True artists understand how each brushstroke helps to support the final picture. LAURENT CLAQUIN is KERING’S master of the palette for the American canvas. Since arriving on our shores to help enhance the organic growth of brands like Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Puma, Claquin has crafted a masterpiece of artistic support for designers and brands. THE IMPRESSION sat with Claquin to discuss the fine art of management, museums, social initiatives and the big picture.
BY KENNETH RICHARD | The Impressionist
Laurent, great to catch up and talk about you and all the goodness at Kering. How did you get started in this business.
I would say almost by chance… After business school, I started my career at Price Waterhouse Coopers as a consultant. I then spent 8 years in art and culture, first at the National Gallery of Jeu de Paume, then Centre Pompidou, and finally with the Minister of Culture as his chief of staff. I met François-Henri Pinault at that time and have now been working with Kering for more than 10 years.
Where did you grow up?
In Brittany. I grew up in a very small town by the sea and came from a modest family. During my school years, I visited a museum for the first time in a neighboring city, Quimper. It was a revelation. I was blown away by the contemporary arts section.
How old were you?
I was 11. The museum fascinated me. My love of the arts kept me going back. I would take the train into Paris to visit the Centre Pompidou when I was 14 and left home at 17 to work and study.
How did you decide what you wanted to focus your studies on?
I chose something universal – business economics – so I could explore different industries and travel the world. I studied first in France, then went to London to get an MBA. I came back to France to earn a DESS in international management, with a specialty in cultural management. Just after school, I interned at Price Waterhouse Coopers and was later hired, eventually creating a department for cultural management advice and consulting. I stayed at Price Waterhouse for almost 3 years then decided to return to my passion, art. It was while working with the National Gallery of Jeu de Paume that I was introduced to the fashion industry. I worked in communication during this time and there were lots of fashion shows held there. I remember the Thierry Mugler and Hermès shows at the Jeu de Paume.
Did you have an inkling at that time that this would be the direction you would end up in?
I already loved fashion. I watched every movie about it (like “Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?”), visited every exhibition, and tried to see as many fashion shows as possible. So, yes, at that time I was hooked. The President of the Centre Pompidou, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, recruited me back in 1999 when the Centre was under renovation; he was looking for someone for the communication of the reopening. I cultivated my contacts with fashion brands including Yves Saint Laurent, patron of the Museum, and Gucci, which was the main sponsor of the Pop Exhibition during my time there. Two years after, Aillagon became France’s Minister of Culture and asked me to come with him to be his chief of staff.
What was it like transitioning into government?
It was one of the most fascinating periods of my life. There was a lot of work, obviously, but I was able to see the best of France’s culture. There are 21 different disciplines according to the Ministry of Culture in France, from arts to dance to theatre to fashion, the list goes on and on. We were not working for ourselves or for one team, we were working for something bigger.
That plays well into what you do today.
Exactly. I actually met the Pinault family at that time. And I started working at Artémis Group, which is the family’s office.
So, what did you do at Artémis Group?
I worked directly with François-Henri Pinault, in particular for communications. When François-Henri Pinault was appointed CEO of Kering (formerly known as PPR), I joined the Group and became a member of the Executive Committee. I initiated and developed the Corporate Social Responsibility program at Kering, including the Kering Foundation. Prior to that, I was Kering’s Senior Vice President of Communication.
What type of lessons did you pick up during your experiences with the family that you are grateful for now?
I’ve always been grateful to work close to strong leaders. I had the honor and pleasure to meet François Pinault Sr. when I started working for the Group. I learned from the family that success in business is really about entrepreneurship, taking risks, believing in something, daring and taking action. I am always impressed how François-Henri Pinault makes decisions very quickly and is a true entrepreneur.
What’s an example of that with Kering?
In 2011, when François-Henri decided to create regional representation of the headquarters, he also announced that he wanted to focus only in the business of fashion, the business of designing, manufacturing, and marketing apparel and accessories. This was a giant step for us, a significant move. Kering shifted from a conglomerate profile to a much more integrated Group. The Group was founded in 1963 by François Pinault Sr., his father. In many respects, Kering is quite a new company – with a new name – but at the same time, it was created more than 50 years ago.
What is your role?
