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For Kimberly Harvey, a 34-year-old in New York City, it's an overnight bag for when she visits her parents in New Jersey ("I stuff and go," she says).
For Sharona Haroonian, a high school senior from Philadelphia, it's a book bag ("Literally everyone at my school has one").
For Mel Kim, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, it's a gym bag ("The nylon is so sturdy that I don't care what I throw in").
For Paul Danton, a 45-year-old HR professional, it's an emergency birthday gift he bought last-minute for his wife ("She has the small one in a few colors, so I'm pretty sure she'll like the large one").
The trapezoidal nylon bag with leather handles and a signature flap comes in all sorts of sizes and colors and has been Longchamp's bread and butter since it first came onto the market in 1993. Everyone from Kate Middleton to Angela Merkel to Miley Cyrus to Karlie Kloss to your own mom (or aunt or cousin or all of the above) has one. Suzy Menkes has admitted she collects them.
The Le Pliage is not an It bag — it's far too ubiquitous for that. It's not hard to get your hands on one, and they sell for just $95 to $145. Ten totes are sold every minute, with more than 32 million sold since their debut 23 years ago. How has the humble Le Pliage remained a reliable bestseller for nearly two decades when so many other handbag trends have come and gone?
The French Longchamp brand is valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes, due in large part to the Le Pliage. While its business is big, it's considerably smaller than that of its publicly-traded competitors Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Coach. Still, Longchamp is able to hold its own against these accessory giants — and its story begins with pipes.
The French Longchamp brand is valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes, due in large part to the Le Pliage.
In post-war Paris, Jean Cassegrain, the son of a prominent tobacconist, pivoted the direction of his father's Au Sultan tobacco shop by introducing accessories made of leather. During the early 1940s, Allied soldiers were Jean's father's best customers, frequently visiting the small store on Boulevard Poissonnière to buy conventional smoking pipes. Once the war was over though, business was weak and the shop needed to diversify. Jean decided to debut leather-enveloped pipes for men in 1948, imitating techniques used by horse saddlers. Customers took a real liking to the luxury pipes; Elvis Presley allegedly even had one, according to the LA Times.
"There wasn't an American GI in Europe who didn't have one of these pipes at the time," Jean Cassegrain, the current CEO of Longchamp and grandson (and namesake) of the brand's founder, told the International Herald Tribune back in 1998. "They were exported and sold in PXs worldwide. That's how it all started."
Following the success of the leather pipes, the brand rolled out a pipe for its female customers, "the Lady," and in 1955 expanded into other leather accessories, including cigar cases, lighters, ashtrays, cigarette dispensers, wallets, and passport holders. The family originally wanted to call the brand "Cassegrain," but because a cousin was using the name for a family-run grain-milling business, they settled on Longchamp, a reference to the famous Parisian racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne, since leather goods are commonly associated with equestrianism. To this day, the brand's logo is a jockey on a galloping horse.
Because the Cassegrains' business roots were in tobacco, the family already had access to trade routes. In fact, Longchamp was one of the first European companies to trade with Japan, notes InStore Magazine. By 1960, its smoking accessories were sold in nearly 100 countries, and Longchamp began to produce men's travel bags; the Cassegrains claim they were the first to create luggage made of nylon. Around this time, the family started to think about women's accessories. According to WWD, many female shoppers in America were buying the men's bags and requesting store buyers inquire about a women's collection.
So in 1971, Longchamp debuted its first women's bag, just one year before the first Jean Cassegrain passed away and his wife and son Philippe took over the family business. The "LM line," which was first sold in Japan, was made of calfskin leather and featured horses silkscreened over a crisscross pattern (an edition of this original bag was reissued a few years ago to celebrate the brand's 60th anniversary). The bags were an instant success and helped the brand spread rapidly across Asia. As Longchamp began to gain a reputation for producing outstanding lightweight bags, its smoking accessories appeared less and less in catalogues, until they disappeared completely in 1979.
"The difference in having a family-run business is that they think generation to generation, not quarter to quarter. That's part of the authenticity of the brand."
Philippe took full control of the business after his mother died in 1980, and with expansions into clothing and other accessories like scarves, he brought his wife Michèle on board, and years later, his children Sophie, Olivier, and Jean. They still run the company today: Sophie, as artistic director; Olivier, as US managing director; and Jean, as CEO. Like Goyard, Longchamp remains one of the few high-profile accessories brands that remains single-handedly owned and operated by one family.
