Even in a recession, it is important to treat yourself to something nice now and again, whether it is a trip to the spa, dinner at a nice restaurant or a luxury jewelry item. And while many high-end brands are rethinking their strategy for the Japanese market, high-end French jewelry house Van Cleef & Arpels remains committed, says Alain Bernard, CEO for Japan. He says the eternal, timeless design of Van Cleef & Arpels' pieces will always attract a loyal following.
Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry first appeared in Japan in 1973, distributed by Seibu department stores. The jewelry house opened its first store in Japan in Ginza in 1999, which it expanded and refurbished last year. In addition, the company has 14 boutiques in Japan.
The company started a global tour of its ‘‘Spirit of Beauty’’ retrospective exhibition in Tokyo from last Oct 30 until Jan 17 this year, which offered an overview of over 100 years of creation by the company. Named after a famous Van Cleef & Arpels clip in the form of a fairy, “The Spirit of Beauty” unveiled to visitors jewels, timepieces, fashion accessories and objets d’art, in all, over 250 pieces selected from the Maison’s Private Collection and also from great private French and international collections.
The exhibition coincided with the arrival of Bernard to take up his new post. Bernard, 38, started his career in the consulting field before joining Cartier in 1998. In 2002, he was transferred to Singapore as managing director for Cartier Southeast Asia and in 2005, he was placed in charge of worldwide development of customer satisfaction and loyalty. He joined Van Cleef & Arpels last November (both Van Cleef & Arpels and Cartier are owned by Compagnie Financière Richemont S.A.).
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Bernard at his office in Hanzomon to hear more about the Van Cleef & Arpels business in Japan.
Was it difficult for you at first changing brands and countries?
Well, each maison or house has a separate culture and different strategy, and it does take time to understand the Japanese market and how we do business here and how we handle customer relations. But I can’t just sit back, watch and wait for six months. We have to shape the future. Fortunately, I have an outstanding staff helping me.
How successful was the ‘‘Spirit of Beauty” exhibition?
The exhibition was an incredible success. It is the first time we did that on a worldwide basis, unveiling pieces on such a scale, linking past and present. We got great feedback from visitors. We started in Japan, and then it will go to New York, Beijing and Paris. Normally, when a French company does something like this, it starts in Paris, but because there is a long-lasting love story between Van Cleef & Arpels and Japan, the Maison thought Japan would be the best place to start the exhibition. On the last day, we had almost 4,000 visitors, which was incredible. All together, more than 60,000 visitors came for this exceptional event.
What is the appeal of Van Cleef & Arpels jewelry in Japan?
One of the things we saw at the exhibition was how enchanting the pieces and the stories linked to them were to our Japanese visitors. Something particular to Japan is the level of refinement, education and demand among our customers, which is wonderful for a maison like us. I think the love of creativity or craftsmanship is in the DNA of our Japanese customers. It means something for them.
How are you coping with the recession?
Even in a recession, people need lighthouses to brighten their lives. That’s the role we want to play. When you don’t make a trade-off in quality of products or service, then people know it and they come in for an experience. Women like to treat themselves to something nice. It may be a trip or a piece of jewelry. An interesting trend we see is more women buying for themselves in Japan and other countries as well.
This is a mature market and most of our customers know Van Cleef & Arpels very well and expect a lot from us. We tend to think of our customers as being family. We have a high loyalty rate. When you are in love and have passion, you are a natural friend of Van Cleef & Arpels. If we do our job properly in creating pieces and having wonderful boutiques and wonderful service, it is not difficult to get new customers.
What is the age range of your customers?
No specific age. We get a lot of customers in their 20s for the bridal collection, which is our best-selling line along with the iconic creative high-end pieces.
How do you market the brand in Japan?
Select advertising is important, but the best advertising is word of mouth. When you have excellent service in your boutiques, your clients know it and they talk about it. Our whole strategy is based on exclusivity, so we are very selective on the type of events we participate in and product placement.
How many outlets do you have?
Currently, we have the Ginza flagship store, we are in 13 department stores and there is one other boutique in Nagoya. We are investing in Japan and will open another boutique in Kyoto at the end of April.
How often do you visit the Ginza store?
I try to go there every weekend to look around and get feedback. When I can, I like to talk to customers. They always tell me how much they love Van Cleef & Arpels and naturally I ask them why. I am amazed at how much they know about the love stories surrounding our pieces, the history of the Maison and their appreciation of the craftsmanship. Our timeline is eternity. Our pieces are here to last, but it is important to bring new creations to the Japanese market. Our customers want traditional collections but new creations, too. We are almost like a family. If you think about it, the building of the company itself was a love story. That family spirit has been in our blood since 1906.
How else do you get feedback?
Besides physical interaction in stores and events, the Internet is having an increasing role in branding and how customers experience brands. Our website is a good introduction to the maison and its history. We do some targeted emailing to certain customers and we receive a lot of email from customers.
What is a typical day for you?
There is no normal day. I usually show up here about 8:30 a.m. At least one day a week, I am out visiting boutiques. We have a lot of meetings. I encourage brainstorming and lively meetings. In the evenings, I do some wining and dining for business. If I'm not doing that, I have a favorite restaurant where I can practice my Japanese.
Is it necessary for you to speak Japanese in your day-to-day work?
Probably not, but it’s better if I know it for meetings and chatting to customers. It’s been 20 years since I learned a new language and it is a real joy… and a real challenge.
How do you like to relax?
I spend time with my family and friends, and run in Yoyogi Park, play tennis, ski and golf, whenever I can.
For more info, visit www.vancleef-arpels.com© Japan Today