Longchamp Le Pliage. France, 1993
Jeremy Scott may well have been guilty of understatement for the first time in his life when he gave his opinion on Longchamp’s Le Pliage bag for a recent retrospective:
“Le Pliage bags have become a French icon, like the croissant or the Eiffel Tower – they are chic, sophisticated, and elegant.”
In fact, anyone visiting Paris this century could reliably expect to see more Le Pliage bags than Eiffel towers or tasty pastries. They’re everywhere you go.
It’s difficult to imagine Scott, the enfant terrible prince of über-pop, describing anything in such colourless and clichéd terms. But there is a plainness to Le Pliage and its story that makes Scott’s comment more insightful than it appears at face value.
Longchamp themselves claim to have sold more than 30 million Pliages since 1993. But with a female population in France of around 34 million, my crude estimates suggest either they are under-counting, or there are a lot of fakes around.
Of course, the latter is true: Longchamp’s star product is among the most copied designs in the world; an inevitable outcome for an accessory so useful, so recognised and so elegantly simple as the big bag named simply “the folding one”.
Scott’s quote appears in Le Pliage by Longchamp (Laure Verchère for Assouline). Published at the end of 2014, on the occasion of Le Pliage’s 20th anniversary, it looks back on two decades of foldable fashion. Much like the bag it celebrates, it’s compact, colourful and attentive to detail.
Where I come from, building a business around horse-racing and smoking accessories does not provide the foundations for a billion-dollar luxury brand. Yet, with characteristic Parisian savoir-faire, that is precisely what the family Cassegrain achieved within three generations.
It was the 1940s, and Jean Cassegrain had recently taken over the reins of Au Sultan, the family tobacconist’s store. Faced with worrying stock-levels and a dwindling population of allied forces officers to sell to, he was looking for ways to capture attention. While studying the workmanship of leather-bound cigarette cases, he stumbled on the idea of covering smoking pipes with soft, tactile leather. Seeking out the help of Paris’s leading leather craftsmen, Cassegrain’s distinctive leather pipe helped open the way for a new trade in luxury tobacco accessories. In doing so, he established a pedigree and an eye for the unique that would guide his family well for decades to come.
By 1948, he was ready to expand his collection and launch it through a dedicated accessories company. Cassegrain chose the name ‘Longchamp’, inspired by the plush Hippodrome de Longchamp racecourse in Paris’s Bois du Boulogne. It’s an origin story that is echoed today by the elegant galloping thoroughbred embossed on the iconic leather flap of Le Pliage.
Longchamp rapidly built a name for itself at home and abroad. By the late-fifties, the company had purchased its own factory and was selling its specialised range in more than 100 countries. The marque’s success, particularly in the travel and duty-free sector, provided the spark for the house to expand its repertoire to include luggage and small accessories made from soft leather.
Following Cassegrain’s death in 1972, son Philippe began experimenting with luggage designs using military-grade nylon in place of leather. As the brand gradually left its smoking roots behind and moved into women’s handbags, Philippe’s obsession with lightness and durability would first lead to the creation of the Xtra-Bag – a foldable bag with a pouch – before finally culminating in the design of Le Pliage in 1993.
Lightness, Durability, Choice
A trapezoid shape, a zip, two tabs, two handles and a flap.
It took Philippe Cassegrain and Isabelle Guyan more than three years of work to perfect the design of Le Pliage to the point that it could be folded and unfolded effortlessly, and hold its shape without the aid of a pouch.
With around 50 different production steps, Le Pliage is deceptively minimalist. Its origami-like traits were maybe one of the features that endeared it to French and Japanese shoppers so soon after its launch.
Le Pliage was initially offered in three size variations (30, 45 & 55cm) and, crucially, a range of ten colours. Its combination of reliability and versatility gave it both functional and fashionable appeal. While wealthier customers were charmed by the ability to change their look according to outfit and season, it was a design that offered women of all kinds an elegant-yet-sturdy bag capable of managing ambitious cargo loads. Indeed, in its first print-ad campaign, Le Pliage is shown with a puppy peering happily out of the half-opened zip, apparently oblivious to the mayhem beneath it.
Seen as a shopping bag, Le Pliage is undoubtedly a luxury indulgence. But with its suitability as a stand-in for much more expensive handbags, it provides a combination of accessibility and value for money that luxury brands rarely offer beyond the fragrance counter.
In a 2012 interview with The Independent, Longchamp’s current CEO Jean Cassegrain Jr., remarked “the unique thing is it is carried by all sorts of people but it doesn’t exclude anybody,” while confirming, “Le Pliage has become a symbol of the Longchamp brand in its own right.” Today, Longchamp manages more than 240 of its own boutiques and Le Pliage is offered at more than 1,800 points of sale worldwide. The brand’s global success is largely built on the sales of its flagship tote, but in particular by Longchamp’s breathless celebration of its genius.
The Making of a Myth
For years, Le Pliage has burst into stores twice yearly in 12 new colours. Since 2004, ultra-limited editions have invited artists and createurs to explore the limits of Le Pliage’s forms, materials and components. Collaborations with the likes of Tracey Emin, Sui Jianguo and Sarah Morris have only added to the model’s aura. Elaborate boutique fit-outs by star architects display the collections to their fullest – including design features that playfully evoke Le Pliage’s folding forms.
By the time of the iconic bag’s 20th birthday celebrations in 2014, Le Pliage’s key characteristics were providing the template for an impressive range of extension products, laid out tastefully in the sub-brand’s own, dedicated microsite. Le Pliage Personnalisé exists within this environment: a customisation platform that gives customers the power to build the Pliage of their dreams. Full leather or the more orthodox nylon canvas options are available.
Longchamp maintains that less than a third of its sales take place in France, but few products have managed to consistently define a country’s style template in the way that Le Pliage has. Considering the stature of their local competitors, the triumph of Le Pliage shows that it’s never too late to create a classic.