"The difference in having a family-run business is that they think generation to generation, not quarter to quarter," says Katherine Ormerod, editorial director of luxury shopping site Lyst. "That's part of the authenticity of the brand."
Philippe introduced the Le Pliage bag in 1993, inspired by origami he saw on a trip to Japan. Initially, the bag was met with little fanfare. According to Entrepreneur, it was backed by zero marketing dollars and sales stalled for the first three years. But the bag found its footing.
"Le Pliage" means "folding bag" in French, and its simple design hit a nerve. The International Herald Tribune called it "one of those have-to-have fashions" in 1998, and the Associated Press half-jokingly told Kate Spade to "move over." By 2008, Jean Cassegrain confirmed to WWD that the brand was making 2.5 million bags a year, boasting that he didn't "think any brand has any single design that sells that much."
"It was French fashion journalists who started to carry it," Jean told the IHT. "For them, it corresponded to a real need and soon they were writing about it."
Longchamp now sees an increase in sales each and every year. From 2010 to 2013, its revenue climbed from $321 million to $580 million, according to data provided to Racked by PrivCo. Evan Danckwerth, a senior financial analyst with the firm, says Longchamp's growth over the last five years has been "fantastic," noting the brand went from 160 retail stores worldwide in 2011 to over 280 stores in 2014. Some 1,800 department and specialty stores around the globe sell Longchamp merchandise too.
As of last February, Longchamp revenues soared to $658 million. Cassegrain told WWD that the brand continues "to see the fruit of our long-term strategy of opening wholly owned, high-quality stores across an increasingly strong global retail base."
In 1998, in a story about the brand's 50th anniversary, the International Herald Tribune wrote that Longchamp's success "is an illustration that small, ‘Made in France' businesses can thrive by producing well-made, well-designed goods."
Today's accessories market is nothing if not overcrowded, and yet the Le Pliage remains a staple.
But today's accessories market is nothing if not overcrowded, and new kids on the block like Mansur Gavriel have started to chip away at the market share that brands with popular handbag choices like Prada and Alexander Wang hold. And yet, the Le Pliage remains a staple.
Erica Russo, the fashion director of accessories at Bloomingdale's, says it's a continuous bestseller, season after season, regardless of what colors and prints the brand offers each year. Meaghan Mahoney Dusil, the co-founder of PurseBlog, confirms that the Longchamp forum on her site is one of the busiest in the contemporary category, coming ahead of Rebecca Minkoff, Tory Burch, Kate Spade, and Dooney & Bourke; a thread titled "Show us your Longchamp" has over a million views, with thousands of fans posting photos of their Longchamp bags, most of them different variations of the Le Pliage.
This is largely due to the fact that there's no better bang for your buck than Longchamp's Le Pliage tote.
"This is the secret of Longchamp's success," says Mario Ortelli, a senior luxury goods analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. "They can be the purchase of a customer who doesn't want to spend $1,000 on a bag, but it's still considered affordable luxury. And people will not be upset if they break or wreck them."
"They are more affordable, but still talk of quality and are regarded as a luxury brand," adds Fflur Roberts, head of luxury research at Euromonitor. "Because of their affordability, many consumers will have a number of the same bag in different colors for different outfits as well as seasons."
Dusil says customers have come to trust Longchamp's Le Pliage as an item that remains stable when it comes to price, a rarity in the accessories market. "As popular handbags from brands like Céline and Chanel get more and more expensive, shoppers are frustrated because prices are going up while the quality isn't," she says. "But then you have this bag that holds up well, has a nice vibe to it, and will never cost more than a few hundred dollars."
Accessibility is something Longchamp works hard to maintain. In 2005, Jean Cassegrain told InStore Magazine that Longchamp specifically aims not to be "too flashy."
"We are more affordable than a lot of big European names and we try to be bright, colorful, and funny," he said. "We want to be elegant and fresh and interesting."
"It is completely cross-generational. It appeals to so many age groups: your mother and your niece could both wear the same bag."
And as Russo points out, it's one of the few bags on the market that appeals to all ages. "It is completely cross-generational," she says. "It appeals to so many age groups: your mother and your niece could both wear the same bag. It has a great shape, a great look, and is just incredibly functional."
Functionality is indeed an aspect many point out as a decisive factor when it comes to purchasing. Longchamp owners say the brand's products are made with impeccable quality ("I've had this bag for years and years and you could never tell!" LA graphic designer Mel Kim tells me). Russo adds that "their commitment to quality is what makes them feel so special: as a wholesale partner, we value them as a company because we know they are consistent in what they are making."
