Is Serge Weinberg a genius or a madman? That question is riveting the gossipy fashion industry and investors in Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), the $20 billion French company that Weinberg has been transforming over the past decade into a European retail and luxury-goods powerhouse. Three years ago, the CEO won a fierce battle to acquire iconic fashion group Gucci for $9 billion. Then, earlier this year, he allowed Gucci's creative director, Tom Ford, and its chief executive, Domenico De Sole, to walk out the door after the collapse of talks to renew their contracts. Weinberg tapped Robert Polet, a Dutch consumer-goods executive who is an ice cream expert but has no fashion experience, to take over.
The fashionistas are shocked, shocked. But Weinberg adamantly defends his strategy. "A brand is much more important than the designer," he insists. It's a controversial thesis, and whether he's right won't be clear for months. But Weinberg is used to taking gambles. A graduate of France's élite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, he gave up a safe career in government to become an investment banker before moving to PPR in 1992. At the time, the firm was a messy grab bag of French-focused industrial and retail companies. Weinberg masterminded the shift to luxury. "The demonstration needs to be made that several brands can really flourish in a multibrand group," he says. He plans to be the man who proves it. --By Peter Gumbel/Paris