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November 21, 2008updated Jan 31, 2014

Gianluca Isaia

By Chris Boyle

Gianluca Isaia

CEO
Isaia

Italian tailor Isaia is considered a hot commodity, and its CEO Gianluca Isaia is the face behind the fast growing company as it goes global. Recently Elite Traveler President and Editor-in-Chief, Douglas Gollan, caught up with Isaia to talk about how he is managing success, what the future may bring and how he carved a niche in the very crowded luxury market.

ET: Can you start by telling us a little bit about the history of the company?

Gianluca Isaia: The company was founded in 1957 by my grandfather. He started a company in a very small town close to Naples, named Casalnuovo, that was very famous because it was known as the “town of tailors.” In the 50s there were 14,000 people living there and 7,000 of them were tailors. So there is a very long tradition.

Then the company was run by my father and two brothers, and today I run it together with my sister and a couple of cousins; we are the third generation of the company.

ET: Did you get into the business right away out of school or did you do anything before getting into the company?

Gianluca Isaia: I worked during university in London for a few months in the tailor store for a cousin of mine. And I was there selling shirts for her during the summer period.

ET: Isaia is a family business, so tell us a little bit about who does what in the company.

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Gianluca Isaia: My sister is in charge of the product team and my cousin, Enrico, is in charge of the administration. My other cousin is in charge of the production, and I am in charge of the commercial side of the business like marketing, sales and so on.

ET: And also the design?

Gianluca Isaia: Yes, of course.

ET: What year did you start with the company and how has the company evolved?

Gianluca Isaia: I started in 1989 working with the company. At that time the company was a very classic company with a very classic product, and the major distribution was in Italy. So when I started I looked outside Italy. I came to the U.S. for the first time in 1992 and in 1994 I started to mostly sell the private labels to the big stores in the U.S.

I felt that something had to be changed though and so I tried to find our niche in the market and our own identity. And that’s why today we have been reorganized as a contemporary-traditional company. I added the tailoring on the garment to the traditional labels, added style with models, different fabrics, new fabrics and gave our garments details that set them apart from a classic design.

Today our style is somewhere between fashion and classic. We have customers that are looking for classic design but with more style and customers looking for a lot of style but also quality. They want to look fresher, younger, sexier. So we are right in the middle.

Our customer is a man that has a lot of patience, he loves details, he wants to create his own style and this is what he can do in our line.

ET: Tell us a little bit about your impression of how men are adapting and taking notice of tailoring and classic style in fashions today, perhaps as opposed to 10 or 20 years ago.

Gianluca Isaia: Today is much different because men are hungry for knowledge and want to know about a product. They want to know what they’re buying and not just the label or the brand. They want to know about the product, how the product has been made, where, how. Men today also want garments personalized for their own style. They are much more proactive than before.

ET: Tell us a little bit about the business as it is today because I know you sell all over the world.

Gianluca Isaia: I would say it’s a difficult time for sure, but apart from the U.S. and Italy, we are selling very well in the ex-Soviet Union where we already opened a few stores—Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev and others. In January we are going to open our flagship store in Milano. Next year we’re going to open a flagship store in New York. We have been selling very well in Japan for many years, and we are going to start next year in China.

ET: For our readers who might want to go into business in Russia, are there any tips or advice that you would give them?

Gianluca Isaia: A few years ago it was easier to sell in Russia. When we started there, many unknown brands were there because they were buying from anybody. Today the tailors and the consumers have much more knowledge so it’s still a very good market but it’s not so easy as before. So my advice would be to go there with the same tools you use to reach out to the U.S. To sell in the U.S. is difficult and you need a lot of tools, organization, service—the Russian people are looking for the same thing today.

ET: What about in China?

Gianluca Isaia: I don’t really know China yet. We just started there and next month I’m going there to define a strategy for 2009.

ET: Are there any other parts of the world that you’re interested in expanding to?

Gianluca Isaia: Yes, we are also looking at the middle east where we are not really present. We started just this season in Dubai, and we are looking for a big growth over there.

ET: As you grow and sell in more parts of the world, how does that change the way that you manage the business or the structure of the business?

Gianluca Isaia: One of our very strong points is organization. We improved a lot and hired new people. We added a corporation in the U.S. almost four years ago. We are going to start a corporation in Japan in January even though we have been there for many years.

From a personal point of view the company’s always been a family company. Family means, for me, the relationship between everybody; it is really simple. So we have a business together in the office or in the factory and maybe after work we go to dinner together or go dancing.

