Not at Your Home: Olivier Cassegrain’s Obstacle Race
A jockey smoking a pipe on a galloping horse. In a single blue stroke of pencil, Marion Naufal’s watercolor sums up the challenges of a race, a style, a brand—Longchamp—and of the family Cassegrain whose history has been attached to America right from the start.
Comfortably seated on his New York terrace, the grandson of the Longchamp’s founder, Olivier Cassegrain, is meticulously watching over the American destiny of the family business.
While retail sales in Texas are slowly picking up again, the original Madison Avenue boutique is still closed along with all the other luxury brands in Manhattan. In Soho, the Maison Longchamp remains as empty as the Hudson Yards Vessel where, until a few weeks ago, tourists, business travelers and New Yorkers flocked. “The stairs of the Vessel are with those of the Soho boutique the most famous in New York,” says Cassegrain. They are both the work of the same English architect. “I would be quite happy to see more people on these stairs soon,” adds the Vice-President of Longchamp United States with a smile, “at least a little more on those in SoHo than on those of Hudson Yards.” Filling these stairs is just an additional challenge for the man who loves nothing more than overcoming obstacles with a cigar on his lips.
(A French version of this interview is available here)
Thank you for not welcoming me to your Manhattan Upper West Side home, Olivier Cassegrain. How does Longchamp, a contemporary symbol of travel and outings, prepare for after-confinement, this ‘grey’ zone with very few tourists in sight for at least a few months?
The financial crisis of 2008 allowed us to learn how to diversify our clientele. Remember: within a few weeks, tourists disappear. This translates into a 40-50% drop in turnover in the United States. I explained then—and the crisis has reinforced this approach in the American market—that we are left with local customers when nobody travels anymore. We should always pay close attention to this clientele and it is, I think, a mistake to concentrate our efforts on the tourist market alone.
So, you’re pretty confident about the future?
After the reopening of the ‘retail-to-go’ stores in Dallas, our first sale was with a local customer. The manager of our shop knew him well and had reached out to him; he was looking for items to offer, the perfect opportunity. Things will undoubtedly be different in Las Vegas, which will be another challenge.
The story of Longchamp is one of challenges, for example selling luggage to passengers before boarding a plane.
When Orly, in Paris, became a modern airport platform in 1961 with the inauguration of the terminal now known as Orly 4, my grandfather found there the perfect place to offer his luggage. Everybody thought that this man was crazy to want to sell baggage in an airport, but it was a success. We were one of the first shops to open at Orly airport.
Longchamp’s first challenge remains the transformation of a tobacco mom and pop shop located in the beautiful Parisian districts into a world-famous luxury brand. It is the story of both a pipe and a horse.
A story that begins with my great grandparents. In the 1930s, they opened a tobacco shop on the Grand Boulevards of Paris, near the theaters, the Palais Garnier, the cafés, and Parisian life, the equivalent of the Champs Elysées today. My grandfather Jean Cassegrain took over the business after the Second World War and discovered a stock of heather wood smoking pipes, but they were not aesthetic enough to offer and sell them to his customers. He had the idea to sheathe the wood with leather and sold the pipes to the American soldiers who were in France, within the framework of NATO. They quickly became popular. A true art and lifestyle were created around tobacco, pipes, cigarettes, lighters and ashtrays. My grandfather then designed pipe cases, ashtrays in the shape of baseball gloves and champagne corks that became cigarette holders. The success of these leather objects was such that he quickly created wallets and passport holders.
A smoking pipe it is. But the horse?
Jean loved the old English countryside 1900s paintings of horses. To give the horses a sense of movement, they were always depicted with the four horseshoes in the air, galloping. That’s how this animal became Longchamp’s logo.
Why Longchamp and not Cassegrain?
Precisely to separate the family name with the business. My grandfather didn’t want to risk losing it, and in any case, the name Cassegrain was already that of a vegetable brand run by our cousins. Every evening on his way home in the west of Paris, Jean would pass by the Longchamp race tracks and a famous mill dating from the early 14th century, visible from the stands of the hippodrome. This windmill obviously reminded him of the name Cassegrain (which translates as seed breaker): this is how Longchamp became the name of the company, just as the horse became our logo.
Another challenge for Longchamp was to constantly reinvent its products.
In the 1970s, my father, Philippe, learned that the American army was selling a stock of nylon, ballistic nylon. This very resistant material was used by the army to make its jackets. No one had thought of it for bags or suitcases.But my father did. He invented a light suitcase that could be reduced to a quarter. It became our most popular luggage and was very quickly copied. When my father decided to register the patent in France years later, it was too late. He thought of another idea and officially registered the “Pliage” bag idea, which we call at the Longchamp the ‘pliage origami,’ as a nod to the art of Japanese folded paper.
