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Only One Man Belongs at Gucci, and His Name is Tom Ford

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On Friday, December 12th, the fashion industry buzzed over the sudden revelation that Gucci Creative Director Frida Giannini, along with her partner in business and life, CEO Patrizio di Marco, would officially depart Kering's largest brand. A global behemoth valued at $12.5 billion in 2014, Gucci is defined by distinctive leather goods, refined craftsmanship, red-carpet glamor, and a history of nearly a hundred years. While di Marco has already been replaced by Marco Bizzarri, Kering chief executive of luxury couture and leather goods, the vacancy of Gucci's creative and design head has led to a persistent debate over who is destined to lead the Italian heritage brand's resurgence in the luxury market.

The current maelstrom is reminiscent of Gucci in the early 1990's, before the arrival of Tom Ford rescued the brand from financial troubles and design limbo. Over-leveraged, over-licensed, and near bankruptcy, the brand needed Ford and CEO Domenico de Sole (now the chairman of Tom Ford International) to help it shift from a fading bastion of luxury to a $10 billion powerhouse known for its sultry designs and hyper-sexualized advertising campaigns. In one 2004 shoot later banned for its audacity, model Carmen Kass stands disrobed against a wall with a G carved into her pubic hair as a young man looks on.

At this stage, the brand needs a creative director who can bring back the energy and dynamism of Gucci during the Ford days. Currently, the shortlist consists of Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci, Bottega Veneta's Tomas Maier, and Saint Laurent's inimitable Hedi Slimane.

Riccardo Tischi, left, and Hedi Slimane, right. Images: Getty

It is difficult to argue against Riccardo Tisci as a worthy successor, given his ten-year revitalization of Givenchy. Under his watch, the runway stalwart grew its revenues to an estimated $433.3 million in 2014. His Spring 2015 collection for the label, a predominantly black-and-white bonanza of leather, lace, embellishments, and spot-on styling, spoke to Tisci's ability to create a consistent brand message through edgy yet feminine pieces. Who can forget the rottweiler tote or the Bambi sweatshirt? Tisci has given Givenchy new life.

However, Tisci is currently employed by Kering's direct competitor and arch-nemesis LVMH. It seems extremely unlikely that the luxury group helmed by Bernard Arnault would willingly part with one of the most important designers in its growing portfolio. Furthermore, Tisci's contract was reportedly renewed through October 2015. While he may be an aesthetic match, his value as a candidate drops when viewed from a business perspective.

Tomas Maier, who is currently in the process of expanding his namesake label, designs tailored pieces for daily living, including casual separates in cotton alongside swimwear and select accessories. The current spring offering conveys a utilitarian nautical fantasy. With the goal of two new store openings next year—in downtown Manhattan and Miami—he seems unlikely to accept a post at such a pivotal moment. His work at Bottega, meanwhile, is upmarket and luxe with thoughtful shapes and a masterful use of intrecciato (the leather braiding that identifies the label). While more compatible with the Gucci heritage, his ready-to-wear aesthetic remains understated and simple in contrast with the vitality and spirit of Gucci.

Gucci's infamous "G" ad from the Tom Ford era

In a surprise turn, Page Six reported on December 15th that "fashion insiders" speculate that Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane is on the list of candidates to replace Giannini. After taking over from Stefano Pilati in 2012, Slimane has imbued the French fashion house with an undeniable magnetism reflective of his rock music photography background and menswear tailoring talents. His skill and instincts have generated excitement and press for the now LA-based creative atelier. The abrupt addition of a new label to his responsibilities could stunt the momentum he has gained in only two brief years contemporizing Saint Laurent.

Despite this abundance of talented candidates, the only designer who can truly reignite the fire at Gucci remains its original savior, a man whose name is synonymous with exclusivity, scarcity, and charisma: Tom Ford. In fact, rumors of Ford's return made their way across the industry only yesterday.

Granted, Ford's ten-year tenure at Gucci did end in a public conflict with Francois Pinault of PPR, leaving him jobless and desolate. In a 2013 interview with Business of Fashion's Imran Amed, he confessed, "I was unsure of what I'd do after [that] because, quite honestly, I was shell-shocked. I was very depressed about it." At the time, he wrote off the possibility of returning to fashion.

Since then, however, Ford has built his own namesake fashion empire, growing from perfume, makeup, and eyewear (negotiated in a series of lucrative licensing contracts with Estée Lauder and Marcolin) to both women's and men's wear. The designer has stated that by early 2014, his business was on track to earn $1 billion a year in retail sales.

So the man who once renounced fashion has staged the comeback of a lifetime. As the reinventor of such signature accents as the bamboo handle (a symbol of Gucci's seductive combination of exoticism and polish) and the tinted aviator sunglass (conjuring a provocative image of Studio 54 hedonism), Ford will forever be linked to the house of Gucci. Given the brand's flagging sales and persistently dull ready-to-wear, it's time for a renaissance. And Ford is the ultimate Renaissance man.