Stefano Sassi illustration by Caroline Marine Hebel exclusively for Achtung Mode

Stefano Sassi

The brainy CEO behind Valentino

Qatar may be on lockdown ever since a Saudi-led coalition ganged up on the enormously rich, but tiny state and closed its borders, withdrew their ambassadors and imposed a travel ban in June of this year.

However, the crown jewel in the nation’s key luxury investment, Valentino fashion house, has never been in better form. Its designer Pierpaolo Piccioli staged easily one of the best haute couture shows during the Paris season in July, and the rapid fire expansion of the Roman house continues at mega pace. Two weeks before, Piccioli also wowed in the French capital with a brilliant blend of Punk Rebellion and Situationist Art in Valentino’s menswear show.

Besides Piccioli’s exceptional design skill, a key element in Valentino’s success has been its brainy CEO Stefano Sassi, who celebrated his tenth anniversary at the house in 2016.

We caught up with Sassi for a chat backstage after Piccioli staged one of the defining shows of the menswear season. He was happy to report that business was motoring ahead in the first six months of 2017.

“In the first half of this year we are still growing ten to twelve percent,” Sassi told Achtung Mode. And he sees plenty more room for expansion.

“We keep on opening stores, maybe a little less than before. But we keep opening. We have only 160 stores right now, so there is the possibility to go up to at least 200,” added the Valentino CEO, who hails from the city of Varese, the home town of the Missoni family.

Valentino, a Roman house, has teamed up with architect David Chipperfield to create a whole series of sprightly and chic new boutiques. The latest of which was in Tokyo.

“We just opened in Ginza. It is actually pretty great. It’s an expensive store and hence a big investment. About 700 square meters in size,” says Sassi of the latest Chipperfield boutique in the hottest new shopping complex in Japan, in which interestingly LVMH hold a significant stake.

His professional peers have already lauded Sassi’s success. Last October, he received the distinguished Bocconi Alumni prize of 2016, recognizing graduates of the Milan business school who had particularly brilliant careers.

“This recognition, for the first time, goes to an alumni, who represents excellence in the world of fashion,” noted Riccardo Monti, president of the graduates association.

Sassi graduated from Bocconi – the Harvard of Italy – in 1986. He did a classic six-year stint as a consultant at Bain & Company, before working for Cerruti and then Marzotto’s textile business, where he became managing director in 2006, before quitting that company to become managing director of Valentino.

Last June, Mayhoola for Investments, the Qatar holding company understood to be the key investment arm of Sheikha Mozah and other members of the Qatari royal family, which owns Valentino, also bought Balmain for some 500 million euros or a stunning four times of its annual revenues and asked Sassi to oversee development as well.

Does Sassi think that Mayhoola would buy more?

“This is something we don’t know about. They have bought Balmain; I would say that this is enough. They now have a lot to do. But listen, every single company that is for sale in luxury or fashion sends someone to Qatar. Since they think the Qataris can buy everything, they take a plane there. They are involved with many discussions as they do get to see a lot. That’s logical,” he chuckles.

Who, we wondered, were behind Mayhoola exactly?

“Well, there are so many different Qataris, but they are all from the same family. They are all connected yet a little separated,” said Sassi, in the ultimate example of Bocconi graduate speak where less said is more.

All things considered, he remains very bullish about future growth, despite focusing on improving Valentino’s wholesale business, precisely at a moment when American retailing is going through convulsions.

“It’s true that the situation in American department stores is very difficult. But we are handling that. The market is not that strong in America despite the economic situation. But there is plenty of future growth in the pipeline. We are growing like for like in existing stores, and also growing rapidly in wholesale. We are growing everywhere except Japan and a few Asian markets,” concludes Sassi.

Though, how has business changed in the wake of the Saudi maneuvers?

“Honestly, nothing has changed. Nothing,” Sassi insists.

Ironically, even if it had nothing to do with Qatar’s current problems with its aggressive neighbors, the latest Valentino menswear collection – which was sporty yet also romantic – seemed somehow prescient.

“Its theme was the tension between two gods: Vulcan and Mercury. Between the slowness of Vulcan and the dynamism of Mercury. I wanted to focus on that dynamic,” explained Piccioli.

In other words, between Vulcan, the god of volcanoes and metals often depicted with a hammer, and Mercury, the god of financial gain and commerce. No prize for guessing whom we think represents the Saudis and whom the Qataris…

This article appeared first in Achtung Mode Nr. 34 (September 2017).