The Japan NewsRaised in an Asian atmosphere in France, Norbert Leuret was naturally captivated by Japan immediately upon visiting for the first time in the 1980s. Since then, he has immersed himself in Japanese society, culture and business. The current president of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Japan K.K. (see below) recently spoke to The Japan News about his experiences, detailing unique episodes as well as his expectations for the country.
Q: You’ve been involved in the fashion industry in Japan for more than 20 years. What have been the biggest changes in fashion trends during that time?
Leuret: The No. 1 point I would like to say is that it is clear that Japan is still one of the major fashion markets in the world in terms of quality. That’s absolutely undeniable.
I think there are three big differences: in products, in distribution and in communication.
In terms of products, I would say that one keyword remains the same: elegance. I think Japanese people are extremely elegant. The way people are elegant has changed.
Before, it was full coordination with one brand from top to bottom like a uniform. I think that as the years went on, Japanese customers’ knowledge of the fashion business has become so high. People are so informed. Japanese people are always looking for new information and something innovative. Therefore, people have learned how to harmoniously mix products.
Another thing that has changed in terms of customers is that there is more self-expression. Before, people were just following the guidelines of magazines, but now, though people are looking at magazines and other media, they are more into self-expression of their own tastes.
Another thing changing in terms of products is that the borderline between products for men and women has become more of a gray zone.
Q: How about distribution?
A: In terms of distribution, the first thing I would like to say is that department stores are key partners in Japan for fashion because they’re offering very good products. I think that many department stores started in the kimono business, and some started with the railway, but the point is that department stores are extremely advanced in terms of the fashion offered.
Department stores in this country remain very strong. Sometimes you can hear in some media that department stores are suffering, and yes, the Japanese economy is changing, though it’s still very strong. My personal impression is that department stores in Japan are reacting very positively. If you look at department stores in big cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, they all have interesting renovation plans.
Nevertheless, it is true that there have been some changes in distribution. One big change is the development of station buildings — ekibiru — mainly in big cities. Free-standing stores are also extremely active in Japan. We have more and more free-standing stores. Brands have developed free-standing stores to express all that the product has to offer.
For communication, I would like to insist that the quality of print media is world class. It’s a bit like department stores and products. I myself have worked in the magazine industry in the past. The quality of paper, of printing, of editorial is world class. I know that print is going down worldwide as a general trend, but print in Japan for the fashion business is still an extremely important media.
Q: What was your impression of Japan when you first visited in 1981?
A: The first time I came to Japan I stayed two months. I was studying at a French business school.
My mother was born in Asia, and my grandmother was born in Asia, Vietnam. They were French, but when I was young I was always surrounded by Asian food, furniture, stories and atmosphere. Vietnam is not Japan, I have to admit, but it’s Asia. My grandmother told me stories about Vietnam and Cambodia.
In 1981, when I was in business school, my school signed an exchange program agreement with Sophia University. It was my only summer class. I arrived in July, 1981, after 27 hours of flight because it was from Paris to Anchorage [in Alaska], Anchorage to Seoul, and Seoul to Tokyo. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese, so when I heard the word “arigato” I thought, “arigato,” “arigato,” what does it mean? I didn’t know.
I fell in love with the country and the people immediately. I found great people, but again innovative, unsuggesting, smiling people. I saw so many people smiling. They were professional.
Sophia University organized a lot of visits to ikebana schools, the stock exchange, etc., and we got such clear explanations. It was structured and precise. People were my first impression.
The first two months I stayed only in Tokyo because I was amazed by the people and the city. I wanted to see the city as much as possible, so I stayed in Tokyo. I was impressed by the buildings, and by the public phones. I remember at an intersection in Akasaka-Mitsuke [in Tokyo], there was one series of 20 red phones, and I thought, in my country [France] that’s impossible to imagine because everyone wants privacy.
I was also amazed by people stopping at red lights and not crossing the street everywhere, by people queuing in the subway and respecting each other, by the beautiful cars in the street, all clean, and by the clean streets, by the vending machines all working very well. These things were just fantastic. It was a country of order where things worked right.
Visited more than 300 firms
Q: You worked at the French Consulate General in Osaka in 1983.
A: I went back to France and graduated, and in those days we had to do military service. I was lucky to be able to do my military service in Osaka. The Japanese economy was booming, and I was in charge of inviting Japanese companies to come to France for the economic division of the French Consulate General. I was in charge of going and seeing Japanese companies like Sanyo, Panasonic, Sharp, Takeda, Tanabe Seiyaku. It was so interesting.
I did this for 3½ years and I visited probably more than 300 companies. Every day I was taking my phone and telephone directory and I was calling the companies. I really loved it. I brought about 15 investments back to France, creating jobs in French regional areas. A lot of French government people came to Japan, and they were in Tokyo and I was in Osaka, because Tokyo was more political contacts, and Osaka was more economic contacts.
