Italian brand Furla pioneering the ‘affordable luxe’ sector

Furla’s China growth of more than 40 per cent shows how consumer taste is shifting, and how a nimble brand can capitalise on a luxury slowdown

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 1:15pm

While several big European luxury labels suffer, others in the industry are gaining momentum as ground is cleared. “Premium” or “affordable luxe” brands are edging in for their share of a shifting China market and its growing, aspirational middle class. American brands such as Coach, Tory Burch and Michael Kors and their fashion-forward accessories lines have held a traditional advantage in this game.

Furla is another such brand but, it argues, with the covetable and important difference of being Italian. Furla owns its factories and can stitch that all-important “Made in Italy” label on to 80 per cent of its merchandise in its Asia-Pacific stores, the brand’s Asia-Pacific chief executive Alessandro Bartoli says.

Furla weaves China dream amid affordable luxury boom

Its most popular bags such as the PVC Candy model and the leather Metropolis are all 100 per cent “Made in Italy”. As fashion signifiers go, this still has much cachet for Chinese consumers, who venerate the country’s craftsmanship and quality.

“This is a very important value-added point for them,” says Bartoli of Furla’s Chinese clients, “especially when you consider that our Made in Italy products cost the same as Made in China competitors in the premium segment.

“For us, as a premium brand, you usually enjoy a lot of trade up – when the middle class grows. But in this period we enjoy a lot of trade down too. Many women don’t want to show off as much as before, want to lay low and look for value, but they can’t get used to the lower quality of our competitors, especially the Americans,” says Bartoli.

So premium brands have clearly jumped in to fill the lucrative void between both trade-up and trade-down buying. Furla however has also won over Asian clients with an image that is young, fun and colourful.

Creative director Fabio Fusi says that Furla’s focus on “the working lady, with handbags that are practical, functional and versatile” as well as those “more experimental models”, is a consumer hit, especially well received by a young Chinese crowd.

A formula of Italian craft, playful and practical designs, and a more affordable price might just be why Furla is outperforming so many of its competitors in China. Bartoli reports that last year the brand had like-for-like growth of 41 per cent in the country.

“In the first quarter of this year, we had 45 per cent growth within China without counting the masses of Chinese buying overseas. This is definitely a strategy that is paying off,” he adds.

A new arm of this China strategy launched in May, at the opening of Furla’s first big Chinese flagship, in Shanghai’s commercial Jingan district. The new Made For You service (available in China exclusively at that store) allows clients to customise the Metropolis or Artesia bags in a range of ways. On offer are several leathers (e.g. calf or ostrich or crocodile), colours, stitching and edging hues as well as lining, metallic pieces and personalised tags – essentially offering a luxury experience at a premium brand.

These Made For You pieces cost more than the average Furla bag, from 450 (HK$3,960) to just under 3,000 at the high end, easily hitting the luxury mark. Once ordered, they take several weeks to deliver.

“It’s a better way to let our customer understand what Furla is and learn more about us,” says Fusi about the initiative. “We’re quite unique in our segment to offer this. Because we have our team, development and a factory based in Italy, we are able to develop services like a luxury or heritage brand; and really quickly, even as a premium brand.”

Furla’s Made For You programme is essentially about differentiating the company from its competitors – and tellingly it’s Japan, China and Italy where the service has been rolled out first.

Bartoli, who joined Furla in 2010, has more than tripled sales in Asia-Pacific, overseeing the rise to 170 exclusive points of sale – a key development to the brand’s overall performance. In 2011, he created a joint venture with the Fung Group for growth in the Great China region. Focus here is very much on the east.

“The Chinese consumer is now driving the whole world in luxury and affordable luxe industry,” explains Bartoli. “This is why we are so keen to develop this market – because we’re influencing the Chinese client worldwide. She has changed and matured over the years – now she is much more independent and looking more at value for money.”