Fashion in Hong Kong and China

Sophie de Rougemont talks bringing Asia affordable luxury

Brands such as Carven, Zadig & Voltaire and confectioners Ladurée brought to Asia by Frenchwoman who grew up in Japan and joined family fashion group

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 August, 2015, 9:01pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 August, 2015, 5:24pm

The fashion director of luxury distribution company  Bluebell Group, which was founded by her grandparents, talks about her background in Asia and introducing new brands such as Carven, Charlotte Olympia and French confectioners Ladurée to the region. 

“Even though I’m French by blood I grew up in Japan and later studied in Europe. I spoke Japanese before I learned French. Fashion retail is in my blood – as soon as I could work, I would spend my summers selling perfume at department stores in Japan. After studying in Switzerland I went to Paris before returning to Asia to join Bluebell.

The company goes as far back as 1948. It started in the French Riviera, right after the second world war. My grandfather bought a perfume shop for my grandmother and they sold their products on a duty-free basis to soldiers stationed near Nice. One day an American officer told my grandfather that he was going to be stationed in Yokohama, Japan. My grandfather promised to visit and sell him some perfume which he did in 1954. That’s how it all started.

When my parents joined the company in the 1970s they diversified into fashion and worked with brands such as Moschino (now coming to 40 years), Lanvin, Blumarine and Louis Vuitton.

By the time I joined, fashion was the jewel in our crown. I had to experience other parts of the business first. I was involved with a small brand, Folli Follie, which had just one store. From that we built a strong network in the region and sold it back to the company.

A few years ago, I identified an opportunity within the affordable luxury segment. Our first big coup was Carven. In fact we used to sell Carven perfumes in our shop in Nice in the 1940s but when the brand relaunched I realised it could work in Asia.

Since then we have added brands such as Castañer and Zadig & Voltaire to our portfolio. There are so many brands out there that compliment the Louis Vuittons of the world and Asia is ready for that. It’s still luxury, but an alternative definition.

Today the industry is at a crossroads, especially in Asia. Issues that matter now are the internet and transparency in pricing. Look at China. Everyone thought it was a golden goose, but we know it’s complicated. We’ve been to China three times and sold our business each time. Last time we thought we would build a war chest and go back in when we were ready. Now we have a more cautious approach and it seems we were right as everything is slowing down.

I like to compare creative directors to artists. They are sensitive, sometimes they have inspiration, other times it doesn't work. That's why it's important to diversify into other things
Sophie de Rougemont

I see great potential with home-grown Asian brands. I’ve always been a big admirer. Ten years ago I wanted to launch a multibrand boutique stocking Asian designers, but it never happened. At the end of the year we want to launch an innovative accessories platform. Today e-commerce is our number one priority, especially this idea of omnichannels. E-commerce will never replace bricks and mortar, so we have to find a way to tie them together.

I like to compare creative directors to artists. They are sensitive, sometimes they have inspiration, other times it doesn’t work. That’s why it’s important to diversify into other things. Look at our success with Ladurée. It proves you can now enjoy luxury at a lower price.

True luxury will always exist. Luxury is about treating yourself. People in Asia want brands with history, heritage and craftsmanship. It’s also about personalisation."