In 1948 Jean Cassegrain decided to turn his leather-covered tobacco pipe business into a more general leather goods company. He called it Longchamp, after the Hippodrome (racecourse) de Longchamp in Paris. When Cassegrain died in 1972—one year after branching out into the business of women’s handbags—Jean’s wife took over. When she died in 1980, their son Philippe took the reins.
Today, Philippe Cassegrain serves as Longchamp’s president. His wife, Michèle, is the director of boutiques. Their sons, Jean and Olivier, are the CEO and managing director, respectively, and their daughter, Sophie Delafontaine, is the artistic director. The family-owned business is valued at $1.5 billion, according to Forbes, with more than 250 stores in more than 100 countries. We spoke with Jean Cassegrain, the founder’s grandson, about the Paris-based company’s ability to reinvent itself and about keeping business in the family.
Q: Take us through the evolution of the Longchamp brand. The company started making leather-covered pipes in 1948. How did it grow from there?
A: At the beginning, it was pipes and items for smokers. After smokers, it was gentlemen in general—with small leather goods, bags, all kinds of leather accessories for men. As business expanded, my father noticed that ladies had become interested in handbags. He created his first woman’s handbag in 1971 by reworking a toiletry case, adding a shoulder strap and two flaps.
Longchamp’s real breakthrough came with the introduction of the LM line of women’s handbags in Asia, created from brown-and-beige printed leather. Women became a larger part of the brand from the early ’80s in Europe during a major period of development for the company due to the success of these bags, while pipes became less and less fashionable. And now, over and above bags, the brand has become part of the fashion world with the development of our shoes and ready-to-wear collections.
Times have changed, our customers have changed, and our product portfolio has evolved with them. One of our key characteristics is our ability to reinvent ourselves. We have always been contemporary—in the spirit of the moment. Pipe smoking was very fashionable in the 1950s, but fortunately we have moved on. What remains are our core values, in particular our sense of quality and our passion for leather.
Q: What’s the secret to Longchamp’s decades of success?
A: First of all, I would mention the development of our international network, because today—even though we have this long tradition of exports—we are physically established in many countries with our own teams. We have 2,700 people working for the company around the world. And, of course, the products that we sell have also changed. Longchamp is still luxury in motion but now relies on a highly structured international distribution network along with a more extensive range of products, including bags and accessories, luggage and ready-to-wear shoes.
Q: What lessons on life and business have you learned from working with your father and grandfather?
A: My grandfather had international ambitions for his brand. In the early ’50s, he was already prospecting on all continents for Longchamp pipes and leather accessories. My father was the first to make bags out of nylon in the ’70s. He was always ready to try new ideas and was curious and interested in exploring new territories. Starting with my father’s and grandfather’s influence, our company always has a positive attitude toward innovation and is always ready to take a chance on an interesting product or initiative.
Q: Longchamp recently saw its sales increase by nearly 75 percent from 2009 to 2012. What sparked this boom?
A: Quality is our weapon. Consumers these days take quality seriously. Our strategy is to stay true to the brand values in every region and keep in mind our first customer: the Parisian woman. Frenchwomen are known for their effortless elegance, their dynamism, their optimistic take on life. Our approach to luxury—like theirs—is casual, effortless, optimistic. As a brand and as a company, we are warmer than most other European luxury brands, closer to our customers.
Movement is also an important buzzword for us. Like our customers, we are in constant movement: urban, cosmopolitan, active and well-traveled. We move with our times—worldwide.
Q: Why has the Cassegrain family wanted to maintain private ownership all these years? Has the family ever considered taking the company public?
A: Actually we never did. Our independence gives us a lot of stability and allows us to think and plan long term, for the next generation rather than for the next quarter. Family involvement is also important to guarantee the core values of the brand. I don’t see any disadvantage to being family-owned as long as the family continues to support the business and its growth.
Q: What goals do you have for Longchamp? How will you continue to grow the business?
A: Being a family business gives us the luxury of time and allows us to follow a long-term strategy. My role as a CEO and as a member of the family is to ensure that the house has a solid foundation on which to continue to grow, develop and innovate. We must continue to grow in new markets, where we still have a strong potential for growth, while further improving our distribution in the most mature markets. Longchamp is evolving, and its new aspects must be reflected in our global distribution.
This article appears in the November 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.