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Richard Collasse: Sold on brand Japan

For the last 27 years, Richard Collasse has been the head of Chanel in Japan — though this French luxury goods guru is a questing author, too

by Eriko Arita

Staff Writer

In Tokyo’s high-end Ginza district, the Chanel Building stands out among the luxury fashion boutiques and global brands’ emporiums thanks to its shining black-glass exterior.

To go inside Chanel’s flagship shop in Japan is, for the normal hom sap, however, to be overwhelmed by the variety of elegant and luxurious items including bags, shoes, suits and jewelry — and stunned by their prices.

Such is also the case in the perfumes section where, among the array of fragrances, is one of Chanel’s newest, named Chance. The surprising floral bursts of this “decidedly young scent for those who dare to dream” is seemingly pitched at women with a nose for the unexpected — and who like to think they take chances in life.

In its mission-statement essence, though, Chance could be reflecting the life of none other than the president of Chanel K.K. himself — Richard Collasse.

But though he has been at the helm of Chanel in Japan for 27 years, Collasse’s life began far from luxury fashion and Japan — in the beautiful, ancient town of Castelnaudary in the Aude department of the south of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. Born the son of a senior Air France pilot in 1953, as an infant he was moved with his family to Paris until, when he was 9, his father’s job took them to Morocco.

It was there, in the multicultural city of Casablanca, that Collasse enjoyed his teenage years until, at age 18, he returned to Paris to finish off his secondary education at the prestigious Lycee Fenelon.

Before taking his place in the Oriental Languages Department of the University of Paris, his father encouraged him to go to Japan in the summer of 1972. And, as he recounts in the autobiographical essay “Shall We Meet in Tokyo at 4 a.m.?” (“Gozen Yoji, Tokyo de Aimasuka?”) he co-wrote with a French novelist named Shan Sa in 2007, “I became a captive of the kindness, delicacy and smiles of Japanese people.”

That love for Japan was also dramatically revealed in Collasse’s first novel, “La Trace/ Harukanaru Koseki” (“Far Ship Wake”), published in 2006 by Shueisha International Inc. There, the main character, a young French traveler in Japan, falls in love with a Japanese girl on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Then, after the two have been out of touch for decades, she sends a letter to her former beau who has become the president of a famous French company in Japan. It’s a story that would appear to be not entirely unconnected with the life of Collasse, who returned to Japan after learning Japanese at the University of Paris.

In Tokyo, he initially worked at the French Embassy in Tokyo and in his early 20s married a Japanese woman. Then in 1979, he got a job with Givenchy before joining Chanel K.K. in 1985. Since 1995, when he was made president of the Japanese branch of Chanel, he has established the brand as one of the most prominent at the luxury end of the market in this country, with 37 fashion boutiques across Japan.

In addition, Collasse was also chairman of the European Business Council in Japan from 2002 to 2009, and in 2006 he was awarded L’ ordre national de la legion d’honneur — one of the highest French decorations. Then, two years later, he added to that the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Stars.

Additionally, Collasse’s second novel, “Saya,” which he wrote in French and Japanese, won le Prix Culture et Bibliotheques pour tous (the Prize of Culture and Libraries for All) in France in 2010, and in November 2011 that was followed by a collection of short stories, “Les Voyageurs ne Meurent Jamais/Tabibito wa Shinanai” (“Travelers Never Die”).

Then, on March 1 this year, he published a new novel in France set in a tsunami-hit city in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu. Titled “L’Ocean dans la riziere,” (“The Ocean in the Rice Paddy”), the book is based on his experience of volunteering in that region following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

Amid his busy life, the 58-year-old head of Chanel in Japan made time to meet The Japan Times on April 12 at his office in Ginza.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, I didn’t imagine I would become an employee of a company. My father was a senior pilot with Air France and I didn’t know about office work and people in those kinds of jobs.

At school, I could get perfect scores for writing in French even without trying, and that was the subject I enjoyed most. So I wanted to do something related to writing. For example, a news reporter or a novelist.

When I was small I also wanted to be a photographer, and I got my first camera when I was 13. It was a Topcon, which was made by a Japanese company called Tokyo Kogaku that no longer produces cameras.

