Stacks Image 2005

Longchamp CEO Jean Cassegrain tells ISBN about independence, creative freedom and daring prior the brand’s flagship store opening – Maison 8 – in Hong Kong
French leather and luxury goods purveyor Longchamp - founded in 1948 by Jean Cassegrain - began life as a tabac, Au Sultan, on rue de Poissonière in Paris during the 1930’s. Demand for tobacco, known as “brown gold” due to its value and scarcity, soared in the run up to and immediately after the Second World War and Cassegrain’s tabac helped fuel the growth, catering to allied troops with its tobacco and smoking accessories. Surprisingly pipe sales were the most profitable part of the business. But when soldiers – who had been the store’s best customers – began to leave Paris, Cassegrain saw a need to diversify. Not content with selling conventional pipes he introduced leather-sheathed pipes – a technique drawn from the sadler’s trade – regarded as novelty items of luxury, for which exotic leathers like horsehair and crocodile were used. There was even the “Lady”, a pipe for the adventurous woman wanting to channel her inner George Sand. Their instant success convinced Cassegrain that the firm’s future lay in diversifying into small leather goods; passport covers, lighters and wallets followed, as did Longchamp’s first factory in Segré.
Cassegrain’s hunch had been right. By 1960 Longchamp products were sold in more than 100 countries and by the 1970’s, Longchamp was known more for its lightweight travel accessories than tobacco and boutiques in Hong Kong and Japan followed by the end of that decade. Philippe Cassegrain took the helm in 1980 and has been expanding the Longchamp influence since, which included an entry to the US market in the 1990’s. The firm has become associated with Le Pliage, its folding bag made from vinyl and leather trim, and its associations, undertaking partnerships with architect Thomas Heatherwick, artists Tracy Emin and Jeremy Scott, and using Kate Moss as both a face for its womenswear collection, and as designer. The firm that began as a modest tabac boasts annual revenue of 260 million euros, outlets in more than 100 countries and 1,650 employees worldwide. In the words of current CEO who shares the same name as his grandfather Jean Cassegrain, “even though everything has evolved, nothing has changed”. ISBN spoke with Cassegrain.
Convey Longchamp in three words or ideas
  • Leather: something that we’re passionate about. Even though the company has changed a lot over the years, leisure has remained a focal point.
  • Quality/craftsmanship: We operate our own factories, which is obviously very important to us in maintaining both of those things.
  • Family: we’ve always been a family business.
What’s the must-have Longchamp product?

It's the most difficult thing in the world to design a simple product.
The folding bag [Le Pliage] is unique to us, and a big success around the world. The appeal of that product is that it is very original but also very simple. It’s the most difficult thing in the world to design a simple product. That’s its greatest quality and why it’s universal.

What benefits does independence bring?

The luxury of seeing things long term; we are not the slaves of the quarterly result, and all those shareholders. We don’t have to give positive feedback to the financial community every quarter, so that’s really important. To give you a concrete example, during the financial crisis of last year, most brands cut down on their advertising budget, but we changed nothing.
Crises last as long as they last, but it doesn’t change things long term. So we can be less profitable one year, and more profitable the next; it’s not that important in the greater scheme of things. But it does mean we can think of the future rather than the now.
Leather has remained a focal point. It’s something we’re passionate about.

Does that enhance Longchamp’s design?

It gives more creative freedom in terms of product design. We sometimes dare to do things which are a little bit free – by that I mean things which are not going to be meaningful commercially but which we have fun doing. In broader terms, look at the example of Kate Moss. We started with Kate Moss in 2005, right at the time when she was having difficulty with the British media, you know how they can be … as a result, a lot of lines were dropping her.

And if you are a public company that’s the thing to do; but for us, it was a risk we were able to take because we have the luxury of doing things in a different or unexpected way. A few years ago we did collaborations with artists - we had a nice idea to bring to the market - even though we knew its commercial potential was limited. But sometimes we do things just for the pleasure of it.
Kate Moss. An obvious and yet not an obvious choice for a French brand, why her?

