The Furlanetto family has been making elegant handbags in Bologna for over 85 years and they are now making their boldest move to date, launching an ambitious expansion in China. Daniel Jeffreys investigates the brand’s aggressive strategy.
[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]here is something about Furla’s CEO Eraldo Poletto that reminds me of José Mourinho, the manager of Chelsea FC. They are both elegant guys, with an air of toughness. They both perform on a world stage and are very ambitious. Mourinho wants to win this season’s European Champions League and English Premier League trophies. Poletto wants to open 100 new Furla stores in China.
Given the level of competition in Asia these days, Poletto probably has the toughest task.
“I think the ambition is the fuel of everything,” says Poletto, who has the sharp-suited, shaved skull look that would look good on the Chelsea touchline. “Without ambition there is nothing. One hundred new stores is the goal for China but if we decide the right number is 85 then that’s what we will do. It’s not that fast. We cannot change time, we can only change the speed with which we use time.”
Mourinho would love that line, but Poletto is not playing games. He is building the next era for a brand that has been in the same family since 1927 and which has already expanded beyond its 18th century headquarters in Bologna to have over 320 single brand stores and sales in 90 countries.
Poletto sees his China opportunity in the country’s exploding upper middle class, which is projected to rise from 250 million to 525 million by 2025, even assuming annual Chinese GDP growth of only 7 per cent. This is a group that is not brand-loyal, which has rejected logos and is mostly interested in consumption as a form of self-expression. They are Furla-ready.
“The consumer does not want to borrow somebody else’s life, which is what you are doing with some luxury brands,” says Poletto. “We are not so arrogant to think our consumer will borrow our way of being, we want to help the consumer find their own way of being and their own identity.”
The brand has consciously established some distance between its offering and what might be called “fashion”, otherwise known as the raucous “now-is-so-yesterday” aesthetic of contemporary fashion shows.
Not for Furla is the vacuous fashion hullabaloo that comes with front rows full of shop-bought celebrities, live rock bands and attention seeking un-wearable clothes.
“Furla is more about style than fashion,” says Poletto. “Elegance is timeless, we are about style and about being modern combined with heritage.”
Only 24 per cent of Furla’s business is in Italy, so the company is compelled to seek a dialogue with an international audience. And that means trading on their heritage, but also finding suitable pathways to innovation, which may ultimately see the brand becoming focused on a wider range of lifestyle products.
“To be a lifestyle brand is the key for Furla because we cannot be a handbag shop, it is too dangerous and too boring,” says Poletto. “We already have other categories beside bags, like textiles, watches and custom jeweller, and we are pushing these categories further. And the shoe collection will become bigger.”
Poletto says the one area that’s currently off limits is apparel, which requires an enormous investment. For now they will find other means to express the global reach of their creativity, one of which is the much-admired Fondazione Furla, created in 2008, at the instigation of the company’s president Giovanna Furlanetto.
The Fondazione’s mission is “to guarantee and bring continuity to cultural projects put in place by Furla, and to allow them further development and international reinforcement.” The Fondazione’s Bologna headquarters has become a “think-tank where Furla can host young artists and creatives.” In practice this means supporting young talents and finding ways to showcase their work.
“Mrs Furlanetto does this because she loves it,” says Poletto. “It’s not to be cool or as a marketing tool, not to bring fashion into art. She believes that supporting young artists and making them visible is something the company should do.”
Although Furla has consciously and energetically pursued a relationship with the arts, the brand will not be following other fashion houses who have asked artists to design its products, although Poletto does see benefits for the Furla brand in the Fondazione’s work.
“If you tell an artist to do something for you I am not sure you are doing art a favour, art is about freedom, the foundation is there to give artists the freedom to do what they love. We believe that art gives the true trend of what is happening next, fashion follows art, so to be connected with a pool of people who have a lot of creative energy is very healthy.”
The current Furla collection is full of colour and fun, it’s a playful expression of Poletto’s belief that the company’s competitive advantage lies in making products that have emotion attached.
“I want my production team to have fun and the consumer knows when that happens,” he says. “They know the difference between things made as a commodity and something that’s been made with love.”
Furla has thought deeply about who is their consumer, the Furla woman. Furlanetto has said that she wants to make bags that can be carried by 99 per cent of women, which is a frank admission that their goal is not luxury or fashion but a universal expression of style for self-possessed females.
“Our customer is a working woman, she is independent, she knows what she wants, she is not somebody who just puts on somebody else’s life,” says Poletto. “We do our advertising with women having fun with other women or on their own. The Furla woman is not somebody who needs a man to be successful.”
In short she is somebody with bare-faced chic, a woman who elegantly does what she wants in the most irreverent way possible, with attitude. She’s an artist with sable tipped brushes in her Melissa tote, an actress with a script in her Lotus carryall, a Parkour girl flying through the air with her Candy satchel. And if Furla can reach all these women, then by the time you read this Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea may be out of the Champion’s League, but Poletto’s Furla will be well on course for 100 stores in China.
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