enjoy life as well — and you make decisions that make more sense. I never believed in people who work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s impossible. You need balance. Also, you need to be close to friends, do other activities, and then you can be a better leader. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
JO: “He just made a point I really like. I don’t like workaholics. They are too tired. I like people, more or less, doing what I do: I work really hard, and I play even harder. It’s being able to work and then play because you’re always fresh and happy. People that only work to satisfy their boss, I don’t need them.”
FN: When it comes to company culture, what is your philosophy?
JO: “As far as I’m concerned, anyone that surrounds me in my company is a person who I like. Everybody knows that. People that don’t fit, they don’t stay with us. That’s why people have been with me for so long. I cannot stand if when I walk by, the voices go low. I hate that. Once you become a feared person, it’s not good. My team knows my door is never closed — never. That’s what I preach. I want everything to be open, one big family, and I have no doubt that Marco is the same way. That’s how you’re successful.”
FN: You are both passionate about working with young talent. Why is that so important?
MB: “That’s always been true, but today I think it’s even more important. The world is changing quickly, and seniority can be a problem. Sometimes you need to unlearn what you’ve learned. Teaching today is not possible anymore. These kids know much more than me. The role of the leaders going forward is more about inspiration and getting everyone together to talk the same language and to respect each other. Especially in fashion, it’s all about creativity and emotion. If you go
back to certain points, everybody was talking about rationality. Nobody cares anymore. You need to have it, it’s a given. You need to tap another part of your brain, and that’s emotion. The role of the business is to make sure that we create this emotional side. [To do that], you have to have people that respect diversity, they are inclusive, and they foster passion and curiosity. You cannot kill people that make mistakes. You need to be willing to allow people to take risks because to learn is not like the past. The more you’re able to scout the younger talent and the more they get rewarded for what they propose, the more it’s going to work.”
JO: “I think they are so much better than us. I’m not kidding. I look at the young talent, and without them, we’d be dinosaurs and absolutely not efficient. You have to listen to people that are young and have all the ideas. For example, they were born with social media. We had to adjust to it. It’s just natural [for them].”
FN: What is the value of your experience?
JO: “We’ve spent all these years getting this experience, and the young ones came in and are teaching us things we’ve never learned. We are wise, but we need them. There is no way a company could stay alive without young talent. You’re going to be outdated so fast. Their experience isn’t as required as ours is, [but] you need their wheels.”
FN: Marco, how do you balance the importance of your business strategy with Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele’s creativity?
MB: “It’s not one or the other. To me, you need to start with creativ- ity. If you have the right creative people, making the business around it is very easy. If you don’t, then you’re going to have a problem with the business. The two things work perfectly together. It doesn’t start with numbers. The world is so crowded, so you have to find what you want to stand for and for what. The idea of the creative director fighting with the CEO is finished — finito. What Joe was saying about working with people that you like is very true. How can you work eight hours a day with someone who is fighting against you just for the sake of it? When I decided to go with Alessandro, the first reason was, I had a human connection with him. I thought he was talented. If you are able as a CEO to protect these guys, to make sure they are supported and they don’t feel threatened, they blossom just like Alessandro. He is doing 1,000 times more than what I was expecting. Why? Because he was a hidden treasure at Gucci. He was here for 12 years in the company, and nobody saw it. Creativity needs to be protected. You cannot foster creativity if you’re threatened.”
FN: Let’s talk about the support you’ve given your teams.
MB: “I’ll give you an example. I appointed Alessandro in January 2015, and one month later, he did his first show. He called me the night before and [previewed] the looks. This was his first time as creative director. He was previously designing bags, not looks. He asked me what I thought, and I went for the most extreme pieces he presented, because if you stay in the middle, you’re going to be killed. I had to protect him from everybody. It was my responsibility. I never showed him any figures. The support is when you show these guys they are protected, and they will work with you forever.”