Could you tell me about your childhood in Morocco?

I had the ordinary life of a child then, when we lived in Casablanca. School hours were longer than they are now, and I studied at junior high and high school until 6 p.m. After that, I went to a cram school for mathematics because I wasn’t good at the subject.

In Casablanca, the weather was nice so I enjoyed outdoor activities including playing tennis. During my long school holidays, such as Easter, my father took days off and we drove to the desert, which is on the other side of the Atlas Mountains from Casablanca. I had very exciting experiences during those travels.

Morocco has a great diversity of cultures that are influencing each other. Although it is a largely Arabic, Muslim country, various religions coexisted in peace. It is a beautiful country with a rich culture, and I had no problem growing up in such a diverse cultural environment.

When did you go back to France?

Right before I entered university. Then I felt as if I’d fallen into hell from heaven. In Paris, the weather is often rainy or cold, and people there are not very friendly. Although France is my home country, I didn’t spend much time there during my childhood. I had an idealistic view of France in my mind. I suffered from Amelie Poulain syndrome — do you know what that is?

No. What is it?

Well, “Le Fabuleux Destin d’ Amelie Poulain” is a French movie made in 2001 that depicts a beautiful Paris full of gentle people. Many young Japanese women watched the movie and traveled to Paris. But when they got there, many of them experienced such problems as having their bags snatched or slipping on dogs’ droppings. Their dream of Paris was punctured. That is called Amelie Poulain syndrome.

I also experienced something similar to that syndrome. It’s a long story, and I wrote about it in my novel “La Trace”, but basically, when I first came to Japan, it was as if I encountered heaven. I found myself very comfortable with Japanese people.

I had been planning to study French literature at university, but I changed my plan and decided to learn Japanese and other subjects so that I could become a diplomat in Japan. After graduating from university in Paris, I got a job at the French embassy in Tokyo and worked there for two years. But after that, I found the job was unsuitable for me, because my personality is not calm enough.

What was your impression of this country when you came for the first time?

Actually, I’d come because my father told me Japan was a beautiful country — and to buy a Nikon camera. But when I got here, I was impressed by Japanese people. Although it was very hot in the middle of summer, and there were not many air conditioners, I didn’t care at all about the heat. For 50 days I traveled around Japan, and the people I met were very kind to me.

Before I left France, I went to the offices of the travel organization Nihon Kotsu Kosha (now JTB) in Paris and told a staffer there that I wanted to stay at homes in Japan. He said that was almost impossible. However, a friend of a friend of my father’s in Tokyo agreed to let me stay at their home in Tokyo, and that was good start. After that, I stayed at the homes of people I happened to meet in my travels around the country.

In your first novel, “La Trace,” the narrator goes to an island in the Seto Inland Sea and stays at a family’s home there. Was that your experience?

Exactly. I met a young man on a bus from Tokyo to Kobe. He said to me, “I live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Why don’t you come and visit me.” And I said, “I’m going to Kobe now, but after that I would very much like to visit you.” I stayed at his home for a week.

In the novel, the narrator falls madly in love with a beautiful Japanese girl on the island. Was that also your experience?

Even my wife doesn’t know whether that is fiction or truth (Laughs).

When you went back to France after that first visit to Japan, what did you do?

I decided to become diplomat. At university, I studied political science and learned Japanese in the Asian-language department of the University of Paris. Then I got a job at the French embassy in Tokyo.

How did you come to work for Givenchy?

When I went back to France after quitting the embassy, I was working in a company and one of my colleagues said to me, “I have seen an advert for a job in Japan. You may be interested in it, because your wife is Japanese and you speak Japanese.”

The problem was that he couldn’t remember the name of the company — though he said it might be one involved in fashion or perfume. So I called every company of that kind I knew, but in vain. Finally, I consulted my mother and she said there was one, called Givenchy, that I’d not heard of.

When I called the Givenchy fashion company, the person who answered said: “We are not hiring employees for Japan, because we don’t have any business there.” When I heard that, I almost lost my will to look for a job in Japan. But then the person said: “Wait a moment. We have another company specializing in perfumes, and it may be that company. I will ask them, so wait a second.”

