Longchamp’s Artful Initiative

A little nylon bag can go a long way — that's the adage at Longchamp's Paris headquarters, where la famille Cassegrain is gearing up for the 60th anniversary of its privately held accessories firm.

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A little nylon bag can go a long way — that’s the adage at Longchamp’s Paris headquarters, where la famille Cassegrain is gearing up for the 60th anniversary of its privately held accessories firm.

While the company has been turning out a range of leather handbags and luggage from its factories in France’s Loire Valley since the Fifties, it wasn’t until 1993 that the name Longchamp became synonymous with a certain utilitarian chic. That’s the year company president Phillipe Cassegrain, whose father, Jean, founded Longchamp as a producer of tobacco pipe coverings, introduced the Pliage, a leather-handled nylon tote that folds flat. The bag was an instant hit, with everyone from college students to Ladies Who Lunch snapping them up; these days it seems you can’t walk down a city boulevard without passing a Pliage in one of its myriad colors and sizes. “We sell 2.5 million units a year. I don’t think any brand has any single design that sells that much,” said Jean Cassegrain, son of Phillipe and Longchamp’s managing director.

One of a handful of luxury companies that are still family-run (Sophie Delafontaine, Jean’s sister, is the creative director, while brother Olivier runs U.S. operations and mother Michele manages retail operations), the Cassegrain clan enjoys the freedom to make creative decisions that, as Cassegrain said, “are a little bit out of the ordinary without worrying what the stock exchange will think about it.” To wit, as part of its anniversary celebration, the company has collaborated with Belgian artist Jean-Luc Moerman, known for his tattoo-like renderings of shapes on photographs of icons like Marilyn Monroe and Madonna, to emblazon 60 bags with his signature loops and scribbles. Each bag will be slightly different from the others — Moerman silk-screened individual bags with an original design — and sold for $6,500. A set of reproduction bags will be sold separately. Those who can’t shell out for the oversize leather totes, which are based on a design the company produced in the Seventies, will also have an opportunity to see Moerman’s installation work at the July 2 anniversary bash at the L’Elysée Montmartre in Paris, where The Kills will perform a live set (conveniently, Kate Moss, the company’s spokesmodel, is dating Kills member Jamie Hince).

This story first appeared in the June 30, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We wanted to go beyond just reissuing something from our archives, and we didn’t want it to be just a marketing device,” explains Cassegrain, who will host another anniversary party on Bastille Day, July 14, at the company’s 9,830-square-foot SoHo store in New York in collaboration with Deitch Projects (an art installation by Moerman will be a centerpiece of that celebration as well). “We have a long history of collaborating with artists,” Cassegrain said (indeed, in 2004, British artist Tracy Emin designed a limited edition Longchamp bag). “With Jean-Luc, we tried to make the project more than just slapping a print on any bag. The bags became their own art works.”

Although the ubiquity of the Pliage has given Longchamp a reputation as a feminine company, it wasn’t always that way. In fact, originally a purveyor of leather smoking accessories, the company went on to specialize in men’s leather goods — from wallets to clutches — until the mid-Eighties, when, Cassegrain said, American buyers began to request women’s products from the company. In an effort to grab a slice of the ever-lucrative luxury handbag market, Longchamp, which sells a small line of ready-to-wear, has since introduced several women’s bags, including the Legende, inspired by a vintage doctor’s bag Delafontaine found at a flea market, and the upcoming Cosmos, which Delafontaine said “is based on a bowling bag, but customized in a contemporary way.” The Cosmos will wholesale for $414 for leather and $669 for fur.

Also on the agenda for the company: a new ad campaign with Moss, shot in black-and-white by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott at Paris’ famed Café de Flor. (Longchamp was one of the first companies to sign Moss up for a contract after her cocaine scandal in 2005, a move Cassegrain said has paid off but admits that at the time “maybe the stock would have gone down the tubes if we were a listed company.”) The ads center around a romance between Moss and French actor Gaspard Ulliel, best known for his role in “Hannibal.” “It’s dynamic and a bit more lively than our previous campaigns,” said Cassegrain. “We have our tried-and-true products, but we are always going to be the type of company that likes to try new things.”

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