Q: Do you have any examples of omotenashi in Japan?
A: The omotenashi in Japan is so incredible. When I was in Osaka, I couldn’t speak Japanese well, and I had a meeting one day with a big Japanese company. I entered and said I was with the French Consulate General and asked if he could speak English, and the guy goes, I can’t, and the meeting was a total failure.
So I went to a bookstore in Osaka and I said, I want to learn Japanese, and I cannot pay for classes, so I would like you to sell me the very best method with cassettes. I didn’t know anything about Japanese.
And the guy was so good and he guided me and said, look, today I can recommend these methods, but let me check with additional people. Can you come back in two days? So I said, OK, I’ll come back on Saturday.
I came back and met the guy, and he had consulted with five or six people, and said to me, I think this method will be best for you. I said, OK, I bought the method for all of ¥1,500, and I listened to the tapes every day.
Today I can use Japanese naturally in my daily life. It was thanks to this guy, this bookstore salesman. He took time to consult with me. He did not push me to buy. Never.
I have a lot of omotenashi stories from [food and beverage] places or our luxury stores. Even before I came back to LVMH, so many times when I went to the stores they didn’t know me, but you feel so good. It’s respect. Respect for the customer, and respect for the product. It’s very nice. I think foreigners living in Japan become kind of addicted to omotenashi.
Q: In Japan, you focus on the three Es. Can you tell me about that?
A: The three E’s are emotion, excellence and enthusiasm. I just want to say one thing. We do business. Especially in our company, we do business, but we always keep in mind exigency, that’s another E I could add.
When I talk about emotion and excellence, enthusiasm and exigency, they’re all part of my daily life. The three Es are just a way of summarizing the spirit of entrepreneurship. Do something new. Don’t hesitate to have good and new ideas. This is the only thing we have to encourage in Japan a little bit more, is enthusiasm.
I go to universities to give lessons about the fashion business, in Tokyo and Kansai, and I think sometimes young people are a bit too spoiled, and that we should do more to stimulate enthusiasm. Young people need more stimulation sometimes. If you have everything you need from the beginning, then why do you want to do something new? You still must quest for additional things.
I’m so happy when I go, for instance, to Shibuya [in Tokyo], because at Shibuya they are doing start-up buildings, which is very important. In France, a lot of young people prefer to work for start-ups. Our group LVMH is always promoting start-up businesses. We are connected with start-up incubators in France, our chairman gives out a start-up prize, even among our employees we try to stimulate their start-up ideas.
The three E’s — it’s not only three, it’s really excellence, exigency, enthusiasm, entrepreneurship — I don’t know why I chose E, I could have chosen F for fight, but E has many good qualities.
Avid collector of yatate
Q: You’re also interested in Japanese materials.
A: Yes, we are interested in Japanese craftsmanship. We think that Japan has fantastic craftsmen in many fields — textiles, sake, metals, so many things. We even created a special study program between French schools and Japanese universities to research, and we have some Japanese teachers researching about how to maintain, preserve and develop Japanese craftsmanship. These people are doing something in Japan right now, and they are going to come to France and compare and try to see how French craftsmen could be working with Japanese ones in the future.
LVMH started business in Japan many years ago, but even before you had champagne, cognac. I heard the first cognac bottle came to Japan at the end of the 18th century. Japan is a market, but also a source of inspiration, more than you think. We have a lot of our researchers come to Japan and go and see some Japanese craftsmen to see if we can work with them on some designs, technology and textures in many fields.
Q: Personally, do you have any materials you are addicted to?
A: Do you know yatate [portable brush-and-ink cases]? I’m a collector of yatate. Nobody knows about this. I love this concept that carries many things. It’s how to write, how to communicate, how to express something, which stays.
Second, yatate were used when you traveled. It’s in the Louis Vuitton spirit of discovery. I have a lot of yatate at home. I have some in my living room, some in another room and some in a box. It’s really very beautiful. I love the spirit of this object. You have to be educated. I can imagine the samurai or the nobility having yatate or nice kimono. I like this image also. And it’s not a weapon. It’s very amicable and for peace.
This interview was conducted by Japan News Assistant Editor Takeshi Nagata.
Born in Bergerac, France, in 1961. After graduating from the Business School of Lyon (EM Lyon), Leuret joined the French Consulate General in Osaka in 1983. After working at an energy and petrochemical company, he joined Kenzo (LVMH group) as managing director, then was appointed as president. He then served as president of Hachette Fujingaho and Zara Japan. Leuret returned to the LVMH group in 2016, when he assumed his current position.
■ LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton Japan K.K.
The company is engaged in management, coordination and development in Japan of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s leading luxury products group. The group is headquartered in Paris and has multiple business sectors, including wines and spirits, fashion and leather goods, perfumes and cosmetics, and watches and jewelry, encompassing 70 brands. Its revenue reached €42.6 billion in 2017. The Tokyo-based company has about 7,000 employees. Speech