For booming Moncler, it's all about the jacket, says Ruffini

One item took centre stage at the opening of Moncler's flagship store in Tokyo. Divia Harilela discovers it's all about the jacket

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 5:31am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 November, 2015, 5:31am

Extravagant store openings are becoming few and far between in this part of the world, but that wasn't the case in Tokyo last week when luxury brand Moncler opened its second global flagship store in the exclusive Ginza district. Outside the boutique Japanese and Chinese tourists were taking selfies alongside a group of Moncler monogrammed VW Beetle cars while guests were treated to an arts festival.

This included a meet-and-greet with LA-based artists FriendsWithYou, a celebrity photoshoot by controversial photographer Terry Richardson and a DJ set by designer and Kanye West co-collaborator Virgil Abloh.

Business at Moncler is booming, unlike many other luxury brands affected by the China slowdown, volatile stock market and a weakening euro. In June, the company reported consolidated revenue of €295.8 million (HK$2.53 billion), a healthy 35 per cent increase over the previous financial year. CEO and creative director Remo Ruffini says the brand's enduring success is due to one simple strategy.

"I am very focused on our product. It's all about the jacket. My strategy is to have a jacket for every customer and every generation, men and women. We are not in the business of making fashion," he says.

Plenty has been written about Moncler's transformation from a functional skiwear Label into a highly prized global luxury brand, and Ruffini has played the starring role.

Born in Italy, the fashion marketing graduate began his career working for his father's company that designed and marketed a range of clothing labels. By the mid-1980s he launched his own fashion business called the New England Company, which featured preppy classics inspired by his time studying in the US.

"I started very early, when I was 22 years old. I invented a brand from scratch that was inspired by the mood of New England. I loved the way they dressed so we built the brand on this preppy idea. After 18 years I sold my company in 2000.

"It was then that I started to look for a brand to buy. It had to have a good history and Moncler was familiar because it was very popular in the 1980s in Italy. I worked there for a couple of months first to really understand if it was the right one. I knew I needed something with heritage - when you start a new brand with no heritage or story it's a different job," says Ruffini.

Moncler was originally a French brand, founded in 1952 by two alpinists in Grenoble, and was known for its tents and sleeping bags. In 1954, it started producing functional down jackets, which would later be worn by the French ski team for the Winter Olympics. By the '80s the brand was a favourite with fashionable Italian teenagers including Ruffini, who remembers snagging his first Moncler jacket at the age of 14.

By the time Ruffini bought the brand in 2002 it had lost some of its cool factor. But the entrepreneur saw its potential.

"The fact it was all about one product was a plus for me. The only way to keep the attention of a customer is to propose something unique that was the best in its category, with a strong identity," he says.

Over the next few years Ruffini made it his mission to dominate the luxury goods market by celebrating Moncler's most prized possession - its iconic down jackets, including the bestselling Maya (which is experiencing a surge in sales thanks to its appearance in a recent music video by rapper Drake).

In 2006, Ruffini launched Moncler Gamme Rouge, a luxe women's collection, which continues to be designed by French couturier Giambattista Valli. A similar line for men called Gamme Bleu was launched in 2009 and is overseen by New York designer Thom Browne. Both collections are shown during international fashion weeks, further adding to their style cachet.

Ruffini also made it a point to invite high-profile fashion designers and pop culture figures, including Junya Watanabe, Pharrell Williams and Chitose Abe of Sacai, to create exclusive styles or collections for the brand. For the Tokyo opening he enlisted FriendsWithYou to customise the Maya jacket with their cast of smiling graphic clouds and monsters. The brand has also dabbled in other lifestyle categories such as suitcases (with Rimowa) and sunglasses.

My strategy is to have a jacket for every customer, and every generation, men and women
Remi Ruffini, CEO and creative director

"It's very interesting to talk to creative designers and artists. The mix of the two gives us a strong energy and each person brings a new vision to the brand and customer each time. It's not a question of creating fashion, but showing different customers how the jacket can fit into their lives. Giamba's is good for ladies who love parties, while Thom's is for contemporary men. Pharrell's was for the younger guy. Sacai's was very Japanese, something sweet and romantic," he says.

Unlike many owners, Ruffini is both the company's creative director and CEO. When he's not working on the business side - which included a successful IPO in 2013 - he is coming up with fresh ways to tell the story of the jacket. "The good thing is that you can have total vision - creativity, marketing, managing. They feed off each other. It's an added value. I think it would be difficult to run a luxury company when the CEO is one person and the creative director is another. It doesn't make sense to me. Everything is under my control, it's easy to move fast and adapt to the market and pass through the right ideas," he says.

Although Ruffini's business acumen has paid off for investors since the brand's IPO, insiders have raised concerns about the longevity of the down jacket, especially in a world where the climate is changing fast. To date the brand has limited offerings for the spring-summer season, which some view as a potential problem.

"We don't want to betray our roots. We were born in the Alps and need to keep the image and DNA of the brand, and not confuse the customer. My vision is long term. I'm always thinking what will happen in the next 10 years. Investors have a short vision. For me the quarter is not important; what's important is what's happening in 2018."

That hasn't stopped Ruffini from opening more than 20 stores this year, including the flagship in Tokyo. While Moncler is not new to Japan - it was one of the first markets he entered - he is hoping the new store will attract the travelling Chinese consumer, a segment that every luxury brand is hoping to tap into.

"For Asia, Japan is the biggest market, followed by China then Korea. Honestly, I care more about the Chinese customers because they travel a lot. It's important to build a strong strategy in China; not necessarily sell the product there.

"In the past few years China was almost too easy to enter. I always thought let's wait, it could be dangerous, and oversaturating the market is not good for image and brand perception. We have only 23 stores there and in other places we have 70. We have increased our Chinese customer base around the world, but our Chinese business is still very healthy," he says.

Although 2015 is turning out to be a banner year, there is uncertainty as 2016 approaches.

"The world changes very fast. The digital world has changed macronomics. The US three years ago was a disaster, and Japan was booming. Now it's the opposite. What used to take a year, now takes two days. It's all too volatile, so it's important for me to understand what's going on and adopt a daily strategy to be on track," he says.

If all else fails, there is always his alternative career of choice.

"I would be a hotelier or work in interior design, but I would never do this in the world of Moncler," he says.