Top Gucci (NYSE:GUC) guys Tom Ford and Dominic De Sol gave the company the heave-go this week, announcing they would leave when their contracts expire next April. They took the business from the edge of bankruptcy in the early 1990s to become the third-largest worldwide peddler of luxury goods by sales.

Gucci became so desirable that big companies competed for it, with Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy giving up in 2001 in favor of Pinault-Printemps-Redoute (PPR), owner of such luxury brands as Yves St. Laurent, Sergio Rossi, and Stella McCarthy as well as other retail, credit card, and business-to-business operations. PPR now owns 68% of Gucci and in March 2004 must offer a guaranteed price of $85.52 for each remaining share.

Chief Designer Ford benefited Gucci by emphasizing marketing and interpersonal skills, while CEO De Sol managed the business to investor profits, which, despite a flat-looking chart and drop from early 2000 highs, has handily outperformed the S&P 500 over the last five years (Don't be fooled by the chart's late September cliff fall -- the company paid a $15.88 special dividend per ADR on Sept. 26).

Despite the importance that the media attaches to name-brand fashion designers, the truth is that high-profile fashion houses built around an Yves-Saint Laurent, for example, do not make money selling haute couture to moneyed mavens. Publicly held corporations use a brand's cache to license and sell clothing, accessories, and perfume to where the money is -- the larger consumer market. (Jeff Hwang yesterday examined valuations of two other design houses more clearly built around a personality -- Tommy Hilfiger (NYSE:TOM) and Polo Ralph Lauren (NYSE:RL)).

That's why Gucci is more than Tom Ford, and great managers like De Sol, while not a euro a dozen, can be replaced. Certainly if PPR thought both managers were sine qua non to the future of Gucci, it would have nailed down some understandings before buying 68% of the business and committing to bid for the rest next year. The market agrees, cutting the shares only a buck and change this week on the news.

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