Paris or London: falling in love with the lovely French accent or being enchanted by the distinctive British humor? Our RLG Paris & London Chazen has come to an end, but we still cannot decide which city stole our heart.
Is it Paris, the capital of luxury, where you can eat a ‘Croque Monsieurs’ in one of the many cafés, where the smell of freshly baked baguettes will reach you from far away, where delicious macarons are served after each meal and where there is always an art exhibition worth seeing?
Or is it London, the fashion capital renowned for its distinctive street style, where pubs are national institutions, where you will never get tired of taking long strolls in one of the many parks, and where the Royal Houses and its inhabitants are among the greatest attractions?
Fascinated by the many distinctiveness, we also noticed the striking similarities: both cities are built around a river (the Seine and the Thames), there is a bohemian neighborhood where artists love to hang out (Montmartre and Chelsea), both cities are home to very prestigious universities (La Sorbonne and HEC, London School of Economies and London Business School), they both have famous amusement parks nearby (Disneyland Paris and Harry Potter World), and there are in both Paris and London globally prestigious Opera Houses (Opera and Royal Opera House).
During this engaging week, we have come to appreciate the beauty of two of the most vibrant cities in Europe: even if the 13 company visits kept us all extremely busy, the romantic atmosphere and the vibrant vibe of these places did not go unnoticed.
G.K. Chersterton said ‘London is a riddle. Paris in an explanation’: why shall we choose, then, when we can have them both?
Are you a Harrod’s lover or a Selfridge’s fan? These iconic department stores are as different as they are alike: cool art exhibitions, majestic food halls and an impressive selection of fashion items are just few of the many wonders you will find inside. Still, the two stores have very distinctive brand identities: while Harrods is clearly focused on the luxury segment, placing a lot of attention in creating dedicated spaces for the participants of their selective and aspirational VIP program (such as the penthouse for exclusive private shopping sessions), Selfridges prides itself in being able to delight the full spectrum of consumers, hosting streetstyle in-shop pop-up as well as creating experiences of ‘theatrical retailing’ (as Mr. Selfridge used to call them).
From brick-and-mortal retailing to a champion of the e-commerce: the YNAP headquarters (ironically inside a Mall!) is decorated with minimal design and elegant furniture. Inside the office, though, a vibrant energy permeates the building: from the studios where product shootings happen all day long to the busy meeting rooms where executives are constantly questioning how to remain ahead of the competition.
Remaining in the luxury playing field, but this time dealing with beauty, we visited the majestic townhouse of Jo Malone: a physical representation of the most distinguishing traits of the brand itself. The high-quality materials, the distinctive scents which permeate the house and a sense of elegance and understatement are what this niche luxury brand is all about: with the promise of staying true to itself and its founder’s values, now and forever.
Not only large and established companies are thriving in London; the British capital is considered the Silicon Valley of Europe for the impressive number of startups which it hosts.
Bloom and Wild is the second fastest growing startup in the UK (right after Deliveroo) and one of the few companies who are trying to innovate a very traditional industry: flower gifting.
Bloom and Wild’s aim is to put the emotional value of sending flowers at the center, making sure the gift arrive in the hands of the receiver as beautiful as it has been conceived. The brown box the flowers come in fits in a mailbox, and not only contains a beautiful selection of flowers, but also simple instructions on how to style them. The best thing is that you cannot get it wrong: the flower selection is done is such a way that it will look good even if you follow your creative lead.
More seasoned, but still with a steady growth trajectory is Depop, where we had the privilege of interacting with the CEO herself. This startup focused on vintage clothing is becoming the point of reference for the growing industry in secondary market: an industry which is getting more and traction thanks to the focus on sustainability and waste management that has become prevalent in the last few years.
To conclude our trip, we wanted to understand how breakthroughs in fashion technologies are created. Holition is a young startup which has already achieved a lot: by applying AR to the creation of smart mirrors for Charlotte Tilbury, holographic fashion shows for Dunhill, virtual try on for Uniqlo and smart windows for Hermès, the company is constantly creating innovative solutions keeping the needs of its clients at heart. That is why it prides itself in being ‘a non-tech tech company’ or better, a technological company with a human touch.
And after our last dinner eating tapas in South Kensington, our Paris & London Chazen trip came to an end.
One week, two cities, 13 company visits, more than 25 hours of talks, presentations and Q&A sessions with executives and the management team: and still, we are ready to do it all over again.
Before saying goodbye to the city of lovers, a visit to HEC Paris, the French business school renowned for its finance undergraduate program as well as for its retail and luxury MBA track, was mandatory.
