DOWN ON THE UP
WITH NOTHING BUT GROWTH SINCE ITS BLAZINGLY SUCCESSFUL PUBLIC LISTING, MONCLER IS A BRAND BACK FROM THE BRINK AND MAKING A KILLING AROUND THE WORLD WITH ITS STYLISH COLD-WEATHER GEAR.
Not just for skiers, Moncler has captured every market, from skater kids to women who wear their jackets to La Scala.
Ruffini’s soft brown eyes light up when he’s asked about his favourite winter sport.“I love skiing, I go to St Moritz,” says the 56-year-old Italian entrepreneur. “I live in Como and we are very close to the Swiss border. If I am not working I go every weekend in the winter.” Zigzagging across the fall line through a layer of fresh powder seems appropriate for a man who transformed the near-bankrupt sportswear firm Moncler into a global powerhouse known for its plush down jackets and other winter apparel.
Ruffini bought the brand in 2003 and as chairman and chief executive has built it into one of Italy’s leading luxury brands by cleverly exploiting its original identity while adding new lines that continually surprise the market and redefine how sportswear is perceived. The Moncler website is dotted with images of mountain climbers and skiers traversing spectacular snow-capped peaks, but these days it’s also collaborating with innovative designers and creating eye-catching advertising campaigns that give a new generation a contemporary take on the brand. The glamorous June wedding between Hollywood star Jessica Chastain and Moncler executive Gian Luca Passi de Preposulo also created plenty of headlines and added to the brand’s appeal.
Ruffini is seated in his office in his Milan headquarters wearing a tailored jacket and crisp white shirt. The walls are painted in soothing coffee-coloured tones, the floors are paved in dark marble and there’s a classic sculpture sitting on a shelf across the room. Vast showrooms on the floor below him are awaiting the arrival of the latest collection as Ruffini discusses Moncler’s changing identity and demographic. “We sell jackets to young kids who love surfing and snowboarding right up to women who wear our jackets to the office or a night at the opera at La Scala,” he says.“We don’t want to concentrate on one target.”
Ruffini has moved from creating what he calls “the world’s best down jacket” to collaborating with Italian haute couture designer Giambattista Valli and edgy American designer Thom Browne. Virgil Abloh, the American designer behind cult label Off White and Kanye West’s former creative director, has also produced his own line of streetwear for Moncler. Ruffini says: “I don’t like to just show the last jacket, the last product. We have to show our energy, our ideas, our mentality.”
The chief executive’s approach appears to be a recipe for success. Last year Moncler’s worldwide sales topped €1 billion ($1.5bn) and continued to rise 18 per cent in the first half of 2017. Ruffini’s personal wealth was recently estimated by Forbes magazine to be a staggering $US1.98bn ($2.5bn). Ruffini insists he has only five Moncler jackets in his wardrobe (“I’m very faithful”) but the father of two does have a Swiss chalet in St Moritz and a 60m superyacht, the Atlante, which
he uses to cruise around the Mediterranean in the summer with his wife, Francesca.
It’s hard to imagine the quietly spoken Italian rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities like Madonna, Leonardo Di Caprio, Princess Caroline or Drake, who are all fans of the brand. But Ruffini is effusive when discussing the company’s phenomenal growth. “When I bought the company we started with production and distribution and then worked on technology and quality and selling the best in the world,” he says.“I grew slowly but I wanted to establish a super quality product.”
Few people realise Moncler is now an Italian brand. It was founded by French mountaineers René Ramillon and Andre Vincent in 1952, and draws its name from Monestier-de-Clermont, a tiny alpine village with 1200 inhabitants near Grenoble. At first the company produced tents and quilted sleeping bags. The first down jackets were worn by workers over their overalls to protect them from the harsh temperatures at high altitudes. “It was the first down jacket in the world,” says Ruffini. “For us it is very important to keep these roots. They were the first, we try to be the best.”
In the early 1950s the brand caught the eye of French mountaineer Lionel Terray, and Moncler produced a specialist range of down jackets, gloves and sleeping bags entitled “Moncler pour Lionel Terray”. In 1954 Moncler equipped the expedition, led by Italians Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli, that conquered K2, the world’s second highest mountain. A year later it supplied down jackets to a French expedition that scaled Mount Makalu, another famous peak in the Himalayas. Moncler’s profile broadened when it was named the official supplier of the French national downhill ski team at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble. It even adopted as its logo the cockerel, the unofficial symbol of France.
Sporting endorsements helped to raise the brand’s international profile over the years but Moncler failed to keep pace with its rivals and by the turn of the century it was struggling to survive. Ruffini had begun his career working in the US for his father’s clothing company, Gianfranco Ruffini, and returned to Italy in 1984. He founded and later sold his own clothing label before becoming creative director for Moncler in 1999. He saw an opportunity and bought the brand four years later.
