French luxury titan Bernard Arnault, who tours his Left Bank department store Le Bon Marché almost every Saturday morning, has a new stand he will surely visit with great interest. Come mid-May, Moynat, the almost forgotten 19th-century trunk maker he revived four years ago, will open a permanent 450-square-foot shop there, giving a second Paris showcase to its meticulously crafted, ladylike leather goods.
With its modest scale and low-key communications, Moynat stands out from the other luxury behemoths in Arnault’s family-controlled empire — which includes Louis Vuitton, Dior and Fendi — yet he tends this start-up with impressive care and dedication. Every Tuesday, he meets up with Moynat chief executive officer Guillaume Davin and creative director Ramesh Nair to catch up on developments and review the latest prototypes.
“He enters the room, and after a few seconds, he will know what he likes and what he doesn’t like. He loves to be surprised, because if he feels he is surprised, then visitors and clients will be, too,” Davin told WWD. “We never discuss numbers, plans or strategy. Even though LVMH is a large group, we only discuss products and projects.”
Davin insisted Moynat’s progress is hinged entirely on creativity, with pricing of handbags and small leather goods based on their cost, not against its competitive set. “We don’t have a marketing function, we don’t have a merchandising function,” he said. “We have the studio, then we have the atelier making the prototypes, and then we have production.”
Still, this artisanal approach, based on rare raw materials and haute savoir faire, has yielded results. Market sources estimate the brand generated about 10 million euros ($10.8 million at current exchange), and Davin said sales have more than doubled every year, albeit from a small base and restrained by the production capabilities of about 30 craftsmen in Paris and the Drôme region in southeastern France.
Prices for the leather bags range roughly 2,000 euros to 6,500 euros, or $2,150 to $7,000, and run higher for exotic leathers and special order trunks.
“Slow luxury may be growing faster than fast luxury,” Davin enthused, describing a growing niche of customers who are graduating from “brands that are really industrial” and ones that surf seasonal fashion cycles.
“We do products that are for a generation,” he said, “so it’s a different reason and there is not so much competition in that segment. Maybe we should not say we are old-school, but old-school today is fashionable. This approach, going back to the root of craft, is definitely appealing to a wider number of clients.”
Since Moynat opened its Paris flagship on the Rue Saint Honoré in 2011, the first volley in its revival, the brand has charted a gradual retail expansion, adding a London flagship last year and relying mainly on pop-up operations at marquee department stores — Isetan in Tokyo, Dover Street Market in New York and Boon the Shop in Seoul — to build up awareness and tout its haute craftsmanship. This method echoes the “caravan” approach Moynat employed more than a century ago, when it showcased its innovations at world’s fairs and auto shows.
Moynat has yet to decamp from its temporary shop in the Galeries Lafayette — first installed in 2013 and demarcated by an undulating cage of russet-colored metal — because sales are “incredibly high and consistently high,” Davin marveled. “So we are doing much better than so many fashion brands.”
Now the company has moved into a phase of adding permanent, albeit pocket-sized retail concepts dubbed “galleries,” with the first units opening earlier this year in Hong Kong and Macau. The Moynat corner in Le Bon Marché, positioned at one of the entrances, is expected to capture its mainly French clientele, as well as American, Chinese and southeast Asian tourists. Asian clients represent about 60 percent of Moynat’s business in Paris and London, with Greater China accounting for about a quarter. “There are perhaps 10 cities in the world where we would like to be,” said Davin, a slim, soft-spoken executive with a meticulous approach.
A collaboration last fall with “Happy” singer Pharrell Williams also exploded the firm’s fame, while in sync with its quest to revive rare craft skills. Working on a train theme divined by Williams, Nair found artisans able to hand-tool acrylic resin or hand-carve ebony, yielding an unusual, conversation-sparking minaudière.
“It opened the whole thing up,” he said, also revealing plans to extend the tie-up with Williams.
Nair, who learned the ropes at Hermès, focused his creativity on shapes that stem from Moynat’s heritage as a maker of automobile trunks that adopted their curves to the cars of the time. “It’s the root, the most important element, it’s my source,” he said.
The best-selling Réjane bag boasts curved sides, while the top of the Limousine bag, now in a larger overnight size aimed at men, slopes like the back of a horse — though the shape echoes trunks propped on the roof of a car.
Asked to describe the Moynat aesthetic, Nair replied, “Simplicity and generosity. Savoir faire and craftsmanship, of course. It’s very crafty, curvy.”
Fittingly, his inspirations are rarely linear. After touring an exhibition of theater and movie posters at auction house Artcurial a few years ago, his mind went to the layers of advertising that build up on the walls of Metro stations in Paris — and then are torn off. Cue his Dechirure totes with the handles ripped — albeit in a precision way — from the same piece of leather, and a contrasting shade inserted in the void. It’s the kind of subtle feat of design engineering that tends to attract the attention of architects and graphic designers, Nair noted.
During his brief Moynat career, Nair has championed rare and exceptional leathers, starting two years ago with box calf, which raised eyebrows among suppliers, given how easily it scratches and ages. That consumers are prepared to wait three or even six months to receive such a bag speaks to the emergence of quality aficionados, also partial to Barania and Taurillon skins.
“There is an education process, especially in Asia, where this whole concept of having everything scratch-less, spotless and spic-and-span is really strong, but you can see that changing,” he said.
Nair and Davin agreed that word of mouth is the most powerful tool for spreading the Moynat gospel, while in-store specialists — and vintage trunk displays — unfurl the brand’s legacy and narrative. Founded in 1849, Moynat is five years older than Vuitton.
It was one of the rare malletiers to be cofounded by a woman, Pauline Moynat, a merchant who teamed up with the Coulembier family of artisans, and who was one of the first to set up a boutique at the foot of the Avenue de l’Opéra — the Champs-Elysées of its time — in 1869.
Nair had a black-and-white photo of that original shop inkjet-printed on the cotton liner for one of his newest canvas totes, dubbed the Cabas Parisien. It’s among the star products debuting at Le Bon Marché, along with the Ballerine bag, winking to the Belle Époque period, and requiring about 40 hours of handiwork.
“One thing you cannot copy is heritage — and that’s a difference,” Nair said.
Difficult, too, to replicate the artisanal techniques that Nair poured into his designs, reviving marquetry for Pharrell’s leather pouches with train motifs — and corner stitching on small vanity cases.
“I think this is where we would like to go,” Nair mused, “using very old savoir-faire and making modern products with them.”
In his view, experimentation can come from the chosen material, the shape, or the craft skill. “As long as something is well made, I think that’s what counts,” he said. “It can be in steel, it can be in rubber — what’s important is the craft, and to make something amazing out of it.”