At HEC, Professor Anne Michaut greeted us with a Luxury Master Class designed specifically for our group, where we discussed the importance of brand experience and dissected examples of brands who are getting it right. Be it the Chanel Spa at Ritz-Carlton in Paris (where Coco lived for part of the life), the Land Rover ‘Vanishing Game’ blogged by William Boyd or the Veuve Cliquot castle which hosts VIP guests, the most successful brands are those who are speaking to customers on different dimensions: not only delivering distinctive and recognizable sensory experiences but also emotional, cognitive and relational ones.
A short ride on the TGV brought us to our second stop: London. The English capital greeted us with an expected sunny day which rendered pleasant even-trafficked commutes.
First stop, Farfetch: the luxury e-commerce marketplace that everybody is talking about. The company, who is reported to be ready for an IPO soon, is already partnering with more than 800 brands and active in 190 cities worldwide, with delivery methods that ranges from an outstanding 90 minutes for Gucci items in selected locations to 4 days at the very maximum. According to Farfetch’s executives, the company is more of a technology company rather than a pure retailer and has the overarching goal of connecting customers to their favorite brands ‘for the love of fashion.’ Its special projects, the most famous being the realization of the ‘store of the future,’ are all centered around creating a seamless customer journey that blends the online and the offline experience into a never-ending loop.
Similar concept, but different business model, Asos (which stands for ‘As Seen On Screen’) is a pure e-commerce player with a clear target: the 20-something fashionista. In the London headquarters, shoots are happening all day long: in the 13 studios, 26 models are shooting more than 4,000 new items a week…Quite an impressive turnaround! The stacks of clothes ready to be filed, the models who use corridors as catwalks, and a young and fun atmosphere (the average age of the 3,000 employees orbits around the 20-ish) are the elements that strike a visitor from the start.
To round out the first day in the UK, which better way than drinking a beer at a London pub? While mingling with RLG members of LBS, we got a chance to exchange tips and ideas with our fellow MBA colleagues. In case you were wondering, CBS remains clearly the best choice. It is confirmed. At least in our eyes.
Not yet recovered from the frantic fashion week, Paris welcomed us with its most shining self. The Tour Eiffel lit up, the decorations around the streets and the numerous fashion exhibitions scattered around the city seemed to welcome our group, being the perfect complement to the fascinating company visits.
After a walking tour of Montmartre lead by the founder of ‘A French Frye in Paris’ to discover a secret Paris (did you know that in Montmartre there is the only vineyard producing directly from the city of Paris? Not the best wine in the area – apparently, since the surrounding buildings produce too much shade for the grapes to mature perfectly – but a one-of-a-kind bottle to try), the Chazen study tour kicked off with the Sunday dinner at ‘Le Train Bleu.’ Tasting the delicacies that the French cuisine offers while being surrounded by painted ceilings and wooden interiors was the perfect preparation for the week ahead.
Off to a great start with the triple treat at Van Cleef & Arpels, where we had the unique opportunity of visiting the Haute Joaillerie laboratory: the place were the most unique pieces are crafted by hand with a process that can take as long as one full year. The pieces of art crafted in this laboratory are among the most iconic and precious ever made, ranging from the tiara made for Princess Charlene of Monaco to the iconic zipper necklace for which the Maison is well known or the ‘mystery sliding’ techniques which allows Van Cleef to hide the metal structure of the jewel under the gems.
After the laboratory, we visited l’École, a unique and very successful concept sponsored by the brand but run by full-time Professors whose aim is to transmit the love and knowledge of the jewelry industry to a wider public: spanning a wide range of classes and topics, it is worth a visit next time you happen to be in town. The last stop of our triple tour was the boutiques in Place Vendome, with their antique book archives and the ongoing exhibitions. In line with Van Cleef’s ability of embracing new technologies, the most complicated pieces were displayed with a QR code, to access the online information page and complement the offline experience with an online touch.
Speaking of Artificial Intelligence application, we could have not landed in a better place than Heuritech. This startup company specialized in luxury has developed a proprietary technology based on deep learning which scans Instagram images to provide a precise feedback on the brands’ following. In fact, 81% of the content posted on Instagram remains hidden to the brand: very few people will tag all the brands they are wearing in each picture, making each item difficult to be traced by the brand itself. Heuritech’s technology allows the brand to benchmark its performance relative to its competitors, by teaching the machine how to recognize a certain item with an accuracy level that can arrive at 99%: an interesting application which has not gone unnoticed in the industry and that has already been awarded with the LVMH innovation award for 2017.
As a last minute surprise, the group was graciously invited to take part in the ‘Women @ Dior’ event: a two-day event where Dior mentors are reunited with their mentees to start a one-year journey together. The program is designed for women approaching the job market for the first time who will benefit from seasoned executives’ mentorship on how to better shape their career in the short and long-term. The essence of this initiative (already at its second edition) is explained by the words of Christian Dior itself: ‘Women, with their unfailing instinct, doubtlessly realized that my dream was to make them not only more beautiful, but happier too.’