I waited for five minutes, then the person came back and said: “It was the perfume company. I’ll give you the number so you can call them.” If it had not been for that person’s diligence, I would have given up searching for a job in Japan.

When I phoned the perfume company, the official in Paris in charge of hiring said to me: “You are very late. We’ve been taking applications for three months and we’re in the last stage of the selection process. But we would be pleased to meet you.”

So I met the official and, as a result, I got the job and in 1979 began to work at the small office of Givenchy in Tokyo. Before long I was heading the office. A few years later, in the early 1980s, Japan had a fashion boom and Givenchy executives planned to set up a fashion division in Japan. They asked me to work as the president of the new fashion corporation in Japan, so I agreed — even though I had no experience of how to manage a corporation at all and couldn’t even read a profit-and-loss statement.

Even though I was an amateur at management and just learned on the job, the business was very successful. That made Chanel officials notice my work and they head-hunted me. Givenchy was wonderful company, but Chanel is like a Rolls-Royce and I wanted to try riding in a Rolls-Royce. So I was appointed head of Chanel’s perfumes and cosmetics division in Japan.

Had you been interested in perfumes and cosmetics?

No. I was originally a country person, and I still am. To begin with, I didn’t know anything about fashion.

After joining Givenchy, did you become interested in fashion?

Yes. The world of fashion is interesting actually, and it is an environment in which you can sell dreams. Although I was not originally interested in it, I had been used to seeing and appreciating beautiful things because my parents liked such things — ranging from artworks and everyday goods to scenery. So, I might have a sense of aesthetics.

In 1985, you moved to Chanel K.K. in Japan. At the time, was Chanel affordable in this country?

Yes, it was already very popular, of course. Most of the luxury fashion brands back then, including Givenchy, were licensing their products to local companies in Japan. The only luxury brands not licensing were Chanel, Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

Could you explain about licensing?

It’s when brand companies lend their name to third parties and let them produce the brand’s products. But Chanel has maintained its policy of producing its original products itself — not licensing.

In 1995, you became president of Chanel in Japan. A few years before, Japan’s economic bubble had burst, so what business strategies did you adopt in the face of that?

I didn’t think of changing Chanel’s business strategy. I thought we should maintain it. After the bubble economy burst, some foreign fashion brands were confused and tried strange things — such as expanding the distribution network. But my company kept doing business as before.

What is the policy of Chanel?

It is difficult to say in a word, but we believe we should produce our own products by ourselves — and we should not betray consumers by offering discounts (to later buyers of the same product). Similarly, we shouldn’t sell sets of products, saying: “If you buy this, you can get that or can buy that at lower price.”

Chanel is a company with persistence. It is not affected by other brands. It doesn’t care about them. This policy came from the brand’s founder, Coco Chanel. She only thought about what she wanted to do — and she did it. In her lifetime, she did all kinds of revolutionary things.

What was the most revolutionary achievement by Coco Chanel, who lived from 1883 to 1971?

At the end of the 19th century, most women stayed at home, but she started her own business (making ladies hats). Back then, too, every woman wore corsets and very stiff clothes — but she started making clothes for women using Jersey knits. It was a fabric only used at the time for men’s underwear, but she used it because it helped women’s bodies to feel more free.

In that era, which was very conservative, what she was doing was scandalous — but she carried on doing what she wanted to do.

Another revolution was the Chanel No. 5 perfume. In the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods (spanning the late 19th century up until around 1930), the shapes of perfume bottles were typically very decorative and the concept of fragrances was very floral. But Coco made a very classy fragrance and put it into something that looked like a medicine bottle. Then she put a white paper label on the bottle with the No. 5 printed on it in black. Most perfumes’ names then were very romantic — such as “Night Flight” — but she named hers just a number. Her idea was clearly revolutionary in Paris in the 1920s.

Chanel recently held a photo exhibition in Tokyo titled “Little Black Jacket.” In fashion, was the color black new in Coco Chanel’s heyday?

