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Longchamp: A family tradition of luxury

WILD CARD INSIDE - Cai Subijano (The Philippine Star) - December 19, 2012 - 12:00am

I still remember the day I really noticed the Le Pliage by Longchamp. I was a senior in college when I noticed a batchmate of mine carrying a black nylon tote bag with long, elegant leather handles.

Since then, I’ve seen the Le Pliage slung on the shoulders of women from Paris to the US, and nearly every city I’ve been to in Asia. You would think that I would tire of seeing it, but I’ve been obsessed with it since. No other bag has served me as well. I throw everything (really, everything) into my Le Pliage — nothing appears to be too heavy for it. I’ve ruined more extravagant designer handbags by taking them out on unexpectedly rainy days, but my Le Pliage remains resilient and unfussy. One of my smartest investments was a travel-sized version that I could fold up and later unfurl in order to accommodate one-too-many purchases on a trip.

LM Patch Canard is from the seasonal LM Patch line, which features eccentric combinations of colors and textures.

I’ve taken it from the city to the beach and most recently, to the bustling district of Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong, where I was to attend the brand’s store opening along Canton Road and interview siblings Jean Cassegrain and Sophie Delafontaine (née Cassegrain), members of the third generation who took the reigns of the family-owned and run luxury brand.

Sophie joined the family business as managing and artistic director after spending four years designing children’s clothing. Today, she designs the women’s ready-to-wear collection, women’s shoe collection, which launched earlier this year, and of course, handbags. Although she never formally studied handbag design, the know-how had already been transcribed into her DNA. “It was more instinctive,” she says. “I have seen my father designing handbags all my life and I have spoken with him about new prototypes, new shapes from when I was five years old.”

Her brother, Jean, the company’s CEO, also has fond memories of growing up with the brand. He recalls the origins of the Le Pliage back in the day: “The Pliage is actually the grandchild of another product that we had before. In the ‘70s, my father was the first to have the idea to use nylon to make bags and luggage. At the time nylon was still a new material and he purchased nylon that was used by the French army for the flooring of their tents. So he made bags out of that material and in that very first collection of nylon bags, one of the designs was a bag that folded into a little pouch. In 1993, he kind of redesigned that bag, reworked it, and that’s how he came up with the very, very famous Le Pliage bag.” He adds, “We sell now more than three million units of them every year all over the world, so it has to be the most successful bag design in the world.”

It is without question that the bag appeals to women of different cultures and ages, regardless of whether they are updated with fashion or not, while still embodying the values of Parisian chic. In the coffee table book Longchamp, author Maire Aucouturier included a study co-authored by Elyette Rouz, a sociologist specializing in the world of luxury, to “analyze the universality of the Pliage bag and attempt to solve its enigma.” For Jean, however, the answer is much simpler. “It’s through the product, really. I think the key for our success is that the customer enjoys our product. Our product is always new, updated, innovative, quality, also reasonably-priced, so I think all these together make it a product that makes it very appealing to women around the world,” he says.

Another reason for the brand’s success, especially with the Le Pliage, are the personalities that they have been collaborating with over the years, such as eccentric artist Tracey Emin, subversive designer Jeremy Scott, and digital print princess Mary Katrantzou. However, “it’s not a marketing process,” Sophie clarifies. “It’s really more of a relationship, a desire that I have to work with someone because I appreciate (their) work.” A lover of art and design, she admits that she would love to collaborate next with French designers Haider Ackermann and Bouchra Jarrar, along with a few contemporary artists.

Naturally, the brand’s collaborators, including the architects that they’ve worked with on their stores, are treated like family. After all, Longchamp is a family affair. So what about the next generation of Cassegrains? “Maybe my son. I have one who is really very creative. But I will never encourage or say anything,” Sophie says. “They have to choose their way. If they come in the company, I would be very pleased, but they will have to know that it’s something (they) have to do very properly. There is no place that is waiting for them. They have to do their best because after, it’s technically all (their lives). It’s a great responsibility. I can’t choose for them. They have to choose.”

The Cassegrains even have a special affinity for the location of their brand new store. That they have chosen to open one of their biggest boutiques in the world in Hong Kong is apt, considering that Longchamp opened its first flagship store there in 1979. (The first flagship in Paris would later be inaugurated in 1988.) The first floor showcases mostly women’s handbags from the current fall/winter collection, while the second floor contains the women’s ready-to-wear collection. A three-story glass installation rises up from the central staircase, featuring solid glass panels which recreate the rainbow colors of the Le Pliage bags, which are located on the third floor, along with leather goods for men and for travel.

Surrounded by one of my favorite handbags in the world, I had to ask about a little rumor I had heard about the Le Pliage — that the bright orange ones were more expensive than the other colors because they were especially made in France. “About 60 percent (of our products) are made in France and 40 percent are made outside of France, in Tunisia, Mauritius and in China. But it is always made with our own raw material that we always supply from Europe,” Jean explains. “Here, in this store, I cannot even tell which product is made where. You have to look inside and read at the label. (But) the level of quality is the same. It’s not like you have a low-grade product that is made in one location and an A-grade product which is made in another location.”

However, my question seemed to have piqued his curiosity because he stood up and said, “We can take a look at the product...” He walked over to a line of orange Le Pliage bags on display, opened it up and looked for the tag. “Made in China,” we all said in unison. “It’s an urban legend,” he concluded. “But maybe if I pick another one, it’s made in France.”

So now, I know nearly everything there is to know about the Le Pliage from its history, which is as rich as the Cassegrain’s family tree, and I have even solved its mysteries. And yet, I still can’t seem to get enough of it. As Elyette Roux wrote, “How is it that these girls still prefer Pliage bookbags or handbags, which were already popular with their mothers’ generation — and mine? How does this brand succeed in attracting followers from one generation to the next?” Only time will tell whether the next generation will find as much use for the Le Pliage as I have. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting for that probable collaboration with Haider Ackermann.

* * *

Longchamp is available exclusively at Rustan’s Makati, Rustan’s Shangri-La, Rustan’s Gateway, Rustan’s Alabang Town Center and Rustan’s Cebu.

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