“My mum gave me a Moncler jacket when I was about 15,” he told one interviewer at the time. “I lived near Como and when I went to school on my motorcycle it warmed me up. So in my mind it was a famous, popular brand even though it had disappeared a bit from the market.” Ruffini could never have dreamed the company he acquired would be valued at close to €4bn when it debuted on the Italian stock exchange in 2013. It was the largest public listing of an Italian brand since Prada in Hong Kong two years earlier.
Mario Ortelli, who heads luxury goods analysis for Bernstein in London, said at the time that the real challenge for Moncler in the long run was to decrease its dependency on its core product. Four years later Ortelli says that strategy is bearing fruit. “The company is succeeding with its strategy and it has been able so far to engage consumers with a style in continuous evolution and with high-profile collections in collaboration with established brands and designers,” Ortelli tells WISH.
Ruffini still owns a 20 per cent stake in the brand and is involved in every aspect of the business from design and production to marketing and advertising. Today, however, he seems less interested in talking about high finance and more interested in feathers. “The size of the feather, the colour of the feather is critical,” he says. “We don’t use heavy feathers, they must be light and white. If you have one black spot it is not good enough. “We really want to have the best.” Once the feathers came from aquatic birds in the French regions of Brittany and Perigord, but now that
Moncler is selling more than a million jackets a year it has suppliers in Italy, Hungary, Poland, the US and Canada. “We are sourcing feathers from around the world. We are growing so we always need more and more. Whenever we find good production and good quality we try to buy as much as we can.”
Moncler consumes tonnes of feathers every season, using about 300g per jacket. The down must satisfy 11 quality parameters and pass through a rigorous dusting, washing and disinfecting. Sensitive to complaints from animal activists, the company says there are strict controls on its suppliers and is adamant that no goose is mistreated or subjected to “live plucking”. Moncler uses different plumes from the goose to create the best combination of lightness and thermal insulation.
“To have the lightest weight in the market is important for people who are travelling a lot,” Ruffini says. “They want something easy to put in their bag when they’re travelling to Hong Kong where it is very hot or landing in Tokyo when it may be very cold.” Ruffini’s commitment to quality and brand diversity has led to burgeoning growth in Europe, the US, the Middle East and Asia. Every year Moncler shows five different clothing collections in Milan, Paris and New York. Apart from the signature collection, there is Moncler Gamme Rouge for women designed by Giambattista Valli and the Moncler Gamme Bleu menswear line created by Thom Browne. Los Angeles-based designer Greg Lauren, nephew of Ralph Lauren, has also been featured as a guest designer. His eclectic capsule collection for Moncler shown in Paris last year reworked classic designs with vintage fabrics, tents and duffel bags.
‘‘I love taking iconic ideas and reinterpreting them through the artistic blender, deconstructing what we thought we knew, so that we see it differently,” Lauren said. Moncler’s unconventional image has also been reinforced by fashion shows like the space age “flash mob” that took over Grand Central Station during New York fashion week in 2011 and provocative advertising campaigns where it is often hard to find a product or logo.
For this year’s fall-winter campaign Moncler has for the second time paired Chinese artist Liu Bolin with American photographer Annie Leibovitz, who placed the artist in a surreal Nordic landscape. Known as “the invisible man”, the artist is depicted disappearing into an iceberg. The campaign, shot in Iceland, underscores the company’s commitment to environmental sustainability while reinforcing Moncler’s cold-climate credentials. There was no product in sight – Ruffini insists it is more important for customers to “understand our philosophy” than see the goods up front. Consumers seem to agree: Moncler recorded its 14th consecutive quarter of double-digit growth in the first half of 2017 and it now has 191 monobrand stores and 46 multibrand stores around the world. Asia is driving the expansion but European stores are also filled with Asian travellers looking to take an Italian souvenir home.
Despite soaring summer temperatures in Milan, the company’s boutique on Via della Spiga is filled with shoppers browsing the brand’s fall collection. In September Moncler plans to open its revamped flagship store around the corner on Via Montenapoleone. Inside the Via della Spiga boutique there are racks of shiny ski jackets in the brand’s signature colours of red and blue, multi-coloured raincoats, fur-covered shoes and a line of children’s wear including a down sleeping set for infants. Every down jacket comes with a two-year guarantee, washing instructions and a certificate affirming it meets international quality guidelines.
Ruffini says demand is growing in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea and there are 28 stores in China. Moncler also hopes to capitalise on Asian tourism with the recent opening of its first Australian store at Melbourne’s Chadstone shopping centre. The 200sqm store opened its doors in April and Ruffini says he’s surprised at the enthusiastic response from Australian consumers. “We have had an incredibly good reaction – honestly I would say one of the best for a new country.”
Decorated in white guilloche marble and brass, the Chadstone store was designed by the French duo Gilles & Boissier. Ruffini is already talking about opening another store in Sydney but first he wants to get better acquainted with his Australian customers’ tastes. “A guy living in Melbourne has a different mentality to one in Harbin or Milan. We don’t do specific production for every country, but we try to understand what they want. We will take it step by step – we want to have good relations with our customers.”
“To have the lightest weight in the market is important for people who are travelling a lot.”
Remo Ruffini, chairman, CEO and part-owner of Moncler