As the Head of Kering Americas, my role is to support the brands’ expansion in the region, to coordinate projects among the brands and to represent the Group. We are now a team of 140 people working for corporate functions and shared services for the brands (human resources, tax, legal, logistics, etc.), in six locations throughout the region. I’m very proud of what we do and the sense of belonging that the team has created in this region. We’ve built strong relationships through our physical presence, by being Kering ambassadors for our brands.
Let’s talk about the other 21 children, your brands. It must be exciting because you get a chance to watch them grow. What have you enjoyed about that over the last number of years?
I believe that we have one of the most well-balanced portfolios within the industry. We have 17 brands in the luxury industry and 4 in sports & lifestyle. We have two big “engines” with Gucci and Puma, but also a lot of “ready-to-wear and accessories” brands. In addition, we have what we call “hard luxury” with watches and jewelry brands. Each brand is very identified, very specific and very differentiated. There is almost no competition within our portfolio because of that unique positioning. And, all of them have developed tremendously in recent years. It has been fascinating to see young brands like Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney become who they are now or to watch a brand like Gucci, which is 95 years old, reinvent itself and keep growing.
Our strategy is all about organic growth. We believe that all our brands have huge potential for growth through new product categories, new stores, new markets and new distribution channels. All of these developments have been fascinating to not only watch, but also encourage.
You also support initiatives for the Group, right?
Indeed. Our Chairman and CEO François-Henri Pinault believes that Kering needs to go beyond its role as an industry leader by developing sustainable initiatives, business and HR practices that deliver economic, social and environmental benefits.
On the social front, François-Henri Pinault launched the Kering Foundation in 2009, with the purpose of combating violence against women. Violence against women is a universal issue that affects all populations and all classes around the world, but it’s still a taboo. It does not receive the attention and response it deserves. We need to change behaviors and improve women’s condition worldwide, in Europe, as well as China or the Americas. To date, more than 140,000 women have benefited from the foundation support worldwide.
On the environmental side, sustainability is at the heart of Kering business strategy. In fact, this is the only way to answer many of the major issues of the twenty-first century: population growth and increasing demands, resource scarcity, loss of biodiversity and, of course, climate change.
As a leading luxury group, we are in a unique position of influencing and setting the trends and aspirations in fashion. This can help drive and inspire change… to ultimately reach a tipping point where sustainability is embedded in the way we all make and sell our products.
In May 2014, we published our first Environment Profit & Loss Account (EP&L). It is a pioneering tool which enables us to measure and determine the monetary value of our environmental footprint along the entire supply chain – from where we source our raw materials (like cattle ranching and cotton farming) to our product distribution (stores). By looking at our entire footprint in these terms, it helps us identify opportunities to measure and better manage our environmental impact, while improving our effectiveness and helping us prepare for potential future risks and resource availability. We open source the EP&L methodology with any company that is interested in further understanding their environmental impact and reducing it!
Why share it?
We are convinced that we cannot do it alone. If we want to truly make an impact, we have to do it all together. We spent two years developing the EP&L, but are now sharing the methodology in order to invite other companies to do the same. We have developed partnerships with universities – including Parsons in NYC – NGOs, and other key players of the industry. We know we have to do it together. That’s actually why we communicate about it – not to brag, but to invite everyone else to follow.
Good to hear. You were just talking about universities. I know that you are involved with new designers through Parsons. Can you share a little bit about that?
Sure. We work mostly with creative talent and need to cultivate our relationship with the next generation of designers, of talent, and with anyone who wants to work in our industry. Our partnership with Parsons started 4 years ago with a competition that we developed with their team according to the students’ needs. We previously awarded the winner an internship within our brands. Now, we have developed a week-long program for them in Italy to learn about the production process. We also partnered with Voguerunway.com so the students gain mentoring with media experts and Saks Fifth Avenue to connect the students with retail experts. So, we really help them with their first foothold in the industry. The partnership is very meaningful for the students. From the feedback that we get, the first four years were very beneficial for everyone and we are already entering the fifth year of the collaboration.
What are you looking forward to this year?
I look forward to seeing the new collections from our brands’ creative directors, particularly Alessandro Michele at Gucci and Demna Gvasalia for Balenciaga. It’s like art. You never know what the next exhibition will be. Also for Kering Americas, we are now in our fifth year and looking forward to the next 5 years.
Here’s to another five. It was a pleasure speaking with you.