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Jul 2, 2008
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Turning 60, little Longchamp moves to join "It" crowd

Jul 2, 2008

PARIS, July 2, 2008 (AFP) - From selling leather-trimmed pipes to US soldiers in Paris in the wake of World War II to making some of the hottest fashion bags on the market, France's Longchamp turns 60 bent on joining the "It" crowd of luxury handbag makers.

A family-owned company set up in 1948, the brand probably is best known for its "Pliage" line of coloured fold-up nylon and leather totes -- arguably one of the world's most popular bags since its 90s launch with 2.5 million sold a year.

But whether its higher-end 400-euro or so leather bags will make it as the "It" bags fondly touted by celebrities -- Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Balenciaga and the like -- is its challenge for the future.

"We are a luxury brand, but one that's accessible to people of all classes," general manager Jean Cassegrain told AFP.

Like French fashion greats Hermes or Sonia Rykiel, the company is a wholly-run family affair and intends to remain one.

Cassegrain, grand-son of the original founder, runs it with his father Philippe heading the board and designing some of its products, while a sister heads the art studio. "We're independent and happy to be so," Cassegrain said. "That way we're not slaves to the yearly accounts."

With a yearly turnover of 250 million euros, 110 boutiques worldwide and sales on the rise (up 16 percent for the first half 2008 against the same period in 2007), the company sees plain sailing in the years ahead.

It opened new stores in Sao Paulo and Beijing in the last month after opening a designer New York outlet in 2006, then its 100th store.

But its beginnings were humble.

After inheriting a tobacco shop in Paris, founder Jean Cassegrain came up with the idea of wrapping pipes in leather, turning them into a luxury item loved by US soldiers and kicking off a new business that began with pouches, purses and the like before the firm in the 70s went into handbags.

In coming weeks, the company launches a new campaign with Kate Moss as its face, is re-editing its 70s "vintage" bags, and offering a limited edition of 60 bags featuring designs by tatoo body-artist Jean-Luc Moerman.

These will go at 4,000 euros (6,320 dollars) a piece.

The four-figure tag puts Longchamp on an even keel pricewise with the top names in "It" bags, a term coined a decade ago when bags became the ultimate status symbol during an era when minimalist dressing-down was ultimate chic.

The first of the "it" pieces was Hermes' 1950s Kelly bag for Grace Kelly. It was followed by the Birkin bag named after actress Jane Birkin

More recently "Sex In The City" television series star Sarah Jessica Parker gave "it" status to the Fendi "baguette" after carrying it under-arm in the TV series, and Louis Vuitton's 2003 bag featuring designs by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami caused long lines and waiting lists for the sought-after item at Vuitton boutiques worldwide.

But luxury sector specialists are saying the "it" phenomenon may be on its way out in fashion.

"Buying something just because it's in fashion is a thing of the past," Jean-Jacques Picart, 61-year-old consultant for the world's most powerful luxury firm, LVMH, told AFP.

"Brands currently need to offer goods that surprise, that are exceptional," he said, saying high-end consumers increasingly will be looking to be different to others, leading to the return of eccentricity.

And The Wall Street Journal too predicted this year that "it" bags were out.

"The proliferation," it said, "has helped erode the mystique of owning a high-end bag. Affluent customers ... are increasingly turning to unique accessories to set themselves apart from the crowd."by Claire Rosemberg

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