Experts believe what's helped Longchamp stay not only successful, but also incredibly desirable, is how it's positioned itself as a high-end brand with a rich French heritage. Some 85 percent of its products are produced in France, according to WWD. While the price point of Longchamp accessories are actually similar to that of Michael Kors and Coach, to consumers, the brand is more exclusive.
"The bags might be inexpensive, but in shoppers' minds, it's from France and they know the French have good taste," says Craig of BagSnob. "It's truly about obtaining the French attitude: money doesn't necessarily indicate taste."
(Exhibiting a different type of French attitude, the brand ultimately declined any involvement with this story after going back and forth about potential interviews with executives for nearly six months.)
Longchamp knows its ties to Paris give it a leg up. In October, Jean Cassegrain told Success Magazine the brand designs bags with this in mind.
"Our strategy is to stay true to the brand values in every region and keep in mind our first customer: the Parisian woman," he said. "French women are known for their effortless elegance, their dynamism, their optimistic take on life. Our approach to luxury — like theirs — is casual, effortless, optimistic."
"It's managed to maintain an element of Parisian chic in a way that a brand like Michael Kors never can," Lysts's Ormerod says. "There are probably more Pliage bags out there than the Michael Kors Jet Set, but they don't have the same connotation when it comes to status."
"It's managed to maintain an element of Parisian chic in a way that a brand like Michael Kors never can."
In addition to the all-important French connection, Ormerod notes Longchamp executes campaigns that have an added air of luxury. Ambassadors for the brand include Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, and Longchamp is constantly doing collaborations with designers like Jeremy Scott and Mary Katrantzou and artists like Tracy Emin and Jean-Luc Moerman.
"It really feels like they tap into pop culture," says Bloomingdale's Russo.
Strategically, the brand also only has two outlets stores in the US (for comparison, Coach has 225 and Michael Kors has 45).
Some certainly argue that Longchamp is a one-trick pony. Today, more than 80 percent of its business comes from women's goods, according to the Australian Financial Review, and data provided by Lyst to Racked shows that the Le Pliage bag is the most searched-for and purchased bag within the Longchamp category on the site. But the company is able to lean into the bag's popularity while still evolving it, offering new colors and design collaborations that keep shoppers coming back. Dusil says Longchamp fans on PurseBlog are most excited by limited-edition collaborations and often collect them.
"As other brands try to be fashionable and chase after trends so that they can sell a shape that is in style, Longchamp maintains desirability with the same bag," says Bernstein's Ortelli. "They are in a different league. Their strength does not come from extending into different styles."
Though Longchamp is virtually synonymous with nylon totes, the French brand is still considered a fashion company — and it has the portfolio to prove it, as least on the surface. Since the fall of 2006, it's been making ready-to-wear collections, and since 2007 footwear. It also puts out new non-Le Pliage handbags (many of them leather) every season, but as BagSnob's Craig puts it, these other projects are "just vanity projects."
The brand admits its clothing plays second fiddle to its prized bags. When Longchamp's first ready-to-wear collection launched, artistic director De la Fontaine told WWD, "Everybody is doing ready-to-wear and some pieces of handbags: We wanted to do the contrast. For us, ready-to-wear is only an accessory to the handbags."
"Handbags are our main product," she went on to explain. "But we thought this was a nice way to give some life to the handbags in the store."
As far as growth goes, Longchamp plans to continue its expansion, particularly in Asia. While the brand would not share exact numbers, Jean Cassegrain told Reuters he was planning on opening many more stores in China. In 2015 alone, Longchamp opened stores in Vienna, Florence, Peru, Paraguay, Macau and Cambodia. It's currently eyeing spaces in Texas, Chicago, and Los Angeles to add to its portfolio of 17 US stores, according to Fortune.
The Cassegrains are clearly focused on progress — "the family obviously has ambition deeply ingrained into their mentality," says Ormerod — but it's not something that completely engulfs them.
"We don't make big announcements, but we grow quietly, reliably, and steadily," Cassegrain told Bangkok's national newspaper The Nation in 2014, comparing his family company's strategy to that of a marathon runner.
Plenty of luxury brands plow full-speed ahead with of-the-moment items, only to see trends rise and fall. But the Longchamp horse, slow and steady, is the one that wins the race.
Chavie Lieber is Racked's features writer.
Editor: Julia Rubin