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Can MCM’s new chief resurrect a defunct brand?

June 27,2005
Earlier this year, when Ralph Polese, the former president of Gucci Korea, joined MCM Products AG, a German luxury handbag and luggage brand owned by Sungjoo Design Tech and Distribution (SDD), a shock wave rippled through the fashion industry. In the past, industry professionals had seen executives of multinational companies stationed in Korea move “up” to lead global markets in Japan, Europe and America. Staying with a Korean company was largely viewed as “local.”
So, the big question was why?
When asked, Mr. Polese broke into hearty laughter and said his joining Sungjoo on Feb. 22 was one of the best-kept secrets in the Korean fashion industry. Despite having lived and worked in Korea for seven years with Gucci Korea, the American businessman was rarely seen in the media because of Gucci’s media control policy.
But Mr. Polese, a native of New York, came into the limelight with the relaunching of a brand whose popularity reached its peak in the 1980s. He found the brand’s situation similar to Gucci’s when it was relaunched in the mid-1990s.
“It was 30 years ago when MCM opened an upscale boutique in New York City, but the brand is dead now. When Kim Sung-joo, the owner of Sungjoo, offered me the presidency of a worldwide company, I thought it was a great opportunity for my career and a challenge, personally and professionally, perfect for my skill sets. It was a perfect time to leave Gucci,” he said after MCM’s relaunching fashion show at an upscale restaurant in southern Seoul.
MCM was introduced in Korea in 1991 through Sung Joo International Ltd., SDD’s sister company, which specializes in importing and licensing European brands. SDD now imports Lulu Guinness and Billy Bag and has an exclusive franchise with Marks and Spencer.
With MCM, the new CEO is pushing to make a brand that was considered “too classic” become “upgraded and modernized.” But reactions after the show proved that it’s not so easy to impress the “been there, done that” industry professionals.
As most critics believe creativity and originality are the key elements in resurrecting a defunct brand, the show, which consisted of all-too-familiar designs, was reviewed as “nothing new,” according to Kim Sung-il, a celebrity stylist. “The designs are from all the luxury brands, from Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Christian Dior and Balenciaga. They even have those dangling charms from Prada,” he commented.
Some journalists wondered if MCM’s ready-to-wear line was borrowed from a local boutique. When asked about the design, Mr. Polese said the collection, created by a local team, was “in trend.” “The collection includes what’s in the market ― saddle bags from Dior and satchels from Gucci, doctor’s bags from Louis Vuitton. It’s difficult to renew a design as brands emulate one another to be contemporary. It’s part of every brand’s design process.”
Mr. Polese remains confident that he has represented the brand in the right way, and the process doesn’t stop at design. MCM currently has 58 locations in department stores nationwide and one flagship store in southern Seoul. Starting in September, boutiques in major department stores will be “reinterpreted.” He’s also looking at the worldwide market by “re-establishing” MCM’s existing distribution channels in China, Russia and Germany and by combining top-quality items made in Korea, Germany and Italy. By October, he plans to build full-scale boutiques in Munich, Berlin and Dusseldorf with a wider collection, to which watches, shoes and ties will be added later.
“Germany wants its own fashion brands again,” he said. “When you look at super brands like Gucci or Prada, they were regional country brands 30 years ago. The success of a brand is a matter of products, image and execution?― my business motto of more than 26 years in the fashion business.”


by Ines Cho


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