A long way from filching baguettesPierre Cohen-Aknine first came to Korea in 1981 to fulfill his compulsory service in the French military. His assignment was as a junior trade officer at the French Embassy in Seoul, and he soon decided he wanted to be part of the country’s burgeoning economy. His search for opportunities began.
At times, he would sneak into hotel banquets and leave with baguettes stuffed in his suit pockets. Like many foreigners with no connections, he lived in a hole-in-a-wall near Itaewon and gave illegal French lessons. His first official income was taking commissions for sending Korean students to Esmode, a fashion institute in France.
Since then, Mr. Cohen-Aknine, now the general manager of Marc Jacobs Korea, has come a long way in Korea’s fashion industry. He is fluent in the Korean language and its subtlest nuances. Encountering a new person, like any traditional Korean, he asks about his or her Chinese zodiac sign.
He spends a lot of time in his two offices in the same building, Marc Jacobs Korea and Pierre Ltd., atop Namsan in central Seoul, which he compares to a hotel where “friends swing by and chat any time of the day.” His “friends” ― who can be seen in the sleekly framed photographs in his lounge ― are movers and shakers in Korea’s high society. “Chat” in his casual office, equipped with a walk-in humidor and an espresso bar, often leads to multimillion-dollar business deals. Attaining his position in LVMH Group Korea has taken him almost two decades of hard work and making connections.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with Mr. Cohen-Aknine about his business and life in Korea.
What made you want to live in Korea?
I saw a kind of American gold rush in Korea and stayed after my military duty in 1983. With my MBA degree, I knew the basics in how to start things on my own, but it wasn’t easy. At 25, I had to feed myself on a day-to-day basis. I was hungry for food, hungry for work.
What were your beginnings like?
Back in those days, there were no e-mail and fax but only telex and letters. The Korean government didn’t allow importation of any kind, only exportation. Every day I was hanging out in trade centers, waiting for messages.
One day, I found a letter seeking a representative for Lacoste [a French sportswear company] in Korea. After two months of correspondence, the owner of Lacoste wanted to come visit me. When he came, I took him to my friend’s office, because I had nothing. Of course, he found out, but he sort of liked my ambition. He told me he liked to give chances to a young man. I became the so-called “Lacoste Man” in Korea, in charge of quality inspection.
While visiting Paris, I ran into an old friend who introduced me to an explosively popular French brand, Chevignon. My real first break came when I became the first European representative of Chevignon. Overnight, it went from nothing to a $50 million business, and I became “if you want business in Korea, speak to Pierre” big.
But I found that every Korean employee I had cheated me. I had a million dollars in savings, but after paying out claim after claim, I was bankrupt.
I ran into a rich Korean businessman, who had struck a major deal through my consultation when I was still in the embassy. He remembered my work and offered me a job in his energy company. I was jobless, but kindly refused, because working under him was not what I had in mind. Saying he wanted to invest in an ambitious young man, he offered me 500,000 won per month for one year ―with no strings attached. That money I accepted, in fact, for one and half years. I learned how to receive kindness from others, and that has made me feel richer today. Life can be complete only when you know how to give and receive.
How did you survive the country’s economic crash in 1997?
One company handling machinery did extremely well. Remembering my first big failure, I wanted to make sure such bitter failure would never happen again, especially when I had a family to support ― I had married a Korean shaman and had two boys.
By being vigilant this time, I was able to prevent a scam planned by a Korean manager. I outsmarted his trick, did double-dealing with the supplier company and sold the company at a reasonable profit. That was all before the crisis.
How did you become involved in the high-end fashion industry?
In fashion business, people don’t respect you if you don’t do a major luxury brand. I suggested that a German luxury brand, Hugo Boss, open a duty-free shop. I succeeded in convincing the designer, and Hugo Boss’s first duty-free shop in the world was opened in Korea. By the mid ’90s, Korean businessmen included me in their social gatherings. When duty-free executives went golfing, they invited me.
In Korea, your company, Pierre Ltd., is the largest importer of Cuban cigars.
When I had to start all over again, I opened small trading companies. One company handled various consumer goods, including cigars. Through a cigar club, I met many rich Koreans, especially the second-generation chabols. I was introduced to the Kolon Group chairman, who was seeking help in consulting. My truthful advice saved the chairman 400 million won ($340,000) in business.
Kolon Group planned to build an international reputation and imported two major fashion brands, Christian Lacroix and Marc Jacobs. Last year, a good friend of mine referred me to the chairman as the new general manager of Marc Jacobs Korea. The chairman gladly signed me in.
What is your strategy to promote Marc Jacobs in Korea?
I ask my staff, “What are we?” and tell them, “We are nothing.” We only distribute other people’s intellectual property or creativity. In Korea today there are too many import products. The point is: How are we going to make the brand different from those brands out there? How are we going to bring added value to the brand? When Pierre does it, it has to be different.
The situation makes any distributor’s job tough, as Korean department stores do nothing for individual brands; the only thing they care about is real estate sales. Fashion is power because such big money is involved. Compared with the last collection, I think the new Marc Jacobs collection will do much better because of its distinctive look and style.
When someone pays that much money for a bag or clothes, they don’t want to look like the rest of the people in the street. They want items that stand out ― from afar! If someone likes your clothes and asks you, “Eonni, what is this brand?” then it’s too late.
by Ines Cho