Milan Vukmirovic is adamant about setting the record straight—he is first and foremost a fashion designer. Though he rose to fame more than a decade ago as the “buyer” for the lauded Parisian mega-store Colette, is the current editor of the bi-annual men’s fashion magazine L’Officiel Hommes, and co-owner of The Webster, a premier South Beach destination, it is his latest project as the creative director of Trussardi, the storied Italian leather goods house, that he most cherishes.
Born in 1970 to Serbian parents in the small town of Chantilly (about an hour outside of Paris) Mr. Vukmirovic nonetheless grew up in Paris and enrolled in fashion school, specifically to study the technical aspects of designing and producing a garment. To supplement his academic work with real world experiences, he interned at Jardin des Modes, a fashion trade publication that focused on discovering and nurturing new talents in design. After two years, he began working for Christian Lacroix, and a year later he assisted the designer Eric Bergère at Lanvin. A friend introduced him to his first full-time design position fashioning a women’s collection for a small label called Emmanuelle Fouks. While working there, he met and formed a close friendship with Colette Lerfel and her daughter Sarah. In 1997, they opened Colette on the rue Saint Honoré together.
Conceived as a destination for an international customer seeking exclusive and hard-to-find fashion, art, beauty, and design objects, the multi-level shopping emporium and restaurant became an immediate success, revitalizing Paris as a center for trendy retailing. In an instant, Mr. Vukmirovic became the darling of the fashion set, a style maker whose choice of an old trainer could literally transform that particular sneaker into the item of the moment.
In 2000, Vukmirovic was asked by Tom Ford to become the design director of Gucci, and he left Colette for the Gucci Group, eager to work on fashion design. In less than a year at Gucci, Mr. Vukmirovic was appointed as creative director of Jil Sander, though at an inopportune time, for the designer had abruptly left her namesake company. It’s a terribly hard thing for any designer to revive or continue a fashion house so deeply associated with its founding designer. Though Mr. Vukmirovic infused his six season tenure at Jil Sander with a sense of sexiness and a tinge of rock ‘n’ roll, he was fired in May 2003 when Ms. Sander made a brief return.
Mr. Vukmirovic returned to fashion in 2007 as the newly appointed creative director of Trussardi. Founded in 1911, and renowned for its leather goods, Trussardi needed a voice for a new generation. When Nicola Trussardi (grandson of the founder) inherited the firm in the 1970s, he began to transform the family business into a luxury lifestyle label. Today, his daughters Beatrice and Gaia (fourth generation Trussardi) run the company. Mr. Vukmirovic is at the creative helm, fashioning a single cohesive image for the brand’s products, stores, and advertising campaigns.
Although Trussardi had shown fashions collections for many years in Milan, the brand lacked an image that consumers could readily identify. This lack of identity might seem a liability, but for Mr. Vukmirovic it presented an opportunity to create the Trussardi collections (starting with the high-end 1911 collection) unburdened by the heavy weight of history. Presented to a small group of buyers and editors in January 2008, the first men’s Trussardi 1911 collection consisted mainly of pieces that a customer could purchase à la carte and mix with his existing wardrobe.
As a retailer at Colette and now at the Webster, Mr. Vukmirovic understands that consumers today no longer purchase a total look from a single brand, but buy special, individual items to mix with what they already own. As proven in the four 1911 collections shown since joining Trussardi—Fall 2009 was influenced by an English equestrian theme, Spring 2010 sees a cowboy motif—Mr. Vukmirovic is making products that connect with consumers. He is not striving to be a visionary designer bent on changing fashion. Rather, he’s combined
a great eye for fashion with an innate sense of business acumen.
After all, for all its glamour, fashion is in the business of selling products, and the process of rebuilding a brand is a step-by-step effort, not a giant leap. To that effect, last Spring Trussardi launched a limited collection of women’s handbags and luggage that was presented along with a capsule women’s collection in Milan. Later in June, Trussardi opened their first 1911 men’s store (interior designed by Mr. Vukmirovic) in Milan. And in September, a renovated mega-shop with a refurbished restaurant opened at the company’s headquarter on the Piazza della Scala.
Here, Mr. Vukmirovic talks further about his past and present work, fashion’s recent changes, and the feasible future of Trussardi.
LONG NGUYEN: Colette, as a brand and retailer, has become hugely popular. How was it first conceptualized?
MILAN VUKMIROVIC: In 1996, Sarah Colette asked me to work on a concept for a new store and a new business that she wanted to start. At the time it was the beginning of Tom Ford at Gucci and Prada and the formation of the big brands. We were traveling a lot and we liked a lot of different things. We loved our trainers, and I was in love with Nike and New Balance as well as Pucci and Fendi, then independent labels. I said to Colette, “why don’t we do a store in Paris where people who basically don’t have time could find in one place all the best things from all over the world?” Inside the store I wanted to have a restaurant and a space for exhibitions. I developed the concept to show to the architects and the financial people. We finally opened in March 1997.
So in an era of big-brand logo-mania, you were looking for items that were under the radar?
Pucci and Fendi weren’t at LVMH then and we loved some pieces they had and wanted to mix them. My mission was to mix fashion with other products and to do a real lifestyle concept store. This was really new at the time and everyone in Paris was saying it wouldn’t work. Of course, it became a success, and that’s how people knew me.
So you became known primarily as the Colette “buyer”?
Colette became so successful that people started to know me only as a buyer, but this was not my job at all. I was doing the in-store concepts and the visual merchandising as well. Colette is someone who is really incredible because she understood the store had to change all the time, and every week we had to do a new window display that always had the newest thing. In 1999, when Colette was super-successful, Tom Ford asked me to work with him at Gucci and I couldn’t refuse. I had the feeling that I had done everything I could for Colette and the concept was so successful that the store could continue without me. I wanted to go back to my first love.