JO: “When I look at his brand, it’s all colors. Do you know how much guts it takes to design like that? This is not Gucci of years ago, which was conservative. Now every time you walk into a store, you get all these reds and yellows and an abundance of colors. Don’t be boring; show your feelings in the product. You have to give it some sentiment and show you’re not afraid, and look at this success. It’s extravagant, and all with touch and class.”
FN: You both seem to handle mistakes well.
JO: “If it’s my mistake, I don’t want to blame anyone. We are wise. We know when something is good. And I’m sure it goes for both of us. We’ve been around for so long.”
FN: But you’re willing to take chances.
JO: “Of course.”
FN: Did that ever make you nervous, Marco?
MB: “I’m not nervous for that. I made a decision, and I want to wait until I know I’m going to be wrong. I can’t decide to change my mind or change a strategy in the middle of it because I’m scared of the future. Let’s wait. I don’t want to be unsuccessful because someone decided for me.”
FN: Is it easier to take a risk when you’re down or when you’re up?
MB: “It’s easier for people to accept the change when you’re down.”
FN: Do you think times are tough right now?
JO: “They are tough, according to what I hear, not according to what I’m going through. We are in ecstasy as a company. I never say things are good all the time, but things are going exceptionally well, and I know there’s a storm out there, but who am I to listen to that? I only go with what I have. Two to three years ago, when things really started to go bad, I had all these brands, and all of them were down except Badgley Mischka. If I didn’t have one brand that was up, I would have thought that business was bad and it was time to liquidate. That kept me in the game.”
FN: But you know the backdrop of how challenging the times are.
JO: “Of course, but I put on my blinders and just keep going. [This month] we are moving to brand-new offices [in Huntington Beach, Calif.,] double the size. There are good stories out there.”
FN: And Marco, how do you know how fast to grow?
MB: “Someone told me once that I need to reduce the pace of growth because next year is going to be a problem. Well, you know, I don’t think you can close the shops at five in the afternoon. You need to keep them going, and next year is going to be another year. At the end of the day, I need to enjoy the trip. I can’t be negative when things are bad and negative when things are good. If I’m doing all the things that I’m able to do, maybe tomorrow will be better than today. And I’m not worried about tomorrow at all. Business outside is quite tough. But the industry is also an industry of offering and passion. If we are able to do something that’s attractive, it’s not a matter of if the industry is growing.”
FN: What keeps you motivated to keep growing as a leader?
JO: “You probably expect me to tell you that I love challenges. But what keeps me motivated is the people that I work with. If business gets sour, then that’s a challenge. Right now, it’s not a challenge; it’s wanting to keep all the people around me happy and keep it going. It’s a simple answer.”
MB: “I never planned my career. I never decided to be in fashion. It just happened. As Joe said, when you see other people following you and they care about what you’re doing and they enjoy their daily life, that is the best. For me, I love the adrenaline of this kind of situation. I don’t like consoli dation in business. I don’t like something that is already set. I prefer to move. I get bored.”
FN: Joe, you’ve worked with so many brands. What does it take to be successful?
JO: “Luck is very important.”
MB: “Luck is a talent. Listen, Napoleon was choosing his generals because of their luck. Believe it or not, you bring luck with you. If you’re positive, normally you’re luckier.”
JO: “Seriously, with all the brands I’ve had, it’s all product. If you have the right product at the right time, then you’ ll kill it. That’s what it is. I’ve been lucky to have four or five shoes in my life, between all the brands, that were huge. Once you have a huge shoe, that’s where luck comes into play.”
FN: And what do you admire about each other?
JO: “He’s always smiling and always responds. That’s No. 1. There’s no monetary reason, and that’s important. There’s nothing he needs or I need. And he’s got a pretty face.”
MB: “It’s the same reason. It’s difficult to explain why you admire someone. It’s something inside. It’s more than ticking the boxes. You just like them. I always have time for Joe. It’s never an obligation. It’s a choice.”