ET: How do you handle disagreements in strategy among the family members?

Gianluca Isaia: Oh we have some disagreements, of course, but we are from the south of Italy. The family in the south of Italy is very important. It comes before everything. So even if we have disagreements we always find a compromise that is good for the company and for everybody.

ET: Every time you pick up the paper it seems in the world of luxury the conglomerates keep getting bigger and buying more companies. They seem to have endlessly deep pockets. Talk about some of the challenges competing against conglomerates and also some of the advantages that you think maybe you have in a family company.

Gianluca Isaia: We have advantages because as a family it’s our own business. We have a lot of flexibility. This doesn’t happen when you are part of a big group. So I think this is a major advantage.

ET: One of the things you were talking about in terms of opening locations is that a lot of your customers are retailers. So for people who want to expand and sell directly to the customer, what are the issues that you have to think about when you want to expand your own distribution, consumer distribution and you still have the wholesale networks?

Gianluca Isaia: I don’t think there is any concern if you open in the right places. In New York, for example, it will be very good for the U.S. because it will mean consumers will be more aware of the company, and even if someone is buying in Barneys or Saks, they’re still going there. If he comes to our boutique, he’s also going there because there is a personal relationship with the salespeople. And I don’t think that will ever change.

ET: When you’re not working do you have any hobbies or things that you like to do?

Gianluca Isaia: I like to spend my time in Capri. It is the best place in the world. I used to ski sometimes and I still do. I also play tennis and enjoy reading books.

ET: Any favorite places that you like to travel to either for business or pleasure?

Gianluca Isaia: Well I travel so much for business that when I’m not traveling on business, I just stay in Capri and enjoy.

ET: When you’re staying at a hotel for business what are the things that you look for where you stay? And are there any favorite hotels that you have?

Gianluca Isaia: I have several favorite hotels. I cannot stay in a cheap hotel. I have to feel my room is my home. The bathroom has to be right, has to be comfortable and quite big. The bed is important and the smell of the room is very, very important to me. The service of the hotel, for the advice that they can give to you, is critical. And it’s not easy to find. Unfortunately, many times the concierge gives you the wrong address of places they recommend.

ET: What would be two or three of your favorite hotels?

Gianluca Isaia: In Tokyo, I like the Park Hyatt Hotel very much. In New York I like the St. Regis and the Chambers too. In Los Angeles, The Mondrian.

ET: Just switching back to business for a little bit. Where do you see the company in five to seven years?

Gianluca Isaia: I would like to see the company as a leader in the luxury brand market.

ET: As you get bigger and bigger, sometimes there’s a need for capital. Do you ever think about possibly doing a listing? Could you ever see the company being part of one of the conglomerates? Do you think about things like that?

Gianluca Isaia: No, I would like to be by myself until I die. But you never know. I don’t think I will ever have a partner in the business though.

ET: You have two children. Any thoughts on having them join the business?

Gianluca Isaia: Well they are only 15 and 10. I don’t know if they will be a fourth generation in the business. But I will not push them or force them to be involved as my father didn’t do with me. I just want to have them in a position to make a choice so I want them to study. I want them to learn languages. They already speak French because they go to a French school. They started English a couple of years ago. I want to have them in a position that they will be able to make a choice to be with the company or do something else if they want.

ET: You mentioned that before you came to the company you worked in London. Do you think it would be a good idea for your children to work outside the company before joining?

Gianluca Isaia: If they decide to come to the company, I think for two or three years, they will have to work somewhere else before they join.

ET: We’re here in New York and it’s not a great economic environment right now, though luxury has been having a very good run. Tell us a little bit about how your business is doing right now, what your concerns are about the future and anything that you’re changing in your business to take into account everything that’s happening.

Gianluca Isaia: Our business is growing and has been growing. Because we are not so big and the product is successful, we are headed in a good direction. I think the U.S. will change in a few months and will fix everything. Sometimes when there are economic problems, it’s not always a bad thing.

ET: What would you have done if you weren’t in this business?

Gianluca Isaia: Maybe a sailor.

ET: Your company emblem is red coral. Is there any significance behind it?

Gianluca Isaia: I got this [necklace with red coral] from a friend of mine that makes coral in Naples, and it’s known to bring good luck. We are very superstitious in Naples. The first red coral was found close to the Bay of Naples, and there is a long tradition of making jewelry with coral in Naples. So this friend of mine gave me this piece of coral and that was the inspiration for the label and all the details that we have in our tailoring, so it is quite significant.

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