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‘Our style is that little bit more relaxed than what some other luxury brands are putting forward’

As Longchamp opens its eighth Hong Kong store, its chief executive says the French accessories brand’s sense of fun helps set it apart from its rivals 

In the luxury world models are never usually smiling,” says Jean Cassegrain, chief executive of luxury French accessories brand Longchamp. “In our advertising campaigns you will notice that Coco Rocha [the face of Longchamp] is smiling.”

And Cassegrain is smiling too as he welcomes Drapers to the brand’s newest flagship boutique in Hong Kong, on the eve of its official launch day.

The opening is Longchamp’s eighth in the Hong Kong region and its 237th worldwide, although since the interview the brand’s expansion has continued apace – it has gone on to open a store in São Paulo, Brazil, taking its total to 238.

But with seven stores in Hong Kong already, what’s so special about this particular opening? Not only is it one of the brand’s two biggest stores in the region, standing at just over

4,300 sq ft and spread over three floors, but it also happens to be on Canton Road, the fourth most expensive shopping street in the world in terms of retail rents.

In fact, in a report by property agents Cushman & Wakefield, Hong Kong locations appear three times in the top 10 global locations for highest retail rents in the world, claiming the second, third and fourth spots, behind New York’s Fifth Avenue.

However, Cassegrain says a space on Canton Road is a luxury worth investing in: “This street is the best street for luxury shopping in Hong Kong and for a lot of the brands [with stores here], this is their number one shop in the world.”

And he’s not wrong. Longchamp has some pretty impressive neighbours on Canton Road with Burberry located next door and other luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Prada and Gucci a stone’s throw away.

“Hopefully this will become our number one store worldwide. If not immediately number one, it should be in the top three for us pretty quickly,” says a confident Cassegrain. Given the excitement surrounding its opening and the impressive nature of the store, the brand obviously has high hopes for it.

With its imposing 2,045 sq ft facade, which looks out onto Canton Road and allows natural light to flood each of its three floors, Cassegrain likens it to a giant billboard for the brand that allows it to compete with the luxury powerhouses that line the street.

Designed and created by architect Eric Carlson, the shop is the latest expression of the brand’s global store design concept, which it launched in 2010. Every detail has been thought about right down to the coloured solid glass panels that rise up the central staircase, which are designed to recreate the rainbow of colours that Longchamp’s iconic Le Pliage bag is available in.

However, despite the high costs associated with opening the Canton Road store, Cassegrain says he expects it to break even within six months or less.

Which is hardly surprising, since Longchamp  turned over €390m (£320m) in 2011 and grew 22% last year. Not bad for a brand that started life making leather covers for tobacco pipes back in 1948.

Hong Kong is an important market for the brand. Despite originating close to the Longchamp racecourse on the outskirts of Paris in 1948, it was in fact Hong Kong, not France, where the brand opened its first standalone store back in 1979.

“At that time we were manufacturers and back then in the 1970s it was not common as it is now to have your own store with your own brand name,” explains Cassegrain.

“Before we opened in Hong Kong we were only selling through a network of independent retailers but it was here that we had the first shop with the Longchamp name on it.”

Today, Asia represents 22% of Longchamp’s business in terms of turnover and according to Cassegrain remains an important part of its growth plan.

“Mainland China in particular is part of our growth strategy,” he says. “In mainland China we currently have 14 shops but we [aim for] about 30 or 40 in the next few years.

“We are also working on some new regions and some other emerging countries like Brazil. We have a lot of growth potential in [Brazil] and we have also got the newer countries as well, places like Colombia and Saudi Arabia.”

But what about the UK? Cassegrain, who is actually the grandson of Longchamp’s founder, also called Jean Cassegrain, insists the UK remains a key market for the family-run French business.

“The emerging markets are important but even in mature markets like Europe, the US and Japan we still have growth potential,” he says.

It’s a sentiment shared by Nigel Blow, chief executive of Irish department store Arnotts, who has witnessed phenomenal growth with the brand since the store opened a dedicated Longchamp shop-in-shop at the end of last year.

“Since we launched a Longchamp boutique in our Accessories Hall in November 2011 we’ve seen a sales increase of more than 150% year on year,” he says. “The brand is extremely popular and one of the top accessories brands here in the store. It trades consistently well throughout the year.”

When Drapers presses Cassegrain about which product categories sell best in the UK, he insists there is very little difference in what makes the best-seller list worldwide.

The brand’s famous folding Le Pliage bag is said to be the best-selling bag in the world, having sold 3 million units globally last year, and is still a popular choice in the UK. The brand also launched ready-to-wear clothing in 2006 and footwear in 2010 in order to ensure it branches into new areas.

Longchamp signalled its commitment to the UK with the opening of a store in London’s Westfield Stratford development earlier this year and also plans to refurbish its Bond Street flagship next year as well as opening a store on Regent Street. Cassegrain also said he would not rule out the possibility of opening standalone stores in other UK cities.

“There are no plans for other cities in the UK at the moment,” he says. “Just now we are focusing on improving our brand presence in London, but in the future I don’t see why not.”

Although according to John Lewis buying and brand director Peter Ruis, the brand already has a great presence in the UK.

“We’ve stocked Longchamp for many years and it has always been a favourite with our customers,” he says. “Our customers recognise Longchamp as an internationally renowned luxury brand. They love its strong heritage, the quality and functionality of the product and find it a stylish yet very accessible brand.”

It is this accessibility that Cassegrain believes is one of the secrets of Longchamp’s success globally. “The French woman has a lot of appeal across the world for casual elegance and effortless style,” he says. “I would say our style is that little bit more relaxed than what some other luxury brands are putting forward.”

Returning the conversation to the brand’s latest ad campaign, he says: “It is deliberate that in our adverts we have Coco Rocha smiling. The adverts are fun with a touch of humour and it is those elements, along with our Frenchness, that I think distinguish us from other luxury brands.”

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