Yes. At that time, people wore black clothes only when they went to funerals. But she believed black was the best color. She had a great stubbornness concerning colors.

In that spirit, when Chanel first came to Japan in 1978, its cosmetics counters in department stores were simply black and gold. Japanese people were surprised, and many said, “You can’t sell cosmetics in a world of black.” They associated cosmetics with white or pastel colors such as pink and pale green.

How else has the spirit of Coco Chanel been carried into the 21st century?

Goethe, (the German poet and writer) said: “Make a better future by developing elements from the past.” This is something our designer Karl Lagerfeld often quotes, meaning it is important to respect the roots of the brand while at the same time creating new things from those roots. I believe this is also the philosophy of our company.

People often ask me, “Why don’t you make clothes for men?” My answer is very simple: “Because Coco Chanel never considered making men’s clothes.”

In the past three decades, how has the Japanese awareness of foreign fashion brands changed?

Three decades ago, the number of Japanese people who had been overseas was very limited. To have a visible symbol of having traveled to Europe or the United States, people bought items of foreign fashion brands.

Subsequently, more and more people started traveling abroad, and though they used to call imported goods “hakuraihin” — meaning “products brought from overseas by ship” (with a nuance of aspiration) — they gradually began to use foreign-made goods in their daily lives.

Today, the foreign cosmetics sections are positioned on the first floor of department stores, but 40 years ago they would have been in a “specially selected goods” corner on an upper floor — if they existed at all. Nowadays, too, Japanese women try both foreign and Japanese cosmetics, and then buy the ones they like — regardless of whether they are foreign or not.

While neighboring China, is growing rapidly, Japan is a society that is aging fast and its economy has been stagnating for a long time. How are you going to do business in the future?

Well, I don’t think Chanel will make wheelchairs (Laughs). I know the population is aging and shrinking in Japan, but it is a long-term trend, so business will not stop tomorrow.

Another thing is that Japanese people understand good stuff. They know that good products contain the souls of the people who made them. In that sense, Japanese understand and respect the techniques of craftsmen, so I believe they will continue to stick to the good stuff.

From the 1980s to the late ’90s, various foreign fashion brands came to Japan. But some of them were not real luxury brands — though I won’t mention names. Those brands created an aura that appeared to be one of luxury, but their products were not.

For a while, Japanese people bought anything presented as a luxury brand, but now they have become far more selective in buying brand goods. They seek out the real stuff — and find brands such as ours that have maintained their strategy from their foundation, and whose products have not been influenced by those of other brands. I think people will shift to such products as ours which have roots and stories with them, but I think the number of brands will decline.

Fashion Week Tokyo was held from March 18-23, but around the same time Chanel organized events here including a couture fashion show. Some people said Chanel’s events overshadowed the fashion week. What do say about that?

I think Chanel has nothing to do with the outcome of Fashion Week Tokyo (FWT). It sounds kind of like an excuse. I think those who are involved in it should change the way of staging the event and think a lot more about how to make it more successful.

For a long time there have been the Paris, New York, Milan and London collections — but no Tokyo one. FWT started seven or eight years ago, whereas those in Paris or New York have become successful after several decades of effort. So I don’t believe it’s possible to make the fashion week here very successful in so short a period.

In addition to that, a world-famous fashion journalist I met five years ago during FWT said very harsh things about Japanese designers. She said, “When are Japanese designers going to work more seriously? I feel as if they are playing.”

I was a bit surprised by her comment, but I also feel Japan’s fashion is somehow wandering. One of the faults of the Japanese is that they think only of their own noren (shop or business entrance curtain.) Japanese people often say they have kizuna (a human bond) together, but that’s false — it’s just a word. To make FWT successful, everyone involved must be facing in the same direction and aiming at the same goal. But in fact they are not coherent.

I am watching them very closely and I hope they work a bit harder. In the 1970s, wonderful Japanese fashion brands developed and the names of those brands have spread. But now, Japan is like it’s closing and going back to when it was isolated (from the rest of the world).

Nowadays, young people don’t want to go to other countries and they don’t want to see the world. When asked why they don’t go abroad, they say, “We can see the world better on TV.”

