As I started packing for the New York shows, there was a lot of folding to do. It was not about inserting tissue paper and wrapping my clothes in dry-cleaner’s plastic. I don’t use a travel-iron wardrobe for the collections.
The wrap-ups were for my colourful Longchamp Le Pliage folding bags in their various sizes: the big one in case I went on a buying spree in America or if books and press handouts were so heavy that I needed an extra check-in bag to get home.
The smaller ones in bright colours were not so much to go with my clothes (although I am partial to purple, wine-red and turquoise). It is rather because I must know in a micro-second which bag I am grabbing each morning: the one with my laptop? With my snow shoes? Or with the iPad plus invitations? Luckily, there are 150 colours to choose from.
The actual travel bag is more of a drama. It has to fit inside the wheelie bag for check-in. But once I store it on the plane rack, everyone has the same bag.
Longchamp was founded in 1948. Since 1993, when the Le Pliage was designed, 30 million of the bags have been sold. So what happens if some other customer walks off with mine? I guess it will have to be the special-edition Jeremy Scott madcap version that will make my bag almost unique. Or the one designed by Mary Katrantzou. (I missed out on the work of British artist Tracey Emin.)
How does it feel to be Longchamp, a compact family business with founder Jean Cassegrain’s son Philippe as president and daughter Sophie Delafontaine as artistic director of bags, clothes and shoes? And to have other family members running the show at the factory in the French countryside, while the rest of the cousinhood helps with more than 280 stores worldwide?
All of them are flag-bearers of what they call ‘optimistic’ luxury.
This description sounds more cheerful than ‘affordable’ luxury, although the Le Pliage regular-sized nylon bags cost £54 and seem to be on sale at every airport, where they are omnipresent in traveller’s hands or as super-light backpacks.
The Le Pliage has now reached the grand age of 21, with the ever-young and always cheeky Kate Moss as ambassador. And, in either nylon or the version created in softly pliable leather in 2012, it is a worldwide hit with celebrities and has a special appeal to the far east, judging by the customers. In the expansive new Champs Elysées store set on two floors, they were admiring the ‘Cloud Illusions’ art by Danish artist Astrid Krogh and looking at museum pieces of pipes and cigarette cases from the days when Elvis Presley would buy them in the Seventies.
Origami – the art of folding – originally came from Japan. But I watched mostly Chinese customers taking their selfies, sitting on the elongated sofa by quirky architect Thomas Heatherwick with a picture-postcard view over the famous avenue – and a wall of colourful folding bags like an art installation in front of them.
I sat down with the grandson of the Longchamp founder, also named Jean Cassegrain, who is the current CEO. His father, Philippe, first invented the Le Pliage foldable bag to find out how you turn nylon and leather into gold.
‘There are so many bags everywhere – to be exceptional, I am in love with savoir faire and quality,’ said the chief executive, whose company employs 2,700 people worldwide.
‘And you can’t be sleepy when the competition is so powerful,’ continues Cassegrain. ‘We have more and more new products each season – it was once under 50 per cent of new design annually. Now my sister and my brother Oliver have to be working all the time on development.’
The incentive to customers has included the artist collaborations which inspire the family members. There has also been a series of new or modernised stores, including London’s Regent and Bond Streets and the expansion and development in Paris’s rue Saint-Honoré. Last year also saw store openings in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Munich and Washington DC. Stores were also opened in Florence, Vienna, Toronto and in two cities in China (Shenyang and Quingdao).
In spite of the wide choice of travel luggage, clothes and shoes, it is the wall of folded bags in a rainbow of colours that is a magnet to customers in every city. It has taken 21 years for the Le Pliage to move from utility to fashion. But its secret is simple. Make it in every colour of the rainbow, patterned or plain – but always keep it useful.