Bruno Pavlovsky on Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, e-commerce, Cruise and being coherent
Few luxury executives are going to have a busier year than Bruno Pavlovsky, Chanel’s Fashion President . He has just overseen the launch of the new Gabrielle bag; and is ushering in four new flagship boutiques. Last month, he announced an agreement to open the Gallery Gabriel Chanel in the Palais Galliera fashion museum; last weekend, he was at Hyères festival, where Chanel finances the winner to produce a collection in the house’s famed series of luxury resource houses from its Métiers d’Art division.
In a freewheeling conversation in his office, he explains Chanel’s reticence about e-commerce; reconfirms that Hedi Slimane is not on his way to Chanel and reveals how he, personally, is going to vote in this Sunday’s presidential elections – for Emmanuel Macron. Highly focused, he warns against too much brand diversification; mocking the idea of a Chanel hotel, café or chocolate store.
On Wednesday, he was busy supporting the house’s creative genius Karl Lagerfeld as he unveiled his latest Chanel cruise show in the Grand Palais.
“It’s the right message now that we want to support Paris, the capital of creation. 2016 and 2015 were difficult years Paris, and for Chanel in Paris, even if less so than our competitors. We have a lot of loyal French customers in Paris, but what was missing was the tourists – any hotel and restaurant can tell you that,” says Pavlovsky.
In his definition, Chanel is “creation without any limit.” Recalling their epic shows in Cuba, Paris-Rome in Cinecittà film studio or last season’s rocket launch. “At Chanel, we have a sentence – let Chanel surprise you!”
Pavlovsky insists his “first task is to provide the creative team of Karl (Lagerfeld), Virginie (Viard, directrice du studio) and Eric (Pfrunder, director de l’image mode) all that they need to realize their dreams. Then to maximize the impact of their ideas in Chanel’s global network of 191 chic boutiques."
“I believe after 26 years working with Karl that I have had a good mentor!” he smiles. “So, being able to discuss a collection’s development with him means you work out what is important and what can be bestsellers. But sometimes you have to push to create best-sellers. Our own internal buyers naturally want to first buy products they can sell with little risk. But we need also to take risks and extract the energy and creativity of each collection - balancing creativity and commerce.”
However, he remains cautious about e-commerce. “The Chanel experience is in the boutique. That’s where we want our existing and future customers to experience the brand. I’m not sure you can understand everything through a screen. What is important for us is nourishing our customers at a boutique level.”
The house’s polite but hyper-discreet owners, the Wertheimer family, never discuss the Chanel’s financial performance, but according to figures filed with the Amsterdam Exchange, Chanel International BV scored operating profit of $1.6 billion in the latest financial year on revenues of $6.24 billion. That makes them France's largest high-end fashion house.
Pavlovsky joined Chanel a quarter century ago, working with then-president Madame Françoise Montenay to structure the fashion business. His latest big initiative is Chanel’s strategy of global price harmonization, introduced 18 months ago.
“In 2015, by my valuation, more than half the business done around the name Chanel was being done in the parallel market and not controlled by Chanel. Not a good thing. We were facing a lot of problems with our customers. They would come into the boutique upset – sometimes with fake products. Price harmonization was a strong sign that were determined to stop this parallel market. It has been a major success,” insists the unflappable Pavlovsky.
Pavlovsky hails from Biarritz. His great grandfather emigrated from Russia to France at the beginning of the last century. “Because he was Jewish and his family were under threat,” explains Pavlovsky, part of whose clan also ended up in Argentina.
Each show, he argues, begins not just with a collection but also the media. “They are there from day one. If the media hates the collection, it will still succeed in our boutiques but it will be more challenging. But you know, we are still in a country of freedom so people can be critical,” concedes the exec, dressed in a Chromatic Chanel watch and an anthracite Dior Homme pinstripe suit.
Asked about this weekend’s presidential vote, he replies: “Chanel never supports any specific candidate. However, we believe in the creative process, in French culture and in the role of Paris. Our job is to do our best so what is taking place today shall be taking place tomorrow. So, no doubt, we will support the people who can help guarantee that. And, personally, I have no doubt that Emmanuel Macron can.”
At Pavlovsky’s prodding, Chanel will spend €5.7 million bankrolling a major exhibition space named Gallery Gabrielle Chanel in the ground floor of the Palais Galliera.
“It’s about supporting creativity in Paris. Linking Chanel to one of the best – if not the best – fashion museum in the world makes lots of sense. We don’t want a foundation or art museum. There are several guys already doing that well,” smiled Pavlovsky, in obvious reference to the Foundation Louis Vuitton and the upcoming Fondation Pinault.
Looking to the future, he dismisses occasional rumors that Chanel is quietly grooming Hedi Slimane to one day replace Lagerfeld.
“I think we have been very clear. Chanel has no project with Mister Slimane,” harrumphs Pavlovsky in his black and beige office, amid photos by Lagerfeld and even a Chanel surfboard. It’s at the physical center of Chanel’s world – literally, as the Wertheimers have amassed multiple buildings in the pricey triangle between rue Cambon, rue Duphot and rue du Faubourg St Honoré. On the last, Chanel will open a key 600-square-meter store in 2018. Also in the pipeline are a revamped 57th Street store in New York; one in Seoul; and a brand new building behind the Ginza Six, the shopping mecca of Tokyo. But don’t expect a Chanel Hotel or bonbon soon!
“This year we launched the Gabrielle bag. This September, we will launch a Gabrielle perfume, the first new scent since Chance 15 years ago. But we don’t need a restaurant or bonbonnière or chocolatier! This brand has already plenty of layers!”
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