PARIS — Francesca Bellettini doesn’t style her hair. She doesn’t use mascara or foundation. She doesn’t wear hose even in the dead of winter. And she doesn’t speak French.
An Italian woman who had never run a company, lived in Paris or learned the unwritten codes of French society, she was considered a strange choice to become chief executive of Yves Saint Laurent, the ultimate French brand, in 2013.
Yet five years later, Kering, the Paris-based luxury group that owns Saint Laurent, Gucci and Bottega Veneta, among other brands, reported that 2017 was its most profitable year on record; YSL announced a 25.3 percent increase in revenue over 2016, the second-largest growth in the group, following Gucci.
Ms. Bellettini, 47, not only has propelled the brand into the exclusive billion-euro club — a status unofficially codified last season when the Saint Laurent show was moved to the shadow of the Eiffel Tower — but in doing so has also made herself one of the most powerful women in fashion, where there are only a handful of female chief executives.
And she had done it all while navigating the departure of Saint Laurent’s star designer, Hedi Slimane, and the transition to a relatively low-key unknown, Anthony Vaccarello, a change of creative leadership that had the industry predicting disaster for the brand.
What did they know? Well, it turned out they didn’t know much. And they certainly didn’t know her.
“Working with her is enriching,” Mr. Vaccarello said. “She lets me be totally free. We talk a lot about strategy, where we want to go. But I don’t have to do something to please someone or some client.”
Tall and slim, Ms. Bellettini is always clad head-to-toe in Saint Laurent, which she wears with the throwaway ease of any old thing. Quick to smile at everyone, even in a smile-stingy city like Paris, she is also famously calm and loath to second-guess herself or her team.
It was this confidence that led her to choose Mr. Vaccarello, 38, to replace Mr. Slimane, the designer who turned around the struggling Saint Laurent while changing the name of its ready-to-wear line, its store décor, ad campaigns and every product. Even before Mr. Slimane decided not to renew his contract after slightly less than four years at the house, Ms. Bellettini had noticed an interesting trend in fashion magazines and shops like Colette in Paris and Bergdorf’s in New York: Mr. Vaccarello’s ready-to-wear was being matched up with Saint Laurent’s accessories.
“It was pissing me off a little bit,” she said. “Why is Anthony’s ready-to-wear always pictured in the magazines with our bags and shoes? Bloody hell!”
When it became clear Mr. Slimane was leaving, Mr. Vaccarello was approached for a possible job with a big fashion brand — but not told which one. He was required to sign a confidentiality agreement. He met with Ms. Bellettini secretly, and after several interviews, including one with François-Henri Pinault, Kering’s chairman and chief executive, was offered the job. He was Ms. Bellettini’s only candidate.
“I didn’t know Anthony personally, but I thought, ‘He is the only one who can come here and do Saint Laurent, in the way Anthony sees women,’” she said. “When I met him, I was incredibly impressed that he was not at all afraid of the challenge. Some people don’t believe it, but Anthony was the only one I met for the job.”
Mr. Vaccarello and Ms. Bellettini have since become soul mates. He is Belgian-born, and his first language is French, but his parents come from Agrigento in Sicily, and he grew up speaking Italian. He and Ms. Bellettini speak to each other in English but sometimes send text messages in Italian.
When he bought himself a honey-colored bulldog puppy at Christmas, he bought one in black for her. He is a good cook; she is not, so he sometimes invites her over for pasta. Together they weathered a storm of public opprobrium last March, when France’s advertising watchdog asked Saint Laurent to modify two ads created by Mr. Vaccarello after receiving dozens of complaints that they degraded women.
One featured a model in a fur jacket and fishnet tights reclining with her legs spread wide open; the other, a model in a leotard and roller-skate stilettos bending over a stool. The ads were displayed on about 250 kiosks in France, mainly in Paris, and in fashion magazines; the open-legged ad was splashed on a large billboard along the route to Paris from Charles de Gaulle airport. International Women’s Day happened to coincide with the campaign.
Ms. Bellettini said that she received a stream of hate emails, including one calling her a whore. But she did not pull the ads. “It was a very ironic, very playful way to present stilettos and boots,” she said. Still, she acknowledged, “It is sometimes true you don’t consider the circumstances in which things happen.”
It wasn’t her first time in the line of fire, in any case. A dust-up occurred in 2015 during Mr. Slimane’s tenure, when an ad featuring the young Dutch model Kiki Willems was censured and called “irresponsible” by Britain’s advertising watchdog agency because she looked excruciatingly thin. The ad campaign had almost run its course, and Saint Laurent did not respond to the criticism.
