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The Moleskine phenomenon: How an enduring love of pen and paper spelt success

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The Moleskine phenomenon: How an enduring love of pen and paper spelt success
The distinctive notebooks in one of Moleskine's stores. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP
09:23 CET+01:00
From spelling out New Year's resolutions to jotting down designer brainwaves, sometimes only a pen and paper will do, even in the digital era.

And those are the kind of niches that have enabled Italian notebook manufacturer Moleskine to leverage its historically evocative brand into the kind of rapid growth not usually associated with the staid world of stationery.

The Italian group's sales have more than tripled in the last seven years. Turnover in 2015 was 128 million euros ($134 million); 200 million is the target for 2018 with Asia in the front line of the company's plans to expand its retail network from 80 outlets to 120 over the same period.

According to business expert Alessandro Brun, the growth has been driven by Moleskine's ability to successfully pitch an "extremely ordinary" item as being an object of desire imbued with history and an essential lifestyle tool for the contemporary creative.

"It is fair to talk about a Moleskine phenomenon," said Brun, professor of company management at Milan Polytechnic.


Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

From its launch as a brand in 1997, under then-owner Milanese publisher Modo & Modo, Moleskine has hammered away at the idea that it has revived the classic notebooks favoured by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh and Hemingway.

Those now sold under the Moleskine brand are indeed modelled on those once manufactured by a French provincial bookbinder for Paris stationers. But they are made in China, rather than the Loire valley.

Knowledge workers

With their rounded edges and distinctive elastic binder, the original notebooks were known as "carnets moleskines" in French, because their smooth black covers were thought to resemble moleskin.

They were a classic of simple design but production stopped in 1986 when their original manufacturer, based in the town of Tours, closed.


Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Famously, travel writer Bruce Chatwin was so distraught he went round buying up as many as he could find, then wrote a lament to the notebooks in his book "The Songlines" that came out the following year.

Inspired by that account, Modo & Modo registered Moleskine as a trademark almost a decade later and the notebooks are still instantly recognizable, even if the new owners have substantially expanded the range of sizes, formats and paper quality on offer.

So who buys them? According to company boss Arrigo Berni the primary market is among so-called "knowledge workers" - designers, architects, engineers and lawyers.

"Our customers are marked out not so much by their level of income as by their level of education," Berni said.


Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The advent of the digital era has not reduced the importance of physical experiences, he argues. If anything, the opposite is true, particularly for the 30-something generation.

"Consumers are sometimes a little more astute and intelligent than financial analysts give them credit for," Berni adds.

As with the revival of vinyl in music, an aesthetically-pleasing, robust notebook provides an add-on to what the iPhone or a laptop can do, he argues, citing a survey of 4,000 designers which found 65 percent of them prefer a pen/notebook combination for recording ideas.

Moleskine Cafes

So how does he explain Moleskine growing sales at 20 percent a year in a global stationery market expanding at 3-4 percent?

"Beyond having a quality product, it's about selling a brand and a sense of belonging (to a community), which is exactly what Apple does," he said.


Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

That vision has been behind Moleskine's recent diversification with the brand now found on pens, accessories such as backpacks and, less obviously, in cafes.

The first Moleskine Cafe opened at Geneva airport in 2015, the second in July in central Milan.

Customers can enjoy a cup of coffee and light fare surrounded by exhibits such as sketches done in Moleskine notebooks. And of course stock up on Moleskine products.

"The cafes are about creating a link between customers and the brand," said Brun.

Currently listed on the Milan stock exchange, Moleskine is now 95 percent owned by D'Ieteren, a Belgian group best known for its car dealerships.

The new owners are planning to take the company private but Berni is not expecting any other changes. "They have a long term vision," he said.

By Celine Cornu

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