The idea came naturally. We were looking for somebody internationally recognised and obviously the world knows and likes her. There are not that many faces which correspond to that criteria. She brings a lot of attention to the brand. Everyone looks at how she dresses, what she’s wearing. It helped us to bring the spotlight on things. At Longchamp, we have a tendency of being discrete, subtle, something we have in common with Hermes. That’s good, we like that, but sometimes we need to express ourselves more loudly, make ourselves known, so that people see us. Kate helps bring attention to Longchamp. It’s been going on for six years now. We’ve done special collections with her.
We have a tendency of being discrete, subtle. That’s good, we like that, but sometimes we need to express ourselves more loudly, make ourselves known, so that people see us.

Luxury brands are increasingly using architects to design stores. In Maison 8 you can be beamed into Paris and the Eiffel Tower and have your photograph taken. Are products no longer enough to sell luxury retail?

It’s true. We need to create some excitement, a store to reflect the brand as much as possible, so that’s why we collaborate. Eric Carlson (architect) designed it. And yes, you get in there and you get beamed into Paris.

The main benefit [of independence] is the luxury to be able to see things long term. We are not the slaves of the quarterly result, and all those shareholders.
For a while, historic French luxury brands were selling their history. Are they now selling Paris as an artistic experience instead?

We wouldn’t say that because we think it’s pretentious. Paris is one of the elements of the history of our brand, so it’s part of what we are. We are very Parisian. It’s not a matter of age or history; it’s more a matter of what we are.

The horse is endemic to Longchamp. Can you push that harder in Hong Kong, a city obsessed with horse racing?

We don’t play it up that much. It’s too obvious perhaps for us to do that. We don’t deny our association with the world of horses and horse racing, but at the same time, we also don’t push it, or put it forward. It’s also a world that’s rather masculine and we are a more feminine brand. We were founded as a male brand, yes, tobacco, on rue de Poissonière but over the years … it went away gradually over the years.
We can be less profitable one year, and more profitable the next; it’s not that important in the greater scheme of things.
Longchamp shares several values with Hermès. How would you differentiate the two labels?

Even though we share several values our finished product is very different. We are lighter, less constructed, and more easy-going; perhaps we’re a little more relaxed. But both of us have strong family values.

How long did it take to find this location in the centre of Hong Kong?

As long as I can remember. Trying to find a location in Central is very, very tough. We may also look at Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsi, where we’d say yes to a location, but that’s even harder. More immediately and realistically, in the coming months we’re going to open at Elements in West Kowloon. We are already in Ocean Terminal but it’s not as large as Maison 8 on Queen’s Road.
How long has Longchamp had a presence in Hong Kong?

Our first freestanding store opened in the 1979. But, our products have been available since the 1950’s, so that’s sixty years.
We had a nice idea to bring to the market, even though we knew its commercial potential was limited. We do things just for the pleasure of it sometimes.

What plans for expansion in China?

We have a store opening in Guangzhou and we also have plans for one in X’ian. Currently we have three stores in Shanghai, two in Beijing. In total, 12 locations in China.

What are the biggest challenges facing Longchamp at present?

Finding the right store locations is the biggest challenge.
Longchamp seems to be putting more emphasis on clothes.

Yes. We are putting more emphasis on the clothes on the women’s side. Not the men’s.
We can’t run after every trend, you have to make choices.
Though supposedly the men’s fashion market is a rapid growth area?

We can’t run after every trend, you have to make choices, so the ready-to-wear is important to us because it gives a fuller brand image and helps define the brand. But our general focus is more on ladies.
Many French brands have associations in literature and cinema. What are Longchamp’s notable cultural moments?

Well. In the 1950’s and 60’s you can see our products in French cinema, if you’re familiar with Jean Gabin, the French actor. We have Longchamp products in several of his films. We don’t really have any modern-day cinematic references. We like the promotion to come naturally.