By  on September 16, 2008

PARIS — Sequoia, the French contemporary leather goods brand that took its name from one of the planet’s oldest tree species, is spreading its roots in the U.S.

The firm, which will fete its 20th anniversary here today and boasts accessories designer Pierre Hardy at its creative helm, has opened an American subsidiary based in Southern California’s Newport Beach.

Daniel Sisso, president, said the firm’s consistent sell-through with existing clients in the U.S., despite no advertising and restricted visibility, motivated the push. Sequoia is distributed in a handful of stores there, such as Takashimaya and Lord & Taylor in New York.

Crisis periods, according to Sisso, represent prime opportunities for midrange fashion brands to raise their profiles in unconquered territories.

“Right now, distributors there are having to adapt their buying strategy and reassess their brand breakdown, between luxury and affordable brands, old and new ones. It’s a strong growth market for us,” he said. “From experience, we always tend to do well during [economic downturns], as many women want accessories with status, quality and design, but that are affordable. Being a French brand also helps.”

Prices for the house’s bags range from $100 for a fabric bag to around $600 for a fake-crocodile leather bag.

A former L’Oréal marketing executive, Sisso founded the brand with his wife, Florence, in 1988, when bags were regarded as functional objects.

“We wanted a different positioning for bags with a strong identity,” said Sisso, who brainstormed for two years with Hardy on ways to shake up the category. “I was very much inspired by what Swatch had achieved at a time when people would buy one watch for life, used to simply tell the time. They demonstrated that it could be a fashion accessory.”

The result, a line of colorful, PVC-coated cotton canvas designs carrying Sequoia’s distinctive silver ring hardware, was an instant hit with local stores.

More lines were added, in a range of fabrics, but it was the opening of the brand’s first flagship, 10 years later in Saint Germain, according to Sisso, that really landed it on the map.

Today, the brand counts seven stores and 1,500 wholesale doors internationally. Revenues rose 22 percent in 2007 to 18 million euros, or around $24.7 million at average exchange rates, and are expected to rise 15 percent this year.

With France Sequoia’s leading market, followed by Japan, the firm’s export business has grown 40 percent annually since the arrival of managing director Denis Capron three years ago. Distribution plans are being finalized for the Middle East and China, while further European expansion is also in the cards, with a Sequoia store due to open next year in Milan.

Sequoia’s staying power, its founders believe, comes from having resisted pandering to the “It” bag rat race, focusing instead on discreetly edgy bag lines in keeping with the brand’s ethos, based on elegant cut and quality fabrics. Leather styles are the current bestsellers.

“We don’t surf trends, we succeed by smelling what is in the air, more from the design and art worlds,” said Florence Sisso, adding that their largely model-free ad campaigns have also always been more about a way of living rather than an extension of the celebrity circus. “Having a picture of Kate Moss naked with a bag between her legs might be good for business, but we could never do that.”

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