“We knew that this was a super-healthy girl who had been working with us forever and we didn’t see anything bad,” Ms. Bellettini said. She is determined never to panic or bow to public pressure out of fear. But she does believe in learning from mistakes.
“Definitely the sensitivity of people and their ability to speak out is much bigger than before,” she said. “This has raised the bar for each and every one of us. If I can be honest, I don’t think that today that campaign would even be shot.”
Ms. Bellettini attributes her calm demeanor to her upbringing in the town of Cesena, near the Adriatic, the youngest of three daughters; her sisters are much older. Her father, whom she adored, was an accountant at a lumber company; her mother, a school administrator. She studied economics and business administration at Bocconi University in Milan, spending five months at the University of Chicago as an exchange student in her senior year, which forced her to quickly improve the limited English she had learned at school.
After graduation, she moved to New York for a training program with Goldman Sachs, then to London to work with its Italian mergers and acquisitions team. Later, at the investment bank Deutsche Morgan Grenfell in London, she helped pitched deals to luxury fashion houses, and in the process met Patrizio Bertelli, chief executive of the Prada Group.
In 1999, he offered her a job as part of Prada’s then-new business development division. She had always loved fashion, but the job came with a 50 percent pay cut.
She turned to her father for guidance. “I said, ‘I met Mr. Bertelli and he offered me the job of my life, and I can leave banking’,” she recalled. “‘But there is only one problem, it is half the salary.’ He told me, ‘In my life I never earned the money you are going to make at Prada. Twenty-nine years old is a little early to do a job for money. Do whatever you like.’ ” She took the job
After Prada, she jumped to Helmut Lang, to Gucci and then to Bottega Veneta, where she was communication and merchandising director, living comfortably in Lugano, near Milan. That’s when Mr. Pinault noticed her.
“When I had to replace Paul Deneve as C.E.O. of Saint Laurent, she was the first name on my list,” Mr. Pinault said. “I knew that she had the qualities needed for the job: first, a strong personality and the ability to dedicate herself entirely to her mission without any hesitation; second, the capability to quickly understand what makes this maison so special and to endorse it — and indeed, she adapted very quickly to Saint Laurent in a key moment of its history.”
Mr. Pinault “called me to Paris one Friday afternoon,” Ms. Bellettini recalled. “He asked me did I want to be C.E.O. of Yves Saint Laurent. In a second, I said, ‘Yes!’ Then I said, ‘You know I don’t speak French, right?’ and he said, ‘I know that. It’s not a problem.’ ”
Mr. Pinault set a broad strategic vision and gave her flexibility and freedom in reaching the goals. “He never frightens you,” she said. “He gives you autonomy within a framework.”
Ms. Bellettini relied on her Italian identity to navigate the alien culture of Paris. People from her region have a disarming way of speaking that makes them sound playful even when they are dead serious. “It helps that we’re open, that we tend to smile, that we have this funny accent,” she said, smiling. “It makes us ‘simpatico.’ The worst thing you can do with your teams is to create a culture of fear.”
After an internal study of YSL, Ms. Bellettini concluded that the company either had to invest substantially and spark growth or begin dismantling operations and shrink to half its size. The decision was to invest.
Diversification has been one key to the house’s current success. These days, only 19 percent of YSL sales come from ready-to-wear, 59 percent from leather goods, 14 percent from shoes and the rest from miscellaneous items like eyewear.
Flexibility has been another. When the number of Chinese tourists coming to Paris plummeted in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in January and November of 2015, Saint Laurent refocused its Paris stores on attracting France-based clients and ramped up the business in China.
Also, focus: In Paris, Ms. Bellettini lives in an apartment close to the 17th-century hôtel particulier on the Left Bank that serves as the company’s creative core. Her husband, a businessman who has been in her life for 20 years, lives in Milan. They talk just about every day, share vacations and some weekends, but rarely appear in public together. “We understand what each other wants,” she said. “I never have the feeling that we should do something different.”
She has what she calls “de-stressful” activities three mornings a week: running as much as six miles along the Seine or kickboxing with a personal trainer. She allots 90 minutes every Monday morning for a lesson with a French tutor and sometimes stays up to midnight studying grammar.
Sales have just hit the €1.5 billion mark; her ultimate goal is to double it. “You have to know where you want to go,” she said. “And you have to act as if you’re already there.”