It was while walking down a street in Japan two years ago that Remo Ruffini, chairman and chief executive of luxury brand Moncler, decided he needed to change tack.
The entrepreneur and creative brains behind puffa jackets that can sell for $1,000 and more, who is a sailor and skier in his free time, walked into a Moncler store in Aoyama “and it was empty”, he says.
“I thought ‘the world is changing. I need to find a way to attract new energy, new people and new generations.’ And from there the idea started,” he says, sitting in his office in downtown Milan.
The idea Mr Ruffini is talking about was to reboot Moncler for a second time, 14 years after this native of the northern Italian lakeside town Como bought a bankrupt French ski-jacket maker and turned it into a runway brand with a market value not far off €10bn.
But disruption from technology, millennials’ different purchasing habits and a changing climate, which meant people did not buy warm coats in the same way they used to, convinced Mr Ruffini he needed to shake up Moncler again — this time at a higher speed.
“We needed to speak to the consumer the way the consumer is demanding,” he says. “The consumer wants you to talk to them every day, through new products, through social media. So that is the project we brought to life.”
The project he created is called Genius and on the usual metrics of revenues and share price it has been a success. Since its launch, Moncler’s sales have risen 22 per cent and its stock price has jumped 74 per cent since the first week of April 2017.
The project involves a group of eight designers — the so-called House of Genius — creating limited-edition collections for Moncler, which are delivered to market on a month-by-month basis. The staggered release means the company’s products — and social media dialogue with its customers — are constantly refreshed.
Pierpaolo Piccioli, better known as Valentino’s designer, this season created for Moncler a collection of puffas worn as full body capes, while Hiroshi Fujiwara made streetwear-inflected bomber jackets. It is pricey stuff. A Fujiwara Trance jacket sells for $2,135.
In doing this, Mr Ruffini, who owns 27 per cent of the company, took the bold move of scrapping the label’s six-monthly runway shows and collections, the bulwarks of the fashion calendar since the 1980s.
But what consumers do not see was arguably the bigger challenge. “To get a supply chain that is used to doing things on a six-monthly basis to deliver to every shop in 60 countries at the same time on the same day every month is an enormous cultural change,” he says.
Mr Ruffini says he went “little by little” in convincing his colleagues of his plan. So as not to scare people, he gave the whole business — from supply chain to marketing, strategy and design — time to “work it through”.
“The principle thing was to convince the whole team,” he says. Using this approach, he reaped results faster than he anticipated. “I saw pretty quickly they were convinced of this new way of working,” he says, although he still admits, with a laugh: “Turning an oil tanker would have been easier.”
Boldness like this has built Mr Ruffini’s reputation and fortune. He has an estimated net worth of €2.4bn. He is now 57, so how does he keep close to the zeitgeist at a time when many of his contemporaries admit it is a struggle trying to keep up with social media-addicted millennials and Generation Z (those born after the mid-90s)?
He laughs again. “I have definitely the ability to read consumers and stay close to them,” he says. Looking at his smartphone he notes that he spends nearly five hours a day on social media and email. He checks Instagram hourly, and follows “etailers, people who do my job, new magazines that know how to talk to the new generation, people I like, real people on the street.” Not many influencers, though: “I am fed up with them.”
Still, Mr Ruffini has not given up on old-school ways and remains a traditional fashion flâneur. Last week he was in Manhattan and walked from 88th Street to 38th Street. “In 50 streets in New York you see a lot of changes in the way people are dressing. That helps a lot,” he explains.
Mr Ruffini first got the idea for revamping Moncler after watching people on transatlantic flights more than a decade ago. He saw the difficulty they had bundling heavy winter coats into the overhead locker spaces. He noted the frustration of leaving a freezing winter in New York and arriving in Rome with the wrong outer wear. He saw a market for lightweight puffa jackets, elegant and fashionable enough to go to a board meeting or a dinner party.
His target market today remains “the 18-year-old to the sophisticated older lady”. He chooses his Genius designers for their ability to appeal to several generations, even though most of Moncler’s customers buy basic blue and black puffas. But he says that China is going to be the future driver of the luxury industry to such an extent that brands’ main “problem” will be to remain on the radar of the Chinese.
The other big potential threat is Big Tech. “If Amazon enters the world of luxury it is clear they will do what they have done with all other sectors. They are far too strong for us small players to compete with,” he says.
He is often asked if he is planning on buying any other companies. He says he will not as he does not want to dilute Moncler’s focus on the Genius project. Instead, his family investment company has bought shares in Langosteria, a Milan seafood institution and online fashion brand Attico, tapping into two new frontiers of the luxury industry.
Has he thought of selling Moncler? Plenty of Italian entrepreneurs are selling up as the pressure of remaining independent and thriving in the digital age become too hard.
“No one has asked me to buy. We are in a good moment. I would like to see what happens in the next three, four years. It would seem to me a shame to be selling now. And anyway, I am not ready to retire,” he says. And emits that belly laugh again.
Three questions for Remo Ruffini
Who is your leadership hero?
Thomas Edison, who believed that vision without execution is just hallucination.
If you were not a CEO/leader, what would you be?
An architect. I truly admire the pure forms when they live magisterially as a whole in a more complex structure
What was the first leadership lesson you learnt?
The first thing I learnt while leading a team is that it is crucial to generate energy around a project and to persuade, engage without just imposing a decision.
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