Second Time’s A Charm: Italian Furniture Giant Re-Enters China
This year marks the 50-year anniversary since Italian furniture giant and arbiter of chic Kartell began manufacturing home furnishings. Known for its ultra contemporary plastic chairs, the Milan-based company is investing in a brand new five-year China plan that involved an overhaul of existing partnerships with seven mainland resellers, scrapping all but one location in Beijing’s hip Sanlitun district. The 400-square meter store will serve as the flagship and re-opens on May 30 after an official Kartell-branded facelift. The changes are not just cosmetic; to show its commitment, Kartell plans to open 50 flagships in five years with the help of its joint venture partner Gold Bond Enterprises Ltd., the veteran Chinese firm responsible for bringing MaxMara to the mainland. By summer of 2013 there will be three more openings in Shanghai at APM Mall and Kerry Centre and in Chengdu at IFC Mall.
Kartell CEO Claudio Luti is optimistic regarding the company’s redoubled China efforts. Despite more than 2,500 retailers throughout the world including 120 single brand stores, Luti believes the China market is integral to regional success. Jing Daily caught up with Luti at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York, where he is staying for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair before a two-week whirlwind China tour for the flagship opening, showroom scouting, university speaking engagements, and meetings in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Hong Kong.
How will your China strategy differ from before?
Previously, retailers would approach me about opening individual stores but they lacked professionalism. The first store opened in 2005. It was spot business, working with people we didn’t know. It’s important to work together and be more involved. We have to arrive in China with our experience and vision. China is so important strategically and for the long-term.
How does Kartell’s China strategy compare with its global strategy?
Our partner Linda Lin [head of Gold Bond Enterprises, Ltd.] convinced me that for China, it’s important to have a space in the best mall, next to the fashion brands, and not on the street like in Europe. Wealthy Chinese like to shop in malls, and this is something that is quite different. But we apply the same image, quality, and service. I feel the brand must remain the same globally.
What is the Chinese market for Kartell?
The Chinese are becoming increasingly enthusiastic about new furniture like Kartell. I met many Chinese during Salone del Mobile who were impressed to see the Kartell museum in Milan, industrial quality of the materials, and work from the best designers in the world. They are very open, and it’s not just the young people. We encourage everyone to mix old with new, and incorporate life experiences. Linda’s house, for example, features Kartell and traditional Chinese furniture.
Chinese should be free to purchase quality goods. With the stores, people will be able to see and be moved by just one piece they can take home easily. Also, it’s not just for rich people. In the future, it can be for the middle class, like in Europe.
Kartell counterfeits are quite popular. Has the company taken measures to tackle this?
Yes, as president of Salone de Mobile, I’ve formed an alliance with [likeminded organizations] and approached the Chinese ambassador to Italy for help. The Chinese who want to purchase real items will be able to at our stores. I’m sure that in the future, the Chinese will also become more creative.
Many large companies are establishing research and development labs in China these days. Does Kartell have similar plans?
Our creativity comes from around the world and in the future, we will use the creativity of the Chinese. But the DNA must remain in Milan because innovation and risk are easier to make around me. I don’t think it’s possible to take risks far from my head office. I’m waiting to see work from industrial designers, not just designers like artists. I need someone thinking in an industrial way, but with emotion.
Who are your main competitors?
I don’t have competitors in my mind. We have a very strong offering in our catalog. Just one piece can change the view of any space, commercial or private, indoor or outdoor. It’s not like we have a competitor for the sofa or the chair. Everyone is a competitor. We are not just furniture, we are still life.