Where am I? We started the evening inside Torrigiani gardens in the heart of Florence — heralded as the largest privately owned garden in Europe within city boundaries — sipping cocktails and snacking on hors d'Oeuvres as we reclined on cushions under fruit trees; but now, seated at dinner inside a long canvas tent flanked by a black Jeep and piles of vegetable-tanned leather bags (that earthy scent of tannins wafting through the air) — it feels like I'm on safari in the African desert.
"I'm involved in the business of creating things all the time," announces Hugh Jackman, standing up to make a toast. "Sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on things that we're creating. Sometimes I can have a movie, with years behind it, which opens on a Friday and is irrelevant on a Saturday morning." The room chuckles in unison. Hugh continues: "So if you think about the job that Zaim Kamal, creative director of Montblanc, and the team do in terms of honouring a tradition of 110 years, but also creating a product that will be relevant — not just the day you buy it, but at the end of your life — that is a task, which in my job, you're lucky if you have one in your whole life, let alone 20 products in the 1926 Montblanc Heritage Collection. It's a great honour for me as a Montblanc ambassador to support Zaim and his team, and to tell the world of his great work."
What an orator. What a charmer. With model Lottie Moss, actress Alica Taglioni, and male models Marlon Teixeira and Ben Dahlhaus in attendance, I could also be gatecrashing a private Hollywood party. So where am I really? At a Florentine garden party, on an African safari, or some fancy celebrity dinner? As it turns out, some crazy fusion of all three. As Jackman raises his champagne flute — a tent full of dinner guests following suit; their faces illuminated by warm candlelight dancing off freshly cut flowers gathered in mason jars — we toast to Montblanc; to its story, to its craft, to its timeless quality, and specifically, to the launch of its new 1926 Montblanc Heritage Collection of leather bags inspired by African safari trips in the 1970s. On the other side of the tent, Jens Henning Koch, the executive vice-president of marketing for Montblanc, is beaming.
Earlier that day, in the corner suite of the St Regis in Florence — with views overlooking the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio, basking in the Tuscan sun — I sat down with Koch to discuss the new vintage-inspired leather collection: Why vegetable-tanned leather? Who is the demographic? And how do you authentically engage celebrities and influencers?
What was the thinking behind launching the 1926 Montblanc Heritage Collection? Montblanc already has a stable of leather goods, so why this vintage inspired collection? It's the first time that Montblanc has launched vegetable-tanned leather and the idea behind vegetable-tanned leather is it's very natural; you can really see the beauty of the leather; that is, each product is unique because you really see the original stretch of the leather. And on top of that, you have the tanning, which makes the patina even more special over time. Montblanc started off as a writing instrument brand and became a maison for luxury business lifestyle with the introduction of watches and leather products. And we want to further embrace and enhance our offering as an inspiring purveyor of luxury lifestyle.
How do you think luxury lifestyle has changed over the years? The business world used to be so formal and clearly defined, but the codes are opening up, and there is now a blurring of the lines between work and play. With globalisation people are also travelling more. So what are the leather products that accompany you on this journey through life? We wanted to create a collection that expressed that aspiration of living between cities — the urban nomads, the urban explorers — and that's also versatile for both business and pleasure. The 1926 Montblanc Heritage Collection is created for the modern man with briefcases that are perfect for formal environments, but there's also duffel bags to let you travel between the worlds; and to finish it off, you have a very strong vintage expression that adds a lot of authenticity.
"In a time where everything is exchangeable and disposable, our goal is to have Montblanc products accompany you through life and to grow in importance for you"
Handling the duffle bag in person, it's amazing to feel how soft the vegetable-tanned leather really is... And also it has a smell that immediately evokes a sense of luxury. It's the vegetable tannins extracted from bark and the emollients used to nurture the leather that give it this distinct perfume.
Can you tell me about the design details? Because you have vintage gold hardware on all the leather products, and internally, they are finished with contrast red lining. The collection was inspired by safari trips to Africa in the 1970s, which is why we selected that dark brown colour with a slightly red tone for the leather. The burnished gold hardware complements the vegetable tanned leather, especially as it develops a beautiful patina over time, and the red printed lining is actually inspired by the fabrics worn by the Maasai tribe. All the bags are also finished with the Montblanc heritage logo for a vintage attitude.
You can already tell, that with constant use and good care, these bags are going to look more beautiful the older they get. At Montblanc we aim to create a "fine lifetime companion". "Fine" because it's luxury, "lifetime" because of quality and timeless design, but I think the "companion" element is the most interesting. In a time where everything is exchangeable and disposable, our goal is to have Montblanc products accompany you through life and to grow in importance for you; and having a vegetable-tanned leather that develops a unique patina over time is a strong element to achieving that vision.
Who is the target demographic for this new collection? Well, it's what we would call the "young progressive" — innovators who embrace style and have an understanding of sophistication. Even when we say "young progressive", it's not just in terms of demographics, but rather, psychographics. We are speaking about explorers, open-minded individuals, who are adventurous in navigating both formal and informal sides of life.
In today's noisy digital age, how important is a digital strategy for Montblanc? How does a brand stand out in such a noisy digital space? First, it is very important for Montblanc. Although the brand comes from what could be seen as a very traditional way of writing and communication, Montblanc has always pioneered new solutions and expressions. For example, we have just launched a smart watch as well as Augmented Paper — a writing innovation that allows people to write on real paper with the efficiency of digitising that work so that it can be shared electronically. So there are many elements where Montblanc is really embracing the future — not only in terms of digital communication, but also in terms of digital products that are linked to that world. In fact, the 1926 Montblanc Heritage Collection includes an envelope organiser for the new Augmented Paper writing technology. Also, e-commerce is of growing importance, but you don't really get a sense of the beauty of the vegetable-tanned leather without smelling and touching it.
How big is e-commerce for the brand now? Are brick-and-mortar sales still more than e-commerce or is it very similar? For Montblanc, e-commerce is growing very fast, especially when you consider that Montblanc is also a very attractive gifting brand. That is, people perceive Montblanc products as high value gifts and naturally turn to e-commerce to purchase a gift; be it for graduation, Father's Day, Mother's Day, or any other occasion.
Montblanc works with influencers and celebrities to promote its products. With authenticity being such an important aspect of digital marketing today, what is your advice when it comes to working with digital influencers? How do you engage them in the right way? First of all, the product has to be storied: What is the inspiration? What is the level of craftsmanship? What is the newness factor? Why is it unique? You need all those elements and assets to tell a story, and then you have to also leave room for personal interpretation by the influencer. It is not a one-way street — it's all about how you are perceived because perception becomes reality. In short, you have to create a platform and environment for your maison and products to be experienced and then shared with the world.
I feel the same way. Authenticity lies in engaging influencers from the beginning of the creative process to tell a story, otherwise your readers and customers can tell it's just a commercial transaction. That's right. Influencers are brands themselves; they have to be true to their own brand DNA. So it won't work if you force something on them. Because authenticity is very important, there is an interest in vintage products. When something has a personal story, it resonates with you on a deeper level. The new collection references the year 1926 because Montblanc first offered leather products in 1926, and the vision is that these vegetable-tanned leather products will tell your personal story as your journey through life with them as a trusted travel companion.