– The French brand has managed to capture the hearts of heads of state and pop stars, all with an inexpensive nylon tote.
The Longchamp Le Pliage tote is nothing if not versatile.
For Kimberly Harvey, a 34-year-old in New York City, it’s an overnight bag for when she visits her parents in New Jersey (“I stuff and go,” she says).
For Sharona Haroonian, a high school senior from Philadelphia, it’s a book bag (“Literally everyone at my school has one”).
For Mel Kim, a Los Angeles-based graphic designer, it’s a gym bag (“The nylon is so sturdy that I don’t care what I throw in”).
For Tina Craig, a co-founder of the blog BagSnob, it’s an extra bag to stuff in her suitcase when she goes on vacation (“I fold it, and then when I shop too much, it just becomes my carry-on”).
For Paul Danton, a 45-year-old HR professional, it’s an emergency birthday gift he bought last-minute for his wife (“She has the small one in a few colors, so I’m pretty sure she’ll like the large one”).
The trapezoidal nylon bag with leather handles and a signature flap comes in all sorts of sizes and colors and has been Longchamp’s bread and butter since it first came onto the market in 1993. Everyone from Kate Middleton to Angela Merkel to Miley Cyrus to Karlie Kloss to your own mom (or aunt or cousin or all of the above) has one. Suzy Menkes has admitted she collects them.
The Le Pliage is not an It bag — it’s far too ubiquitous for that. It’s not hard to get your hands on one, and they sell for just $95 to $145. Ten totes are sold every minute, with more than 32 million sold since their debut 23 years ago. How has the humble Le Pliage remained a reliable bestseller for nearly two decades when so many other handbag trends have come and gone?
The French Longchamp Outlet brand is valued at $1.5 billion by Forbes, due in large part to the Le Pliage. While its business is big, it’s considerably smaller than that of its publicly-traded competitors Michael Kors, Kate Spade, and Coach. Still, Longchamp is able to hold its own against these accessory giants — and its story begins with pipes.
In post-war Paris, Jean Cassegrain, the son of a prominent tobacconist, pivoted the direction of his father’s Au Sultan tobacco shop by introducing accessories made of leather. During the early 1940s, Allied soldiers were Jean’s father’s best customers, frequently visiting the small store on Boulevard Poissonnière to buy conventional smoking pipes. Once the war was over though, business was weak and the shop needed to diversify. Jean decided to debut leather-enveloped pipes for men in 1948, imitating techniques used by horse saddlers. Customers took a real liking to the luxury pipes; Elvis Presley allegedly even had one, according to the LA Times.
“There wasn’t an American GI in Europe who didn’t have one of these pipes at the time,” Jean Cassegrain, the current CEO of Longchamp and grandson (and namesake) of the brand’s founder, told the International Herald Tribune back in 1998. “They were exported and sold in PXs worldwide. That’s how it all started.”
Following the success of the leather pipes, the brand rolled out a pipe for its female customers, “the Lady,” and in 1955 expanded into other leather accessories, including cigar cases, lighters, ashtrays, cigarette dispensers, wallets, and passport holders. The family originally wanted to call the brand “Cassegrain,” but because a cousin was using the name for a family-run grain-milling business, they settled on Longchamp Outlet Online, a reference to the famous Parisian racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne, since leather goods are commonly associated with equestrianism. To this day, the brand’s logo is a jockey on a galloping horse.
Because the Cassegrains’ business roots were in tobacco, the family already had access to trade routes. In fact, Longchamp was one of the first European companies to trade with Japan, notes InStore Magazine. By 1960, its smoking accessories were sold in nearly 100 countries, and Longchamp began to produce men’s travel bags; the Cassegrains claim they were the first to create luggage made of nylon. Around this time, the family started to think about women’s accessories. According to WWD, many female shoppers in America were buying the men’s bags and requesting store buyers inquire about a women’s collection.
So in 1971, Longchamp debuted its first women’s bag, just one year before the first Jean Cassegrain passed away and his wife and son Philippe took over the family business. The “LM line,” which was first sold in Japan, was made of calfskin leather and featured horses silkscreened over a crisscross pattern (an edition of this original bag was reissued a few years ago to celebrate the brand’s 60th anniversary). The bags were an instant success and helped the brand spread rapidly across Asia. As Longchamp began to gain a reputation for producing outstanding lightweight bags, its smoking accessories appeared less and less in catalogues, until they disappeared completely in 1979.
Philippe took full control of the business after his mother died in 1980, and with expansions into clothing and other accessories like scarves, he brought his wife Michèle on board, and years later, his children Sophie, Olivier, and Jean. They still run the company today: Sophie, as artistic director; Olivier, as US managing director; and Jean, as CEO. Like Goyard, Longchamp remains one of the few high-profile accessories brands that remains single-handedly owned and operated by one family.
“The difference in having a family-run business is that they think generation to generation, not quarter to quarter,” says Katherine Ormerod, editorial director of luxury shopping site Lyst. “That’s part of the authenticity of the brand.”
Philippe introduced the Le Pliage bag in 1993, inspired by origami he saw on a trip to Japan. Initially, the bag was met with little fanfare. According to Entrepreneur, it was backed by zero marketing dollars and sales stalled for the first three years. But the bag found its footing.
“Le Pliage” means “folding bag” in French, and its simple design hit a nerve. The International Herald Tribune called it “one of those have-to-have fashions” in 1998, and the Associated Press half-jokingly told Kate Spade to “move over.” By 2008, Jean Cassegrain confirmed to WWD that the brand was making 2.5 million bags a year, boasting that he didn’t “think any brand has any single design that sells that much.”
“It was French fashion journalists who started to carry it,” Jean told the IHT. “For them, it corresponded to a real need and soon they were writing about it.”