What do you get for Christmas when you cross a 143-year-old French luxury brand with Star Wars, James Bond, Formula One and The Rolling Stones? Forget the jokes about a Gallic Darth Vader or whatever the French is for lightsaber. Rising sales are all that will do for Alain Crevet. Crevet, 55, is chief executive of ST Dupont, a luxury leather handbags, collectible pens and cigarette lighters brand founded in Annecy in 1872.
€500,000Cost of an ST Dupont Haute Création Louis XIII table lighter set – the world’s priciest, according to Guinness World Records
Formed by Simon Tissot-Dupont after his photographic studio, which worked for the French court, was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian war, ST Dupont originally made leather briefcases for diplomats and businessmen.
It diversified into cigarette lighters in the 1930s after the Maharajah of Patiala ordered 100 for his ladies-in-waiting. French president Vincent Auriol later commissioned a custom-made travel case as a gift for the wedding of the then Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947.
Other famous users of Dupont’s products include Sir Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, while Pablo Picasso engraved drawings on three Dupont lighters for his children.
When ST Dupont was bought by Gillette in 1973, it moved into making luxury pens after a request from Jackie Kennedy and was sold to Dickson Concepts, the listed Hong Kong luxury goods company 40pc owned by its executive chairman Dickson Poon, in 1987.
Now, the firm’s products are sold in the cigar lounge, writing room and leather department at Harrods, as well as in Selfridges, House of Hanover in London and Poon’s Harvey Nichols, plus some independent stores.
But it is only recently that the business has made a serious push into the UK market, aided by the appointment of former John Lewis Partnership finance director Sharon Flood as group chairman and a glitzy launch in October at the Kensington Palace Gardens residence of the French ambassador to the UK.
This progress has been overseen by Crevet, who arrived at Dupont in 2006 and set about a goal of modernising the brand and re-establishing it in the luxury sector.
The company is using partnerships with contemporary icons from the worlds of movies, rock and motorsport to make inroads into the British market.
“We have a long-lasting relationship with the Crown because after we made the travel case for the Queen, the Windsor family regularly ordered travel cases, lighters and, later on, pens from us,” says Crevet.
“And in 2011, [France’s then] President Sarkozy asked us to make a replica of the case we gave to Queen Elizabeth for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
“But we had never invested in having a significant presence in the UK. Frankly it was a shame because we are a very nice present in about 20 countries, with our three biggest markets being France, South Korea and Hong Kong and China. Each accounts for turnover of about €10m (£7.3m).
“We’re a boutique brand. Our total sales are between €70m and €75m, and we sell about 100,000 lighters and 100,000 pens a year.”
Collections made specially for Star Wars, the new James Bond movie, Spectre, the McLaren Formula One team and The Rolling Stones seem to be doing the trick, with UK sales rising 50pc since April.
Dupont’s Star Wars collection, which includes the “TIE fighter”, the “X-wing” and a levitating pen in the shape of a lightsaber, won the top prize in this year’s luxury pens awards organised by writing instruments organisation Penficianado.
Penficianado also chose Dupont’s James Bond edition as its fifth-best luxury pen of 2015, putting Dupont ahead of rivals Montblanc and Visconti, which each had only a single entry in the top five.
Frenchman Crevet, who previously worked for Procter & Gamble and the Givenchy, Dior, Guerlain and Kenzo brands of French luxury group LVMH, is eager for more.
“The company was really in a bad state at the end of 2006 when I joined,” he says. “The reason was that it had been trying to some extent to follow the Dunhill strategy, which was to do menswear and suits. While that works for Dunhill, we had never had any experience of menswear.
“The first thing I did was to close ready-to-wear and menswear, and say ST Dupont only stands for beautiful travel cases, leather bags and accessories such as pens, lighters and cufflinks. Now we have the ambition to increase our presence in the UK, primarily in London,” he says. “The dream would be to find our own shop here. We are a small boutique brand, so we don’t need a huge space.
“We have flagship stores in France, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, and a big presence in Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.”
ST Dupont is also eyeing entry to the US, where it has signed a deal to sell its products with Swiss luxury tobacco goods brand Davidoff, following a successful pilot at its Madison Avenue store in New York.
Although 2014 was disappointing, with challenges because of the slowdown in China, economic sanctions against Russia and troubles in the Middle East, Crevet is optimistic about long-term prospects for the luxury goods market and believes ST Dupont’s high-profile partnerships are positioning the company well.
“Our partnerships are interesting,” he says. “McLaren came to us in the spring and asked us to equip drivers Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso with bags and pens.
“In the summer, we partnered with The Rolling Stones and created a nice set of limited edition pens replicating elements such as Keith Richards’ guitar and the famous lips logo.
“We also partnered for the third time with James Bond, on the Spectre release, with a lighter, pen and cufflinks. We made the first ever cigarette lighter with a secret compartment and a bullet hole in the middle. It was quite difficult to do.”
ST Dupont’s creations, mostly still made at its workshop in Faverges, Haute-Savoie, where it employs 200 workers, are aimed at the well-heeled, with the James Bond lighter selling at €1,500, though a version without the bullet hole is available for €500.
The company’s most expensive item is a Haute Création Louis XIII table lighter set made last year for a Hong Kong client, which cost €500,000, the priciest lighter in the world, according to Guinness World Records. Regular catalogue items range from €300 to €20,000.
Crevet believes luxury experiences are becoming more important than luxury goods and that in order to reach the next generation, luxury manufacturers must tailor their products to suit the ever-changing and diverse nature of luxury consumers.
“The new generation of luxury consumers wants less volume and more quality, and ST Dupont has always made beautiful objects that last generations. I hate what I call luxury supermarkets where there’s a five-floor building with a coffee shop, bar, bed linen – you name it, they have it.
“That’s not luxury. It totally loses the spirit. The spirit should be something really exclusive and beautiful that you can cherish to remind you of good memories.”
By Andrew Cave Courtesy The Telegraph