[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]French fashion ambassador loves Seoul

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[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]French fashion ambassador loves Seoul

From Daniel Mayran’s office in Seoul’s trendiest area, the beating pulse of South Korea’s glamour industry is palpable. Glancing at the latest ad campaigns for fashion brands above the streaming traffic of foreign sedans and fashion models, Mr. Mayran, the president of Bluebell Korea Ltd., answers phone calls from Paris and Milan while doing a mound of paperwork, interrupted frequently by his assistants.
It is mid-afternoon, and Celine Shin, one of his staff, says he’s been at work since early morning and will probably stay until late, unless he has one of his almost daily dinner appointments with foreign executives, local buyers or managers of 23 luxury brands, which range from Moschino to Dior to Davidoff cigars.
When Mr. Mayran, formerly an Air France executive, arrived in Korea in January 2002, Bluebell Korea managed 10 import brands with about 300 employees. Now, with the support of 700 employees, the French chief executive pumps a constant flow of style into the Korean economy via 23 brands.
Last month, Bluebell announced that it had taken over the distribution of 16 brands in the Busan duty-free sector, the second-largest fashion market in Korea. The development made his company a leader in the country’s lucrative duty-free market. He is also credited with founding a local branch of Comite Colbert. The group promotes the luxury goods industry and crusades against counterfeit products. Comite Colbert is an association of French luxury brands established in France in 1954. Mr. Mayran spoke to the IHT-JoongAng Daily about his life and the prospects for the luxury goods industry in Korea:

Q.What is your daily schedule now that you handle 23 brands?
I wake up at 5 a.m. and rarely go to sleep before 1 a.m. I carry two briefcases and two Blackberries. I arrive at work by 7.30 a.m. to take Korean lessons. Then we start meetings which continue all day. What’s interesting is in Korea there isn’t anyone who manages 23 brands. We’re obliged to think of changes everyday. For example, Dior and Dior Cosmetics are not handled the same way.
I met some executives who told me, ‘This week, I could only play golf once, but I usually play twice.’ I don’t know how they can do it. I have only one moment in the week to rest, just 15 minutes after Sunday brunch. On Sunday morning I walk two hours in Namsan with a group of Frenchmen, and we debate French politics, Korean politics, events in Korea, and so on. I get one vacation a year, usually two weeks. I go to Paris where my wife works for Air France and my three grown-up children live, but I do enjoy life in Korea.

What is your analysis of the Korea market?
We analyzed Korean attitudes towards duty-free and their way of spending money. Due to the structure of distribution, Koreans mainly have department stores and duty-free shopping for luxury goods. According to our survey, Korean consumers looking for a specific Gucci item will shop around to check for price differences. If they really want it but can’t afford it, then they buy it outside Korea and bring it home. If they don’t get the product while abroad, then they wait for another trip and buy it next time. Or they ask their friends to get it for them.
Duty-free in Korea was originally designed for foreigners, especially Japanese tourists. What has changed over the past few years is that we have seen an increase in the number of Korean consumers who take short trips. Because consumers have had problems with credit card debt they have have cut spending and their spare money tends to get used for travel. A lot of these people think it’s better to buy luxury goods while overseas. And they prefer to buy duty-free. This is a major challenge for the luxury retail sector in Korea.

Will there ever be American shopping malls in Korea?
I know American businessmen have been here to see if Korea is ready for malls. But, in reality, there is no space for shopping malls in the city. Maybe in Yeouido, there might be one, but I don’t think one mall will change the system of distribution. Korea’s big department stores already have plans to develop Yeouido and Busan.
Korean department stores offer what customers want: indoor parking in the winter, air-conditioning in the summer and everything can be bought at a discount. Korean department stores are now investing in outlets and mass-market products, so they could end up dominating both the luxury and mass market. One outlet by Shinsegae is to open outside Seoul next year.

What is Comite Colbert’s current mission?
The committee wants to change its members’ strategy. They are trying to invest in the new markets of China, Russia, and India. That’s where established brands like Vuitton, Chanel or Hermes can grow rapidly. One brand we managed in China opened 15 stores in a year, while in Japan, the volume increase was only two percent. In mature markets like Japan and Korea, luxury brands will have to develop other strategies for growth, like improving customer services and brand name value.

How do you view the 120th anniversary, this year, of diplomatic relations between Korea and France?
Five years ago Korea was an unknown country. Today, thanks to companies like Samsung and LG, its profile has increased. In less than 20 years, the country has seen incredible change. Young Korean travelers come home with a lot of new ideas and they want to change the country with new visions and they want a better quality of life. It’s really an interesting country. I know that French financial institutions in Korea are doing well, and luxury brands are performing superbly. But, compared with the development of Korea’s image in France, France’s profile in Korea has grown more slowly.

What is the most noticeable change you’ve seen in the luxury business?
I think the Korean market is mature. Koreans now buy luxury for style, not stature.
I have spent a lot of time in Asia. I was based in Hong Kong for four years, I worked with Chinese people to develop Air France in China, and traveled more than 30 times to Japan. But the people I feel at home with are Koreans. As a Frenchman engaged in the direct relations with Koreans, I can work well with them. Bluebell requested me to stay an additional three years, and I said yes.

by Ines Cho
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