Young Japanese men say it is even troublesome to have girlfriends. They are in their closed country !

A similar thing can be said concerning Japanese fashion. They should be more open to the world. Two years ago, I worked as one of 12 judges for an Asian fashion models’ contest that had something to do with FWT. Around 100 models from many countries in Asia took part, with everyone competing in their own clothes. But when I realized I hadn’t marked any points for Japanese models, I thought I might have made a mistake. At a loss, I turned to a judge beside me who was a very famous Japanese fashion-industry person, and asked him, “Am I wrong (awarding no points to Japanese models)?” And he said, “Mr. Collasse, I totally agree with you.” The reason we gave them no points was that the Japanese models were not hungry.

The winner was South Korean and the runnerup was Chinese. I guess probably the third-place model was also South Korean. They looked as if they were saying: “From now on, the world is mine!” They had an aura — but the Japanese models didn’t. Some of them were beautiful and had great bodies, but they were just walking without energy. They didn’t express the passion of “I want to do it !” What a waste.

You are the president of Chanel in Japan, but you have also been publishing novels since 2006. What made you start publishing your works?

Because I’ve been busy doing my job as president, I had long given up writing novels. Then one day an official from the publisher Shueisha came to see me and said: “Carlos Ghosn (president of Nissan Motor Co.) published his essay on Japan two years after he had came to Japan. It sold well. (Philippe) Troussier (Japan’s former national soccer team coach) also published his book after spending one year in Japan. It sold, too. But you have lived in Japan for more than 30 years. If you write an essay on Japan, it will sell.” He said he would hire a ghost writer.

At first, I rejected the offer for two reasons. One was that there have been a number of foreigners who have written books and 99.9 percent are bullshit. I didn’t want to add another silly essay to the piles of boring books written by foreigners in Japan. Another reason was that if I wrote, I would want to write it by myself, not through a ghost writer.

Two days later, I had dinner with a Japanese friend of mine. He had read my short novel of 30 or 40 pages that I wrote some 30 years ago. I told him casually that Shueisha had asked me to write a book — but I had rejected the offer.

Then he said, “You should not just reject the idea, you should tell him the conditions you want, then see whether or not he accepts. You have been saying for a long time that you want to write novels — well, this is a chance. Shueisha is a big and established company.”

So I contacted Shueisha and the official came to see me again. “I want to write a novel, not an essay, by myself,” I told him. He looked like he wanted to run away, though he probably thought I was joking. Anyhow, he asked me if I’d ever published a novel, and I told him I hadn’t — though at the end of every year I write a kind of newsletter that’s 50 to 60 pages long and sent it to my friends all over the world. It’s not about private things such as a baby being born or my child entering elementary school, but about the world and society, including some philosophical ideas.

So I asked him, “Please read this newsletter, and then if you think I can write a novel, come to see me again.” Two or three weeks later, he came back and said: “I believe you can write a novel. Please write it.”

I wondered what I should write about and thought and thought. Writing a novel takes time and energy. I became uneasy and thought I might call him to say I couldn’t do it. But next morning when I woke up, I came up with the story of “La Trace.” I guess I had unconsciously and gradually created the story in my mind for years.

Because I wrote it in French, I thought I should try to publish it in France, too, so I sent it to a major publisher there. I guessed they would ignore it because they are selling more than 1,000 titles, but within two weeks the president of the company called me. He said, “I read your novel. It is very good and I will publish it. In addition, please start writing another one.” The book sold very well in France.

Last year you published a novel titled “Les Voyageurs ne Meurent Jamais/Tabibito wa Shinanai” (“Travelers Never Die”). The blurb says, “Although the man has attained wealth, fame and everything, he has solitude occupying his heart. He has gone to travel.” Does “he” mean you?

That’s right. I am very solitary person. Traveling is solitude.

Lastly, what future ideas do you have for Chanel and your novels?

As I have this wonderful job and I am healthy, I want to continue my work. I will face a big challenge, as we discussed, because the Japanese market is not expanding compared to China’s. It will be challenging to maintain the fortunes of my company and employees. But I like a challenge — and I also want to keep on writing novels.