The toughest thing to do is to move ahead while rooted, to advance even while remaining ensconced in the folds of tradition. Even after so many centuries of civilisation and progress, change remains the most desirable – and also the most resisted – of conditions.
Last month, I was invited to a very special event in Florence – the launch of Montblanc’s first complete line of luggage. For those who thought that this German luxury giant only makes writing instruments and watches, they have equally capable hands shaping leather goods and now, luggage. The #My4810 Trolley Collection, as it is called, consists of five pieces of travel bags of varying sizes and features, ranging from a compact Pilot Case with two wheels to a four-wheel Cabin Trolley, either with or without a front pocket for storing personal technology, and luggage in between.
It was a typically new age launch, with skateboarders, graffiti artists and DJs leading the way. The likes of actor Adrien Brody, models Toni Garrn and Winnie Harlow, American dancer Eric Underwood, DJ Tinie Tempah – who gave a special performance throughout the evening – as well as influencers Carlo Sestini, Horacio Pancheri, Gabriele Esposito and Jason Day, joined Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki for a party to celebrate the evening.
The nerd in me was fascinated when we arrived, all bright-eyed and curious (albeit a bit hungover, after all that partying the night before) at the Montblanc Pelleteria (which roughly translates to ‘leather store’) to see first-hand what it entails to make a Montblanc bag and, consequently, how buying one such accessory is the beginning of a relationship, both with the product and the producers.
Montblanc engineers looked around the world for the best materials. Ball bearings for the 360- degree rotation of the caster wheels are sourced from Japan, and the telescopic handles from Germany. The bag itself is put through gruelling tests, to measure up to exacting standards; if something goes wrong, the artisans behind the scene feel almost personally wounded. The determination to put it back in top order is as strong as the need to reassure a client of their highest standard of expertise and attention to detail. From drop tests to color-holding capabilities, from the initial mock-up designs on paper to the pre-final product in a cheaper material, each article is a story unto itself about the amalgamation of many creative, design and technical teams.
All this may sound like hyperbole; it isn’t. Most old-school big brands have spent decades (even centuries) honing their craft, so much so that it becomes the only way of life they know. Their design philosophy is their DNA, their style ethic is what defines them. Montblanc, in that sense, is a house steeped in tradition. They have always preferred to do things the old-fashioned, time-honed way; no shortcuts and certainly no flash-in-the-pan trend moves. And yet, they have found a way to stay relevant. In the digital era, they are still the kings of writing gear. In an era of wearables, they continue to flaunt their hand-crafted movements. But then, at the same time, they have been evolving, metamorphosing into a brand that the current consumer can associate with.
But how does a luxury brand, which has always been lauded for its old-school charm, manage to reign in the ephemeral interests of the millennial buyer? It was precisely with these questions that I went in for a tête-à-tête with Zaim Kamal, design head at the Maison. I spent some time talking to him about his vision for the brand, particularly its accessories.
I led with a touch of the meta-philosophical. “Is design inside out or outside in?”
Kamal answered on the fore-foot. “It’s a process. There is no clear linearity. It is about searching for a challenge and then finding one (or maybe many more) perspectives to conquer it. Think of it as a collaboration, an interface with friction, which then creates heat. Designing is a constant hustle, a real slog, it’s not just drawing a few sketches on paper and taking it to the machines.”
Very well, I told myself. And from there, I dived far and deep into the other end, attacking aesthetics. “How important is colour/pattern to your design sense?” Here I was expecting some sort of a reveal, an insider-information kind of deal. I mean, they’ve already done something as far-fetched as camouflage, so what next? But here’s what Kamal had to say. “Well, I am a big fan of flowers. I also like geometric forms. But what is most ideal is to find a balance between the organic and the geometric. Urban life is a great example to look for inspiration: big cities are all about buildings and tree-lined sidewalks; a juxtaposition of straight lines against organic lines. This creates patterns, creates textures, provides structures, makes for surfaces.” I pressed on, hoping to get first dibs on their next pantone shade, but instead he wryly smiled and told me to wait till the evening (note to reader: this was pre-launch).
“What about materials? Nylon, leather… what next?’ “Polycarbonate,” pat came the reply. “But also leather. First thing is to check the material by touching it, draping it. It is very important to get a feel for it. To work it on dummies and understand how it will eventually come together. But I have another personal way to judge it, I like to take it into my hands and sniff it. For me, quality is in the scent too, the deeper the notes run, the more enriched is the experience. Deeper is all about finish.”
“So is that what bespoke is to you? Attention to detail?” “Well, sadly, bespoke is an overused word,” Kamal lamented. “Back in the ‘70s, everything was tailor-made, customised. Only when YSL made pret-a-porter fashionable did the essence of custom-made become more significant. But all along, before that, bespoke was the only way to go.
Today, when the term moves away from its original purpose, it is then reduced to nothing but a marketing ploy. True bespoke should be all about craftsmanship. It is not just about being handmade, but about having your own team of artisans who understand what the brand philosophy is. It is as much about the final product as it is about taking the time and effort to let your people develop and express themselves through their skills.”
Heavy, I thought. “For example”, Kamal continued, with a spark in his eyes, “I have learnt so much there is to know about luggage. From the way a bag moves empty vs. fully weighed down, the difference that comes from using ceramic vs. steel bearings in the wheel components, and then tracing down these Japanese wheel-makers to help us better understand the minutest of details of baggage kinetics…’ he tailed off, with a gesture that suggested the overwhelming nature of design and creation and how it possibly consumes you the more you work at it.
So if bespoke can be more than just a cry for recognition, what is it and how do you approach it at Montblanc? Kamal took a breath, and softly stated “Three things build design equity a.k.a the `design philosophy’. Heritage and craftsmanship are primary; how to recognise and preserve and reinvigorate. Montblanc, with its 112 years of history, is an ideal place to nurture this emotion.
Then comes relevance, of the brand and its products to the contemporary consumer. We need to understand who is buying our product and what do they intend to do with it. Sure, we have history, but how do we make it relevant to the client of today. I carry bags all day, so I know that the handle has to be comfortable. The last step is crucial, as it becomes the basis of all future growth. Take the Meisterstück case – it is very compartmentalised. While we have spent hundreds of hours perfecting the design and functionality, we haven’t tried to define what each space is designed to do/hold. It is all left up to the user to decide how to best utilise each space. From instruction to intuition, it is all about discovering the defining.”
I ask him one last question about the people who have influenced him, besides guitarist Keith Richards and painter Egon Shiele, who he has talked about in the past. “I have trouble not being influenced constantly. I run with my eyes open. In fact, I am so constantly absorbing influences from the world around me that I have to switch off on weekends and take time to assimilate it all. I do that by grooming, and going horse riding with my daughter.” We speak a bit more about collars (he approves) and colour (there is always room for colour), and the stress and simplicity of the design process. As we say our goodbyes, I am left with a reinforced respect and admiration for this century-old maîson.