After the Conference, Dior invited us to join the participants of the program for an evening reception where to meet and network with talented young women: sipping the signature champagne of the house and staring at the Tour Eiffel shining from not too far away, I caught myself wondering…. What else?
Have you ever wondered how jewels are made? Or what does it take to manage the most important malls in the world? Or which are the most successful online selling strategies? A group of 20 students enrolled in the RLG Chazen Paris & London will make the dream of every Retail-lover come true: visiting those companies featured in the daily news and dictating fashion trends all over the globe.
From industry disruptors (Farfetch and YNAP) to veteran companies (Asos and Harrods), we will be granted the unique opportunity of getting in touch with the executives who are shaping the industry, getting access to companies’ best kept secrets and discovering what does it take to be a successful retail startup. This one-of-a-kind experience will be led by Professor Akinola and the three organizers Marta Cuenca, Karen Fahmy and Heather Li.
After having attended a master class crafted specifically for us by a renowned HEC Professor, having participated into the debate regarding the future of retail hosted by Galeries Lafayette and Facebook’s executives and toured the atélier of Van Cleef & Arpels, it will be time to fall in love with French cuisine, stroll in London’s parks and visit the famous cultural attractions of both cities. Pairing your coffee with a pan au chocolate, tasting a fresh macaron, blending with peers during the mixer with the Retail & Luxury Goods Club of London Business School (LBS), checking out the best pub in London or trying to decide which city has the best restaurants and the most active nightlife will be key in making the trip a real success also outside the meeting rooms.
When asking the organizers to provide a short preview on the week ahead, they made it clear: “It will be a blast!”.
Reflecting back on our #CiaoChazen trip throughout Italy, there are so many experiences and memories that will last a lifetime, but it was definitely the people on the trip that made the biggest impression. As someone who has gone on three Chazen trips, my favorite thing about these trips in general is the ability to meet and make memories with such a diverse group of CBS classmates that I otherwise may not have crossed paths with. This Chazen was no different as more than half were first years who I likely would not have had the opportunity to get to know before graduating without this trip. Additionally, our incredible three Italian leads organized such an amazing itinerary, allowing us to see all sides of Italy through their eyes. They were so good, I decided I must only go on trips organized by Italians from now on as they thought through every minute detail and really enjoy indulging in the nicest of food and wine!
This trip was also a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see the inner workings of the many and diverse companies I wrote about in earlier blogs from Ferrari to YOOX Net-A-Porter to Villa Antinori. Each of these companies really showed us Italian hospitality as they were so welcoming and excited for our visits, with some of them like Brunello Cucinelli literally welcoming us into their hometown! These visits made it so clear that personal relationships are very important in business in Italy and are the way lots of things get done. This also makes sense given the importance many of the companies put on their family ownership or heritage like we saw at brands like Ermemegildo Zegna and also Antinori, which is one of the top 10 longest running family companies started in 1385.
Speaking of heritage, it is something that was emphasized over and over again in our visits regardless the type of company. It was very clear that there is Italian pride in everything they do. However, interestingly we still saw a willingness to evolve and push boundaries. Gucci’s recent transformation is a great example of this idea of reinvention rooted in their heritage. I think that this authentic sense of heritage but willingness to evolve will be what pushes these legacy brands into the future…
We will see were the future takes these companies…but I know that the future will definitely take me back to Italy for more exploration and gelato after such an amazing trip!
Retail isn’t only defined by big brand name luxury fashion shows – but much broader and made of many types of people and industries. And this trip shows just that – the diverse types of luxury retail from an Italian perspective and heritage.
During our first three days, we have seen the retail industry from four different angles. At the first company, Ermenegildo Zegna, we heard from a member of the Zegna family and the head of Customer Relations Management. At Zegna we learned how a traditional craftsmanship brand with deep heritage is shifting from a product focus to become truly customer centric and maintain competitive in the new world of retail. Then we met with the co-founder and CEO of The Blonde Salad, a lifestyle brand that started as a fashion blog with Chiara Ferragni in 2009. Since then they have lived by their moto “differentiate or die” to successfully navigate new waves in technology and social media while expanding into the largest fashion blog, a unique accessories brand, and multi-talent management company. The following day, we visited the hometown of Ferrari in Maranello, Italy which aside from being heaven on earth for the car lovers in our group showed a different type of ultra-exclusivity in product and distribution. Finally, at YOOX NET-A-PORTER, we saw the less glamorous side of retail by visiting their logistics center and “technology temple” in Bologna, Italy. Though supply chain and technology development are not what people typically associate with retail, the two when done well can be a huge differentiator for a retailer.
Up next, we have three more visits to see more of traditional retail luxury at Gucci and Brunello Cuchinelli, as well as the other major Italian export of wine at Villa Antinori!