PARIS — Few designers can claim to have sold more than a million of one handbag style.
But Longchamp, the 55-year-old Paris house, accomplished that feat last year alone, and its foldable "Pliage" nylon tote, which it introduced almost a decade ago, keeps building steam.
"We’ve sold more than 4.5 million Pliage bags since its creation," explained Jean Cassegrain, managing director of the family-owned firm. "Without bragging, I think that’s among the records in the accessories industry."
Granted, the bag comes at a reasonable price — about $100 retail in Europe — and is revamped with new colors every season. However, its timeless design has become a perennial hit with shoppers from Tokyo to New York.
It is also emblematic of Longchamp’s growing success. Over the last three years, the company has doubled its sales to some $157 million last year, according to Cassegrain.
Founded in 1948 by Cassegrain’s grandfather, Jean Cassegrain, the firm got its start selling pipes.
"We sold a lot of pipes to American soldiers after the war," explained Cassegrain, 37, whose father, Philippe, 67, presides as chairman of the firm. "They’ve become collector items today. They’re auctioned off on eBay."
As the firm’s success grew, Longchamp branched out, introducing small leather goods, such as wallets, in the late Sixties, and then luggage, in the early Seventies.
In the early Eighties, Longchamp leapt into women’s accessories, introducing its first handbags. Today, handbags account for more than half of the firm’s volume. Luggage and small leather goods each account for another 20 percent, while accessories, such as gloves and umbrellas, make up the rest.
"Our philosophy is to make products that last," said Cassegrain. "We’ve always tried to keep our distribution very selective and maintain a good equilibrium between price and quality."
Cassegrain is hesitant to describe Longchamp as a luxury brand, although it is a member of France’s Colbert Committee, an organization grouping France’s top luxury firms, including Hermès and Chanel.
"Our market position is difficult to define," he said. "There are very few brands in our niche. Maybe Coach comes closest. Most of our products retail between $200 and $350."Nonetheless, Cassegrain underscored that Longchamp’s commitment to quality rivals that of luxury brands such as Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
"Quality is very important at Longchamp," he said. "More than 80 percent of our products are made in France."
Longchamp employs some 800 people in its production facilities near Angers. In 1996, it opened a new factory, which was enlarged in 1999 to keep pace with increasing demand.
Longchamp operates 70 freestanding shops around the world, 30 of which are wholly owned. The line also is carried in Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom in the U.S.
In recent years, the company has targeted expansion in America. At present, it operates four stores, in New York, Boston, and Palm Beach and Coral Gables in Florida. Later this year, a shop is set to open in San Francisco.
"Growth in the U.S. is a priority," Cassegrain said. "France accounts for 50 percent of our total sales, with the rest of Europe kicking in another 25 percent. Asia and the Americas account for the rest. We believe we still have a lot of room for growth."
Nevertheless, Cassegrain said the firm did not intend to expand too rapidly. "We want only the best retail locations and we don’t want to overextend ourselves," he added.
Meanwhile, the firm has made strides to expand the rest of its accessories line, introducing more models with a seasonal fashion message.
"We remain a classic brand," Cassegrain said. "But fashionable products are assuming more importance for us. Each season we introduce about 100 new bags. But most important of all is to create signature bags. We struck gold with the Pliage."
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