CEO Jean Cassegrain on building Longchamp into a true fashion brand
The Holy Grail of ambitious accessories businesses in the past two decades has been the goal of building them into fully-fledged lifestyle brands. Which is the goal of Jean Cassegrain, CEO of Longchamp and grandson of its founder, has in mind for his brand, which will stage its official catwalk show in New York on September 8.
But for every Prada or Gucci, there is a Tod’s, Hogan and Kate Spade who have launched decent fashion collections but gained little traction. Many have tried but not all succeeded, though Longchamp seems cleverly poised to move to the next level. Longchamp is certainly not the first leather and luggage group to want to become a lifestyle brand. What makes Cassegrain so confident of success?
“Once, fashion and accessories and leather goods used to be very different metiers; but now it is just one big industry. Clearly, certain marques who are now fashion leaders began in leather – Hermès, Gucci and Prada - and they are complete leaders. While other brands that began in fashion, like Chanel, YSL and Dior, do huge accessories business. There is no real frontier,” says Cassegrain in a phone interview Friday morning.
In a busy year in America, Longchamp opened a Fifth Avenue boutique; unveiled a collection created by downtown New York fashion darlin, designer Shayne Oliver; launched Kendall Jenner as its new ambassador, and this autumn will open a new flagship in Beverly Hills. But the main focus will surely be on its Manhattan runway debut.
“The bag used to be an object of utility – now it is a fashion statement. So we have to make a strong symbolic statement of being in a fashion week,” he expounds.
“Sure, there are risks – but that’s life. Plus, there are risks in not trying. What I notice is that many traditional houses in maroquinerie in France, the US and Italy who have not made this transition – are now in difficult situations. Before they could sell bags that were well-made, serious and practical – today that no longer works!” the CEO insists.
“You have to create emotion – it is not about needs, but seduction and fashion brings that seduction. Of course, there is the risk of bad reviews and also of modest sales. But we are confident in our capacity – and we have been in the area for 10 years so we have made some calculations. But remaining in a baggage specialist is not sufficient. That’s an even bigger risk,” he stresses.
Longchamp have taken a pretty unique path to this stage. For the past decade, the house has staged private shows of collections designed by Cassegrain’s sister Sophie Delafontaine, to internal buyers and friends; a small number of professional reviewers have been permitted a viewing, resulting in positive but restrained reviews.
“It’s true we have created ready-to-wear with a certain discretion. In leather goods, we know everything about supply and production. But fashion takes some time to create a circle of quality suppliers. And, we had to have bigger boutiques; and find our stylistic identity. Now we are ready for a real fashion show. A défilé is a very important mediatic moment, and the best way to exploit our collection,” he concludes.
It’s also the 70th anniversary of Longchamp, which Jean’s grandparents Jean and Renée founded in 1948, “so a fashion show is a pretty symbol of breaking a new barrier.”
“Anyway, we like to do the unexpected. Longchamp in NYC is not what you expect and helps draw attention. In Paris it would be more natural,” he enthuses.
Three days after that show, he plans a more corporate soirée in the Paris opera house, Palais Garnier, “a lovely symbol of artistic creation and patrimony, which corresponds well with us. Plus, my parents' first shop was just 500 meters away on Boulevard Poissonnière.”
Alongside the ready-to-wear plans, Longchamp has worked hard on its image. For too many years it was a mid-range brand favoured by Daily Mail readers in Britain. Its most famous bag, the bendable Pliage, from the French for bend, frequently copied in markets throughout France. However, a whole slew of artistic collaborations have improved its status.
From a link-up in the early '70s with colourful Parisian artist Serge Mendjisky, “a small series of products still in archives, when no one really did artistic collaborations.” Since then, they have developed bags with everyone from Tracey Emin and Kate Moss to Charles Anastase to Jeremy Scott.
“Jeremy is a very cool personality who dreams up attractive and clever ideas each season. While Pliage is like a white page on which artists, designers or even DJs can express themselves,” said Cassegrain, referring to Michel Gaubert, whose creates the sound architecture for all Karl Lagerfeld runway shows, and with whom Longchamp created iPods covers and DJ bags.
“This is not really about marketing or calculated strategically or mathematically – more just a desire to do something creative and amusing. Often, just a chance meeting and something happens,” says the Cassegrain. A disciplined executive who favours ski touring in Courchevel in his free time, and whose significant moustache reminds one of Alfred de Musset. He began working for Longchamp in 1991 after working in Andersen Consulting, which followed a stint doing his military service, working in the French Trade Commission in New York. One reason he speaks well-accented English, though this interview was conducted in French.
Still fully owned by the Cassegrain family, Longchamp does not release sales figures, but these apparently exceed 600 million euros. Worldwide, online sales are less than 5%, but Longchamp’s efforts in the USA are paying off, where digital revenues now exceed 10%.
A true French success story, and a major employer, Longchamp has 3,000 staff worldwide, many working in one of its six factories, centred around Angers in the Loire Valley, with another due to open this August in la Vendée, in a significant new investment. Production is split in two between France and plants in Tunisia and Ile Maurice – where they have been for more than 30 years – and partner plants in Romania, Morocco and China. “We do a little of all categories in all our factories. We like polyvalent sites. It’s not a question of cheap products made abroad and expensive ones here!”
Longchamp boasts some 300 boutiques, across 20 countries, with department stores and duty-free shops bringing its network to 1,500 sales points.
Its fashion is already in 40 Longchamp boutiques, though ultimately, the acid test of the collection’s success is whether major American and international department stores place orders on Longchamp collection. Historically, that is the bellwether separating the accessories brands that became major fashion players, and the many also-rans.
May the show begin…
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