What does it take to run a 70-year-old fashion business?

What does it take to run a 70-year-old fashion business?

Destined for success

Text: Jolene Khor

Answer: A sense of humour, a competitive streak, quality products, and a kick-ass collaboration... or five

Fashion is a business. Sure, it's creative, exciting and oftentimes inspirational. Fashion's greatest — the Diors, Vuittons and Saint Laurents of the world — consider what they do wearable art. But at the end of the day, if a house fails to reach into the pockets of its customers and meet the bottom line, its principles and stories matter little; there's nowhere to go but down.

As far as numbers go, Parisian house Longchamp's are plenty impressive. It made close to $900 million in 2016 alone, on the web and within the walls of its some 300 boutiques worldwide. At nearly 70 years, the Longchamp name is far from aged. The brand recently penetrated the Moscow, Shanghai and Tokyo markets via the GUM Department Store, Nanjing Road and a tower on Omotesando Avenue respectively. The grand opening of a flagship store on New York City's 5th Avenue is set for next year. Spring/summer 2018 will also see Longchamp expanding its breadth of offerings to include eyewear.

In short, Longchamp is thriving and it's making it look easy in a gloomy retail climate. If there is a secret formula, the answers are likely imbedded within our interview with the CEO of Longchamp Jean Cassegrain, who just so happens to share the same name as his great-grandfather, the founder of Longchamp.

Jean Cassegrain, CEO of Longchamp

During a time when retail is suffering, Longchamp is experiencing great success. To what does it owe its success?
The foundation for everything is the product. If you don't have a good product, you can't do anything. Even the best communication team is not going to be able to save the day if the product is not there. A great product — it's what our customers see; it's what keeps them loyal. Sorry, it's a very unexciting answer, but that is the reality.

Where do you think that loyalty comes from?
The quality, the know-how, the workmanship... all that are important. They keep the customer faithful. Sometimes, a brand expands very fast with a product that is so-so and because customers aren't experts, they can't guess from the bag if it's truly good quality or not until after they use it for several months. In our case, our customers are never disappointed with us, so they come back.

Then comes the challenge of convincing buyers they need another great bag.
Yes. We need them to come back to buy another bag, when they already have plenty of bags. And if you buy Longchamp, you don't actually need another one so we have to be seductive, bring new ideas and fresh elements that are going to tempt you.

What's the secret to Longchamp's seduction?
It's an alchemy of things. It's coming up with the right look at the right moment. At Longchamp, the colours are very important. New shades, new silhouettes too. Our customers are very open-minded. They're ready to follow us where we take them. It's quite hard to define; it's intangible, really.

Longchamp fall/winter 2017

How is the ready-to-wear doing?
It's still small in terms of business because it's not in all our points of sale. But it's growing in importance. It's very helpful to define the image of the Longchamp woman, it's very helpful to create the silhouette of the Longchamp woman. It puts the bags into perspective. It tells the story further. 

How does Longchamp handle the cycle of fast fashion without oversaturating the market?
The cycle is exhausting. We cannot throw away everything we've done at the end of every season and rebuild from the ground up. One way to balance this is to start from our iconic piece but upgrade them all the time. There are products that have been in our collection for more than 20 years but they're never exactly as they were 20 years ago. It's an exercising in combining iconic pieces, special editions, seasonal editions and also totally new shapes because we need to come up with what's going to be the iconic piece in 10, 15 years from now.

Did you grow up knowing you'll be heading the family business?
I was brainwashed by my father. I didn't even realise what he was doing to me!  [Laughs] I never considered another career.

Taking the helm after your grandfather and father, do you feel the pressure to come up with an iconic piece of your generation?
My sister Sophie Delafontaine is the artistic director so she's the one that gets the most pressure. [Laughs] But yes there's a pressure on the entire team. Every season, our customers expect something greater than the last and it's tough.

"Our customers are very open-minded. They're ready to follow us where we take them."

Is that pressure healthy?
I think it's healthy. It's what makes us progress. The competition pushes us forward.

What is it like to work so closely with your sister?
It works quite well. My father is still involved as our chairman and chief designer. He does more of the men's and luggage while my sister does the women's. I'm not a creative person, I don't have any ideas [laughs] so my job is to criticise theirs.

Hardly the recipe for sibling bonding, is it?
It's difficult to be a designer because everyone feels authorised to criticise your work. If you're an accountant, maybe your boss is going to criticise your work but other people have no opinion, really. Everyone has an opinion on design, and they might say they don't like something, but not always able to tell you why. Your work is very personal and you've invested a lot of personality in your work, so a designer must develop a "thick leather" because people express their points of views all the time, sometimes very harshly. Therefore I try to express my opinion constructively.

The Mademoiselle Longchamp hobo bag

Tell me about the new bag, the Mademoiselle Longchamp.
It has a double shoulder strap feature so you can wear it long or short. It has a little stamp that looks like wax on the side and beautiful finishes like the English style edge around the flap. It's quite difficult to do because it's a lot of sanding — about seven to eight times — polishing and painting with a tiny brush. A lot of time is spent on it for the smooth finish. We worked on it for a year.

"Is pressure healthy? I think so. It's what makes us progress. The competition pushes us forward."

What is the greatest Longchamp legacy to date?
Well we're still alive, so there's that! [Laughs]

Every design house is striving to be more modern. Is that your business model too?
It depends on what you mean by modern. I take it as being relevant to time, being contemporary... that's what's important to us. We've changed a lot since we began. We started with smoking pipes for men, to handbags, to shoes and ready-to-wear. They're all totally different worlds we've adapted to in 70 over years. 

What has been a great learning moment in that respect?
Sarah Morris (with whom Longchamp collaborated in 2014) is an American artist who works with flat colours in large scales, which can be tricky to execute on bags because it needs a lot of precision. She wanted to use a specific shade of black that first needed a base of white to achieve. Our standard shade of black was not good enough for her so we had to develop some special ink for this.

Longchamp x Sarah Morris circa 2014

Do you have a favourite Longchamp piece in your personal collection?
I like to change my bags all the time. I'm constantly trying all the new bags every season. I'm like a girl — I like the newest! When I'm traveling I use a lot of the Jeremy Scott limited Le Pliage editions. 

"It's difficult to be a designer because everyone feels authorised to criticise your work."

Will we see more designer collaborations soon?
Possibly. The collaborations are really exciting because it's interesting to see what's going to be the take of another designer on our brand. Usually the result is out of the ordinary. The designers and artists that we select for our collaborations have to take us to a place where maybe we wouldn't have gone by ourselves. They bring us into their universe. Because they don't always know what it takes to make a bag, they come up with ideas that are a little bit crazy so in a way they help push our technical boundaries.

See the Mademoiselle Longchamp hobo bags in their full glory below:

Shop the Mademoiselle Longchamp hobo bags and Longchamp's fall/winter collection in the new boutique in Paragon #02-40/41 .