Your first love was of course fashion design?
Yeah. Tom realized he needed a lot of help once Gucci became the Gucci Group, and he asked if I wanted to work with him as a design director. At the time, I was working with Christopher Bailey and Francisco Costa. So it’s funny now to see that we have graduated from Tom’s school—Christopher Bailey at Burberry, Francisco Costa at Calvin Klein, and I’m at Trussardi. But at the time we were all working together.
During your time at Jil Sander, you were faced with the task of helming an already established brand, a difficult task for any designer. What was your approach?
Jil really understood from a marketing standpoint that she could do a very luxurious product with very small details because this was the era of minimalism. She could sell pieces that were very expensive to a very elite clientele that was more intellectual and understood her products. When I came there, I was very naïve, very young, and I didn’t really know how fashion politics and the fashion system worked. But I could feel that minimalism as a concept was dying.
Was it difficult to establish yourself as your own person with a different view?
I was really trying to say, “I’m not Jil Sander.” I think that each designer can respect the archives, but in a way he has to work with and speak with his own voice. I mean, today, in 2009, nobody is wondering if Riccardo Tisci is doing real Givenchy stuff or if Stefano Pilatti is doing real Yves Saint Laurent stuff. They are doing their own thing and it has nothing to do with the past. I think that a label has many voices and has to continue looking to the future and not be too concerned with the past.
What did you take away from that particular period?
It was a good experience, but I don’t think I would do it again. I was one of the first to take over the Jil Sander label and many people really wanted Jil to come back. But I learned a lot and I learned how the system worked. I had a chance to work with Richard Avedon. I may not have gotten into photography today without that experience.
Would you agree that fashion has surely moved on from minimalism?
Today, I love what Raf Simons is doing, and I have a huge respect for him. If a label like Jil Sander keeps going minimalist, it will die because I think it’s a mistake. The fashion system, the customers, the selling—everything is changing completely, especially this year with the [economic] crisis. Minimalism is really not adequate anymore, and Jil Sander and all the companies will have to understand that the market is totally different now.
How has the current economy changed the way the consumer perceives fashion and fashion branding?
People want to have some real value in each piece of clothing. For example, if you want a jean trouser, it can’t be too expensive because the problem with all this marketing means that the price of luxury clothing becomes far too expensive for the real customer. People don’t understand why the skinny jeans at Zara are costing like $50 and the skinny jeans at Dior Homme are costing $800. It doesn’t make sense. But I think that honestly this year we really have to think about what the luxury business is bringing. So if you are doing denim, you have to do something really special; you have to be doing a special treatment or something handmade.
Would you say that the luxury market is now competing with the mass market?
We have to compete with these mass-market labels. Even H&M has just created a label that looks like a Jil Sander label. People want new things every two months; they want the new look, they want the new jacket. Fashion is consumerism; it’s not art. They want a look, they want something that looks cool for maybe one or two months and then they want to buy new stuff, but they don’t want to pay an insane price that doesn’t mean anything to them. If fashion is expensive, then it has to be incredibly made with incredible fabrics—that is the base of luxury. Good quality is the core of the business.
How did you first become involved with Trussardi?
Over the past years, there has been a lot of drama at Trussardi. Nicola Trussardi, who was responsible for what the house became today, died of a car accident. Then the son who took over suffered the same. Now that Beatrice Trussardi is the head of the company, she has been looking for what could be their image for the future, especially because 2011 is the company’s centennial. She called and asked how can I imagine the future of Trussardi, for men as well as women.
What is it about Trussardi that attracted you?
For me, this company has an incredible history with leathers. For leather and suede there are a lot of possibilities because I can print leather. I can use laser or I can dye and wash leather. There are so many ways today to use leather almost as a fabric. I am also excited because Trussardi didn’t have a silhouette or a fashion image established, like Jil Sanders. They had more of an image of the savoir-faire of leather, but not so much the image of a look in the public mind. So, I could do my own look. Also, Nicola was an iconic person. Twelve years ago he was the first person ever who tried to take me from Colette, even before Tom Ford. He was someone who was into cars and doing the interiors of airplanes for Alitalia. He was the first person I think who was just trying to position the label of Trussardi as more of a lifestyle, luxury business and not just a fashion business. So, for me, this is also the future of Trussardi—we are doing a new concept multi-brand Trussardi store this September in Milan. I’m doing leather goods and accessories and fashion, but I am also doing a bike and candles.
In what ways must Trussardi change?
Everything has to change. You can’t just switch or change one thing; that’s a big mistake a lot of the Italian people make. It’s not enough anymore to take the designer, give him two seasons, do two fashion shows, and wait to see if it’s going to work. You have to change everything; that’s really a long-term business plan. You really have to say, “I take this person and I give this person at least three years to be able to change the company, the spirit of the company, the image of the company, and do real, very deep work. Not just the fashion show—that’s too easy.
What is your opinion of men’s fashion today?
With today’s prices, the men’s market is changing faster and is more difficult than the women’s market. Even if it is a difficult time, women still want to look great and look sexy and always want to have the new shoe and the new bag. With men, it’s different.
Is the men’s market more limited?
It’s more limited because the new generation of men wants things that talk to them about what they know. Whether it’s denim or a military jacket or it’s a camouflage bag, they want something that’s part of their vocabulary and they definitely don’t want anything that costs too much money. A woman can buy a bag every season but a man is not buying a bag every few months. A man doesn’t want to look like the catcher of fashion. I think that is also very passé.X