Let’s unfold the story of this bag, made of nylon then, but always with a reference to leather, a very special leather?
In the early 1990s, a shipwreck from three centuries earlier was discovered north of St Petersburg. On board, a cargo of rustic, dry, salty, very strong leather. My father had the opportunity to buy part of it at an auction at the same time he created the Pliage. It became the leather element of this bag, the Russia Leather.
Leather and the animal! Is Longchamp, as other brands are, committed to a fashion industry that is more responsible for the environment and natural resources?
We’ve just created a new custom-made ‘pliage’ for which we recycle bottles found in the ocean. This is the latest example of our constant concern to protect the environment and its resources, to know our suppliers, to trace our raw materials, and to create products that last a long time.
This bag, this made-to-measure folding, is once again the result of a reinvention at Longchamp?
Traditional folding systematically includes a flap and two leather handles regardless of the color. But we realized that customers only saw this brown leather flap on the shop shelves, the color had almost disappeared behind it. So, we had to surprise our clientele and impose the colors as the central element. The new folding bag, which we call the Pliage Club, no longer distinguishes the color of the bag from that of the flap and handles. We also added a little twist: a little horse, in a different color, embroidered on the bag.
Does the folding symbolize Longchamp today?
It is in any case, with 60 million copies, the best-selling bag model in the world.
The sale! In that sector as well, you have in the United States—especially in New York—imposed a style, a new experience. The Longchamp boutiques are nevertheless a recent adventure, the work of Michèle Cassegrain, decidedly a family affair?
Michèle Cassegrain, my mother. At the beginning of her marriage, she focused on her own family business, but the day my father bought a tiny space behind the Maison de la Radio in Paris, he told her, “it’s now or never.” She took charge of the development of boutiques, opening a few years later in 1998, one at 390 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré and ten years later, a much larger one at 404 of the same streets. Today, Longchamp counts 300 boutiques worldwide.
How many of them are in the United States?
Twenty boutiques and 250 points of sale, not counting the e-shops in the United States and Canada, a total of 200 people work for Longchamp USA. We established the brand as early as the 1950s in the United States through a network of loyal distributors. In 1999, we opened our first shop on Madison Avenue, just a few steps from the first Bilboquet restaurant.
The American adventure thus began very early, especially with sometimes very famous clients…
I recently found at Graceland Museum in Memphis a picture of Elvis Presley holding a Longchamp pipe!
And in 2006, you inaugurated the famous Longchamp House on Spring Street in SoHo. This time, it is the very concept of the store that you reinvent!
Its architecture makes it an emblematic store. We needed a space that was big enough to sell our products and to have a showroom. The SoHo building was perfect for this, immensely large with even the possibility of a roof terrace. The great English architect and designer Thomas Heatherwick—who has just signed the Hudson Yards Vessel—accepted the challenge of imagining this flagship store, a first for him in the United States.
This was not your first partnership with Heatherwick?
We had already worked with him, but to make an adjustable bag with zippers, nearly six meters of zippers, a challenge for our workshops. Where it usually takes us two weeks to create a bag, Heatherwick’s bag, which was very complex, took three months. All the zippers’ seams had to be aligned whether the bag was open or closed. It was Heatherwick himself who chose Longchamp to take on the challenge of creating his bag.
And you, in turn, chose him to make Longchamp a destination in Soho.
Heatherwick is the architect of the Garden Bridge in London. In New York, he designed for us this extraordinary 55-ton staircase—inspired by his own bag—to link the three levels of the Longchamp House in one single seam.
The opening in 2006 is the event where all New York rushed to?
More than 2,500 people, including Susan Sarandon, Uma Thurman, Eva Mendès, Lucy Liu attended the opening orchestrated by Tastings and Pommery champagnes—we no longer knew how to welcome our guests.
But among them, there was no sign of a key celebrity in Longchamp’s history, Kate Moss?
Kate Moss was undergoing a rehabilitation program at the time, but she quickly became our muse and the most loyal friend of Longchamp. Everybody knew that Kate Moss was burning life by both ends, her parties were no secret for anyone. The big brands understood that. We wanted to continue working with her despite her difficulties and we designed a collection of bags together. Maybe we even helped her rebuild her image.
For her lifestyle, her history, her wonderful availability. Kate Moss is one of the rare models that you can recognize just by seeing her picture, no matter what brand she represents. Chanel, David Yurman, H&M, Burberry… She is free of all ties. Kate is a world-renowned chameleon.
Once again, it is all about renewals at Longchamp, including the muses.
After Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner became our ambassador. This is now the generation of influencers and social networks. Kendall means access to 128 million Instagram subscribers.
And the next muse?
A surprise equal to the challenges that lie ahead. The new Longchamp campaign will be launched in October.