PARIS — Speed-to-market isn’t limited to the high street. Take Louis Vuitton, the star brand of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, whose superagile vertical supply chain for luxury leather goods rivals that of fast-fashion juggernaut Inditex.
Today one of the house’s bags can be produced and delivered to stores in as little as two weeks, but the aim is to shorten it to a week, Valérie Dubois, Vuitton’s director of workshops, France, said during a visit of one of the house’s ateliers in Sainte-Florence in the Maine-et-Loire region on Tuesday. This compares with around four weeks 15 years ago.
A handful of journalists were also taken to see an empty field in nearby Beaulieu-sur-Layon on which a state-of-the-art workshop geared to facilitating agility and speed is set to open in early 2019. The structure will serve as a template for future sites, with a new workshop located nearer to Paris also in the works for next year.
Renderings were presented of the planned 65,000-square-foot building, which will feature a natural light-filled, minimalist, glass-and-wood shell designed to disappear into the landscape, with an interior that is entirely modular. Or in the words of Emmanuel Mathieu, Vuitton’s industrial director: “To do what we need when we need it.”
LVMH does not break out revenues for Vuitton, but the brand solidly contributed to the group’s total sales of 42.64 billion euros in 2017, up 13 percent over the previous year, with a net profit of more than 5 billion euros.
Speaking at the full-year results press conference, LVMH chairman and chief executive officer Bernard Arnault said the Vuitton brand could have had an even bigger turnover. “We didn’t for several reasons: one of them being production capacity, but also the fact that when there is too much demand for a given product, we prefer to ensure diversity. Top-tier products are growing very well right now at Louis Vuitton,” he said.
Speeding up production will require tightening the links of the supply chain, explained Dubois. But another crucial element is the versatility of its leather goods craftsmen, who are trained to handle any element of the process, whatever the model.
“The craftsmen are capable of producing a bag from A to Z, but we don’t expect them to,” said Mathieu, adding that only around 10 percent of candidates make it into the workshops. Key criteria of the selection process include manual dexterity, adaptability and the ability to work as part of a team.
The age limit for new recruits is 55 but “we have no difficulty attracting Millennials,” Mathieu said.
On average, it takes around six months to train new recruits, though it’s a constant learning process, with mentors allocated to the trainees. Employees and students can also receive training from tutors from Vuitton’s leather goods training program, L’école des savoir-faire maroquiniers.
“We’re like long-distance runners. It’s a métier that requires a constant tempo, but also the ability to surf the spikes. We adapt to the rhythm of the collections, and stay close to the market,” said Mathieu, explaining that an underperforming collection can be halted immediately, while it’s all hands on deck when something flies, with the craftsmen working shifts.
When asked for a comment on the expected impact of Virgil Abloh, Vuitton’s newly appointed men’s designer, Mathieu said: “Our craftsmen are equally at ease with men’s and women’s. He already has lots of ideas. We will see…Not all the artisans know Virgil Abloh, just as many of them didn’t know Marc Jacobs or [Vuitton’s women’s designer] Nicolas Ghesquière when they arrived…Sometimes it poses challenges, but, working as a team, we will find always find a solution.”
The house also adapts its offer to client demand, with feedback filtered down from merchandising and sales teams. “Having our own store network is a powerful tool for measuring the stock flow and trends that are driven directly by the customer and not some market study; the clients are part of the process,” said Mathieu. “Each month we study the balance between sales and production.”
The brand is also studying “machines of the future” that — like its craftsmen — will be able to switch modes according to the materials and forms of the respective bags, he said. “It’s crucial to our objective to be as agile and reactive as possible.”
This summer, a new workshop will open in a converted logistics center in La Merlatière, not far from the Sainte-Florence site, marking the first workshop opened since 2011, although the brand has filled its existing sites to full working capacity. Some 500 employees will be hired for that and the new Beaulieu site, bringing the total number of leather goods craftsmen to around 4,000 nationwide.
The brand has a logistical center for dispatching the goods located in Cergy in the outskirts of Paris, as well as 10 internationally. It takes two to three days for a product to reach the store from the workshop.
The heritage luxury giant, which opened its first atelier in 1859 in Asnières on the outskirts of Paris, counts 14 workshops in France, including one dedicated to developing prototypes located on Rue du Louvre in Paris, and two workshops specializing in exotic skins, based in Asnières and Issoudun.
They own a workshop in Florence, which is also dedicated to prototypes; four in Spain, handling mainly small leather goods and accessories, and two in California, dedicated to supplying the U.S. market. The house plans to add a workshop in Texas.
Looking to integrate know-how and limit dependence on suppliers — the leading leather supplier accounts for only around 25 percent of the house’s leather supplies, according to LVMH — the brand has also opened components workshops in Portugal and Romania.
Just as it has been investing in suppliers, having acquired Les Tanneries Roux, one of the last French tanneries specializing in calfskin, and Singapore’s Heng Long crocodile leather tannery, the brand is also looking to tighten its ties with cattle breeders. Already they regularly invite tanners to visit their stores and put them in direct contact with the creatives. “It’s essential for a sustainable future,” said Mathieu.
Vuitton, which by 2020 is looking to consolidate a social audit of more than 90 percent of its suppliers and obtain at least 70 percent of total supplies from tanneries that meet the requirements of the Leather Working Group, also own farms but will not reveal where.
Optimizing working conditions for the house’s craftsmen is also a focus, Mathieu said. The number of artisans per atelier is limited to 250, with a focus on countryside locations, natural light and ergonomic machines. “All of the machines obey our craftsmen and not vice versa,” he said.
They have an internal social networking site, Yammer, where the craftsmen can exchange tips.
The brand counts around 50 to 60 permanent references — including the Speedy and the Capucines — and around 10 to 15 catwalk references, with four deliveries per year. The journey from validated prototype to store takes around three months on average. The house declined to provide data on the number of bags produced per year.
For special order bags, it’s a longer process. “For a Capucines in emerald croc or a tie-and-dye croc skin, where you have to turn the skin inside out, scale by scale, you’ll have to wait,” Mathieu said.
The recent Jeff Koons series — featuring works by great masters, with gold monogram inclusions and printed linings — took around a year to develop, he said.
“Our aim is to constantly refresh the offer; there are clients who have bought every single Petite Malle that has been released since Ghesquière’s arrival [in 2013]. One guy even bought two of each edition, one for himself and one for his wife, and a trunk to house them all in,” said Mathieu.