Compared with the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, and Moschino, the Italian luxury brand Valextra is a wonder of subtly — minimalistic and largely unornamented. In fact, it’s almost nearly impossible to even spot a logo on their handbags. Surprisingly, this stately brand has been making waves in China, a market that normally loves a bit of bling and color since it entered the market in 2017. From collaborating with top KOL Mr. Bags to popping in popular TV shows, Valextra has captured the curiosity of Chinese consumers looking for something niche.
“People often ask me why we don’t have a logo on the bag. But have you ever seen a chair, a lamp or a sofa with a logo on top?” says Valextra CEO Sara Ferrero. “Valextra is greatly influenced by Milan, the world capital of design. We see the bag as a design product as well. It has to be functional and timeless, just like a house. This is a new way of thinking and that’s why our bags are so graphic, pure, and structured.”
Brick and Mortar
This approach goes beyond their products and into their retail space approach. For example, every year they invite an accomplished architect to redesign the interior of their flagship store in Milan. In 2018, it was famed Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, who created an urban woodland, with floor-to-ceiling planks of Lebanon cedar, each with a thin metal shelf that displayed a single handbag. The idea was to bring natural lightness into the busy city life. “Such people [Kengo Kuma] are very forward-thinking and propose ideas that are very relevant today,” says Ferrero.
This March, Valextra opened a new store in Beijing’s Taikoo Li Sanlitun, a popular shopping and lifestyle center. It was designed by Martino Gamper, who’s best known for his ambitious project 100 Chairs in 100 Days. The space is open, airy, with a soft pastel palette of peach, yellow, and blue. Suspended from the high ceiling are a series of swing-link shelves, each displaying four handbags. Gamper claims that he never follows local tastes blindly to please the market. “I believe that if you make something that you really like, there’s a strength in it.”
And unlike the contemporary design of the Beijing store, Valextra’s Chengdu store, designed by Neri & Hu, is more like an ancient library where handbags are displayed like precious books. “If every single store is a masterpiece by some of the best architects of the world. That would become a landmark and people want to go inside,” adds Ferrero. “When one architect enjoys working with us, he talks to his friends and they want to work with us, too. That’s how a community grows. It is very organic.”
KOLs and Beyond
In 2016, Valextra started collaborating with the wildly successful Chinese KOL, Mr. Bags. It was, in fact, Mr. Bags who introduced Valextra to his many, many WeChat followers, which was perhaps the first time for many of them to hear about the brand. “We were lucky to have powerful KOLs that want to share their love for the brand. It is a genuine relationship and their honest feedback have given us a lot of direction,” says Ferrero. “KOLs work when they believe in your message and try to deliver that to potential customers in an interesting way.”
While some brands rush to bless KOLs with money, Ferrero keeps a cool head. “Regardless of how much you can spend, content has to be honest and meaningful to readers, who are the real clients of KOLs, not brands. Some KOLs are clearly aware of this,” Ferrero says. “In the end, we pass our days on our phones. We want to read something that is really wow. That’s why we read KOL content. We expect what they tell us adds value to our lifestyle.”
As to celebrity engagements, there is always a concern that big celebrities want only big brands. Valextra bags were carried by cast members in popular Chinese shows like Ode to Joy in 2017 and All is Well in 2019, stirring up heated discussions and searches online. Ferrero explains, “Chinese celebrities love trying new things and are super supportive. They appreciate brands that not everyone knows, because the fact that they use those obvious brands doesn’t make them tastemakers. When they show their fans something that is sophisticated, beautiful and lesser-known, they feel good.” One of Valextra’s supporters in China is the actress Liu Tao, whose modern lady image fits perfectly with Valextra’s elegant bags.
How can a luxury brand get closer to the younger generations? What magic step is needed to attract a younger cliental? Valextra is working on this, from engaging street artists to working with the British industrial designer Ross Lovegrove to create a series of high-top leather sneakers. “Culture is very fluid today and lines between the classic and pop are becoming blurring. Young people understand this fluidity. It is not like our generation that want to put things in different boxes,” says Ferrero. “We all have to listen and understand what young people are looking for and then propose what we think is beautiful. People ask me why you do sneakers. Because young people are wearing sneakers. Shall we do wallets that are disappearing? If we do something young people like, they immediately respond positively. If they don’t think it’s right, they give us negative feedback. Brand doesn’t need to get defensive. We just learn from this dialogue.”
Valextra has exciting plans for China, including a pop-up store in one of Beijing’s most upscale malls, SKP this September, and projects that target men on the go. “When people think about China, they think of a huge country and often feel a bit intimidated. So, it is important to take one step at a time and get advice from Chinese experts. Don’t be too rigid and stay a little flexible,” adds Ferrero. “Most importantly, try to do things not only with head brain, but also with the heart. That’s my same value for family and friends. Be real and personal.”