Remo Ruffini, Moncler, and the Cult of Innovation

Hackathon’s are usually the domain of the geeks: 24- or 48-hour events where computer programmers, designers, project managers, and others bury themselves in a room with the goal of creating a usable piece of software or hardware. It’s become a rite of passage in the tech world. But now, these design thinking-based events are spreading beyond the incubators of Silicon Valley and into other industries looking to accelerate innovation.

This is what brought me to Milan’s Tortona district, an inviting neighborhood of industrial spaces, cozy osterias, boutique hotels, and home to some of the world’s most famous fashion brands, and where Moncler — king of the puffy down jacket — kicked off its first-ever hackathon on July 4th.

Innovation, however, isn’t something new for Moncler, nor is putting on an epic event. It’s part of their DNA, from the Moncler Grenoble flash mob that took over New York’s Grand Central Station in 2011, where 363 models decked out in Moncler ski clothing danced for an audience of fashionistas and curious commuters to Moncler’s Genius Project, where eight different designers produce a new collection each month, reshaping the company’s traditional one season, one collection production cycle in favor of a far more digitally-friendly monthly drop.

All of this has been driven by Remo Ruffini, Chairman and CEO of Moncler. Ruffini, who purchased the then failing brand in 2003, has since transformed Moncler into a brand worth billions by questioning what’s next, what’s possible (and by taking the company public in 2013). To kick off the hackathon, he stressed the importance of innovation for Moncler, and the great opportunity this event offered the company and its participants, adding: “Moncler’s strategy is based on uniqueness and uniqueness requires strong ideas and a working environment that knows how to embrace and encourage them.”

The hackathon would be the perfect place to prove this. It was held in a large event space next to Moncler’s main office. The idea was simple enough. Bring together a group of employees for a specific amount of time and task them to create new and distinctive solutions to a set of problems. And for Moncler, this was 450 employees from around the world — 32 teams from the Milan headquarters and 5 regional teams — and give them 24-hours to combine their different skillsets, and promoting collaboration, to generate and accelerate innovative solutions for 9 areas of strategic priority for the company, ranging from The Store of the Future to Early Detection of Successful Products to the Digital Boardroom.

Once the countdown began, and each team member — all sporting white pants and a white Moncler Hackathon printed t-shirts — got down to the design thinking business, I was able to spend a bit of time with Mr. Ruffini. We talked about many things, including the idea behind the hackathon, Moncler’s culture for innovation, and how both of these related to their evolving China strategy.

Moncler Hackathon

In this first Hackathon I did the least fun part: the judge. Next time, I want to be seated at the tables where the future is planned.” —Remo Ruffini.Photo: Courtesy of Moncler

Tell me about the Hackathon.

“I think something like this is quite new for our industry, and I believe we’re the first luxury company to actually try to involve only employees in its own hackathon. But I think it’s something very interesting for everybody — the employees, the brand. This could be huge.”

A couple areas you’re exploring with the Hackathon have to do with Moncler’s retail approach. What’s your current thinking on the value of brick and mortar stores in an increasing digital everything world?

“First of all, I think we are lucky because we have only 200 stores around the world. For our industry, to be a successful brand, that’s not a lot of stores. But having said that, I don’t think it’s only about retail sales. I think we have to now be multi-channel, including Facebook or Instagram or whatever. I also think we need to push more e-commerce as well. Now, you have to build a community, and to do so, you have to think omni-channel everywhere.”

Do you alter your communication by country?

“Culturally, just to give you an example, three of our five Regions are in Asia — Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo. It’s only a couple hours flight between them, but the culture is totally different in each. Given this, you need a robust vision, a robust strategy, but at the same time you must be as domestic as you can while also respecting your DNA. But thinking locally is very, very important, especially when you wanna talk to the customer. If you wanna talk to the customer in Milan or in New York, it’s not very different, but between these three it’s a different culture, different currency, and a different way of life. For example, five years ago, you would simply invite the customer to the store to see a new collection, but today it’s another world. You have to have the right CRM, you have to know the culture, but at the same time you have to be prepared that every year will now bring something new.”

Has this altered your approach to China?

“Not only for China, but all around the world. However, China is another world. It’s the only market with one digital platform, while the rest of the world is basically on another. We communicate on WeChat, which everyone in China uses for everything, but I feel that we’re not where we need to be at the moment. We will continue to work on this. In my experience, it’s better to lose some opportunities than make a mistake. This is our approach at the moment.”

Will you increase the number of stores in China?

“The thing today, I think, is not open too many stores around the world, but instead work to get the best location possible. Chinese customers are around 30% of our business right now, and my dream, especially with China, is to have all bigger stories in better locations. I know this is not easy. This is a big concern in China. We are an independent company. We cannot compete with the larger companies, larger brands. What I constantly study from the larger companies is real estate. Real estate is everything. However, I feel that travel retail — shops in airports — will become a bigger part of our retail in China. We’re currently planning to develop more of these in the next couple of years.”

Are you creating any customized items exclusively for China?

“We have one collection worldwide, but we do design three or four jackets per season for the Chinese market, because it’s important that people know that they can buy something only there. But I’ve felt, since day one, the importance to talk directly with my customer. I don’t want anything between me and my customer. This is a very important decision, because you have to be fast to the market. I have tried to make one collection, one idea, and hopefully this feeds what I imagine. Sometimes, it’s not easy. Sometimes, China wants more color, more brilliance, whatever, but I’ve tried to make the unity of all our ideas come from around the world.”

How has Moncler’s culture changed due to the Genius Project?

“Before the Moncler Genius Project, we were really classic, like every other company. But since the launch, I really felt that this was a turning point for Moncler — it changed our attitude, emotion, and the energy of the staff. Everyone had to start working together, and it really changed the energy and the mood of the people in the company.”

Is data playing an increasing role in what you do?

“I think today, working in our industry, it’s not just about collecting as much data as possible, but about how you use the data. Again, the world is so different, but we try our best. There’s your customer trends and statistics, retail, and now with e-commerce data is increasingly important. I think it’s one of the interesting, dynamic challenges in our industry today. But in the end, it’s more than trying to contact and connect with your customer, but to try to contact them with ideas.”

What’s next?

“We have our five-year, ten-year plans, but we’re flexible. We have to be able to adapt. For decades, everything was the same. A new campaign, photo shoot, an ad in a magazine, and then the store. Next campaign, exactly the same. In the last five years, it’s changed. It’s a new reality that has changed our mentality. But the key, I think, is to speak with the people in the streets, to get to know and understand your customer as much as you can. That’s the real thing.”

Twenty-four hours later, 450 tired Moncler staffers celebrated with the winning five teams, which were selected based on four key performance indicators for the company: innovation, business impact, feasibility and desirability. “Most of the projects presented were innovative and at the same time, with some additional work, achievable,” says Ruffini. “What made me happier is the sense of participation and belonging that I felt. And an extraordinary creative energy. That’s worth gold for any organization.” It’s too early to tell how these ideas will add to the brand. But one thing is certain — the home of the puffer down jacket isn’t slowing down or resting on its current success. It’s a global world now, and somewhere, winter is coming.

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