Saint Laurent’s Dedication to Cultural Cultivation Fuels Growth in China

Before Francesca Bellettini became president and chief executive officer of Saint Laurent in 2013, she spent years in managerial roles at other Kering houses like Gucci and Bottega Veneta.

At Saint Laurent, together with the brand ‘s Creative Director, Anthony Vaccarello, Bellettini has substantially elevated the brand’s awareness and popularity in emerging markets. Even more impressively, they have maintained the house’s upward trajectory post-COVID-19, which is evident from Kering’s Q3 financial results.

Saint Laurent head office in Paris. Photo: Courtesy of Saint Laurent

Over the third quarter of 2021, Saint Laurent kicked off a series of local initiatives to reinforce its culturally-driven communications strategy, such as the Betty Catroux exhibition in Shanghai. Although the house entered the China market later than other luxury brands, Bellettini has collaborated with the local teams to help build a strong physical presence there while maintaining a consistent brand identity among local shoppers.

With the end of 2021 approaching, Jing Daily spoke with Bellettini to learn more about Saint Laurent’s post-pandemic China strategy and how she has preached cultural relevance and consistency in the country.

Jing Daily (JD): The luxury industry has seen a strong rebound in China over the past year. But has the current retail sector regained or surpassed the pre-COVID-19 levels? How did Saint Laurent perform in China in Q3 2021? 

Francesca Bellettini (FB): Saint Laurent’s retail performances in China absolutely surpassed the pre-COVID-19 situation, boosted by Chinese consumers buying locally. Our Q3 performance in

China was very strong, with excellent growth in-store and online. We opened new doors in 2019 and 2020 and expanded our digital platforms, as well — including ysl.cn and our branded WeChat and Tmall accounts. We have seen both like-for-like and non-comparable growth in the country.

Chinese outbound travelers were a strong force that drove luxury retail markets in Western Europe and Asian markets. How has the house weathered the tourism turbulence? 

At Saint Laurent, we have always been very focused on the local clientele in every market. That strategy has always helped us succeed, and it has been even more valuable during this particular time.

The brand continues to grow, despite the lack of tourism and travel. We have seen growth in our physical stores and digital channels. Retail excellence, outstanding service, and an unmatched customer experience are the key drivers of that growth.

What characteristics are distinct among the brand’s Chinese clients compared to buyers in other markets? 

Our clients all over the world share a deep, lasting love for Saint Laurent. In China, they are extremely loyal to the Maison because they love its values and DNA. Chinese clients are particularly fond of our ready-to-wear, especially our more tailored pieces. Our Chinese clients’ enthusiasm for the brand inspired us to invest in more locations and flagship stores.

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We came a bit later to China than other brands, but by waiting for the right locations and offering the best mix of products, we have attracted outstanding clients to the Saint Laurent universe. As we look to the future, we will continue to invest in and raise our profile in China and invite more people to create lasting relationships with the brand.

The house recently embraced China’s online luxury marketplaces, including the Tmall Luxury Pavilion & expanded social e-commerce product categories on platforms like WeChat and Xiaohongshu. How is your strategy different when it comes to leveraging social e-commerce in China? 

Our social media and e-commerce strategies are consistent around the world. We established our presence on platforms in China while maintaining our brand values and image — and that has been extremely successful. Regardless of the channel, we have kept control of how we engage and communicate, and our Chinese clients have valued that approach. The result is that our best sellers online are also our best in-store sellers, and our best-selling items in China are also our best-selling products worldwide.

Bellettini has collaborated with the local teams to help build a strong physical presence there while maintaining a consistent brand identity among local shoppers. Photo: Courtesy of Saint Laurent

In the age of digital transformation, how do you recreate the house’s in-store experiences and remap your brick-and-mortar in China with tier-2 and tier-3 cities gaining increased buying power and luxury exposure?

We have every intention of enlarging our footprint across China — but we want to do so at the right time and place. We came to China later than many other luxury brands, and we had to catch up by opening stores quickly while choosing locations that reflect the positioning of the brand. But we did not take shortcuts. We will follow the same approach when it is time to expand our footprint.

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Not only do you need to select and wait for the correct locations, but you also need to hire and train the proper staff. I am so proud of our retail colleagues in China, who have created genuinely outstanding experiences for our clients. Our retail colleagues are stylists, not just sales associates. They understand, respect, and respond to the needs of our clients there — and they do it extremely well. So we will grow our presence in several cities when the time is right and can offer the experience our clients expect and deserve.

Congratulations on the Betty Catroux exhibition in Shanghai. We have seen more local brand activities like it in China recently. What local strategies have you implemented that paid off in China? 

We were so honored when Betty Catroux asked Anthony Vaccarello to curate this exhibition for the YSL Museum in Paris. The exhibition is a celebration of the Maison’s legacy while showing how Anthony understands and refers to our past without being trapped by it. It shows both our history and Anthony’s modernity. It is an ideal exhibition to tour the world, and we are very glad to begin it in China.

Even if Monsieur Yves was one of the first to visit China, the brand was late in entering the market, and the exhibition provides the opportunity for more people to learn about our roots and to glimpse our future as well. It also allows us to show who we are, what we stand for, and what sets Saint Laurent apart. We find the best way to generate genuine, lasting relationships in any country is to be true to who we are and to share that spirit.

China is expected to become the world’s largest luxury market in 2025. Where does the house have room to grow in China, and what’s your vision for this market by 2025? 

We see so many opportunities for growth in China — in our current stores, selected enlargements, new openings, and online. The customer response to Saint Laurent in China is very strong, and we are excited about the possibilities ahead. Our clients in China have shown how much they love the brand and our collections, giving us great confidence for the future. We see strong potential in every product category for both men and women.

Younger Chinese generations will soon participate much more in luxury consumption. What is your strategy for engaging with Gen-Z shoppers? 

Our approach to engaging with Gen Z is the same as our approach to engaging with clients in different countries around the world. Rather than develop some artificially targeted marketing strategy, we remain modern, relevant, and true to who we are. That is exactly what Yves Saint Laurent did when he established the Maison sixty years ago. It made sense then, and it makes sense now.

We find that people do not want to be patronized or marketed to — doing that automatically makes you less authentic and less attractive. People see right through it. Instead, we keep our focus on modernity, innovation, and relevance. Being relevant and modern is not about consumption — it is about culture.

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