As CEO of French luxury accessories brand S.T Dupont, Alain Crevet now oversees an empire which has supplied emperors, governments, and global aristocrats for over a century.
These days, the brand still boasts a lucrative and elite customer base, with distribution spanning Asia, Europe the US and the Middle East, and solid partnerships with luxury retail giants such as a recent contract signed with the Chalhoub Group in the latter region.
“ Little less than eight years ago, the S.T Dupont brand was on the brink of bankruptcy ”
But while the brand, established by Simon Tissot Dupont in 1872, certainly has an enviable lineage and, now, a bright future ahead – if you scroll back to 2006, the stark reality was very different, Crevet concedes.
Little less than eight years ago, the S.T Dupont brand was on the brink of bankruptcy, reportedly losing almost 10 million euros a year between 1999 and 2006, having lost its way and watered down its heritage DNA by moving away from its ‘savoir-faire’ – a move that Crevet quite bluntly tells me, was simply: “stupid” in his view.
Candid as he is, he certainly has the numbers behind him to back up his confidence. Since he’s taken the helm of the heritage brand, business has boomed. In 2010, S.T Dupont reported 50 million euros of turnover with the goal of doubling within five years, and by 2014, the company had a turnover of 80 million, making a profit between 3 and 5 million.
Now, as a new year beckons, we talk to the man who has turned this ship around about what’s next on the horizon for the legendary Dupont legacy.
“ It’s a very old house, born in 1872, so we are soon celebrating our 143rd birthday ”
Could you describe the trajectory of the St. Dupont business from its beginnings and how it’s grown since then?
Well, essentially, we are a small luxury accessory business. I like to call it a boutique-type brand or a ‘maison’ , as we say in French.
It’s a very old house, born in 1872, so we are soon celebrating our 143rd birthday, and the name stems from the gentleman who started the business, S.T. Dupont, which stands for Simon Tissot Dupont, so his initials.
Going back into the history, he was, in fact, he was a photographer for the court of the Emperor Napoleon the Third, and his wife, the Empress Eugenie.
Simon Tissot Dupont
But then, the business then he had some trouble. By that I mean, his photo studio burned. But, he happened to be from a little village in the in the French Alps where they had some skills to do very nice leather at the time, he decided to get back on his feet by arranging with some of his family and acquaintances in the village to produce beautiful travel cases and leather accessories, which he sold, and presented to the Court of the Emperor and Empress.
Through those goods they then became the preferred leather goods, travel cases, trunks, and bags supplier, for the Court of the Emperor, and that’s the way he started this business in 1872.
S.T Dupont then, therefore, also became the go-to luxury accessories brand for all of the aristocracy and the famous people at the end of 19th and then through the 20th century – and from those initial accessories, they also began to create belts, cufflinks, then lighters and then later, luxury pens, which stemmed from customer demand.
“ I shut down the ready-to-wear within the first year. I closed seven shops in total ”
So that’s more or less what defines S.T. Dupont. We’re very specialist, and we are a pure French brand –95% of our products are made in France – in that same village where the brand was born – in Faverges, in the Haute-Savoie – where we have always had the workshop and where everything is hand-crafted. So at the base, it’s very much a small family story.
That’s quite a strong heritage to have, and quite a regal one, from the sounds of it. How have you taken steps in the last few years to further highlight that heritage and reposition the brand?
Well, yes, I joined almost over eight years ago, at the end of the 2006. And the company was really in a bad situation. They’d been losing money for eight years, it was almost bankrupt.
The main reason behind that, frankly, was that they had tried to diversify, which in itself is not a bad idea, but it was the way they has attempted to diversify – which was by pushing into men’s ready-to-wear, so they were selling a selection of shirts, blouses, pants, etc.
“ I said: Let’s focus on what we know how to do, which is what brings us to ‘savoir faire’ ”
I think one of the driving factors behind that was that they tried to do what our main competitor was doing at the time.
So when I joined, the first thing I found was that our shops, had a lot of ready-to-wear. We had big shops, but virtually no history, no ‘savoir faire’, really, no special craftsmanship in ready-to-wear. And I said, okay, you know, this is really not relevant. So I shut down the ready-to-wear within the first year. I closed seven shops in total. So we totally stopped it almost everywhere around the world.
And I said: “Let’s focus on what we know how to do, which is what brings us to savoir faire, basically, the craftsmanship we have in Faverges.
So following that, we started first focusing on the pens and the lighters and then added back the leather accessories, because by that point the brand had stopped doing leather, which was really stupid, because it was the original trade of the Dupont family.
Could you describe some of the concrete actions which you implemented after that to help with the positioning, in terms of marketing and strategy?
Well, one of the first things I did actually, which was very interesting, is in 2007 – and this is just an anecdote, but it shows, where we were even by that time.
So President Sarkozy had just got elected, and as part of the promotion there was a very nice, big photo going around, of him in his office, writing, with – believe it or no t— a Mont Blanc pen.
“ Dupont again became the official supplier of the French government for luxury accessories ”
And when I saw that, I was really very upset, you know, because Mont Blanc is actually a German brand – it belongs to a South Africa group conglomerate… and it’s entirely plastic. I mean, it’s not handmade, it’s a pen which is made online, you know, and it’s a plastic-molded pen. Totally uninteresting.
So, as I had some connections at the Elysee, I asked to meet him – Sarkozy.
And then, once there, I basically retold the history of Dupont and that the French governmenthad fiven an S.T Dupont accessory as a gift also for the wedding of Queen Elizabeth in 1947, to represent the Best of France. And explained that he, as President, needed to write with something which was the “Best of France”, you know – a truly French pen. Then I gave him a Dupont pen and he loved it so much, that he then went on to equip the whole government with Dupont pens.
“ To this day, S.T. Dupont is still the preferred supplier of the French Republic ”
So then, after so many years of being lost, Dupont again became the official supplier of the French government for luxury accessories. So pens, lighters, leather goods, etc.
And it helped us a lot, because frankly, you know, he gifted many heads of state with some form of Dupont accessory when they came to visit – like Obama, Putin, even the Chinese President – so it also helped us to become known again internationally. Because for when was coming and visit, or, uh, Putin, or, uh, the Chinese president, or whatever, they would give the Dupont gift, which would be a or whatever.
And, interestingly, even when the government had changed to Mr. Hollande and his cabinet – they kept Dupont because we are French, so we are still to this day, the preferred supplier of the French Republic. And that’s really something, because we are small.
PRESIDENT fountain pen, from the Neo Classique collection, gifted to Nicolas Sarkozy
Celebrities who just try our products, love them too, and then they talk about it to their friends, which is great word of mouth – and that’s a marketing tactic that we use a lot.
You know, we’ve improved our Internet site twice now, and we are investing in CRM, but since we are a small brand, we really need to find alternative ways to get the word out that the product is truly French, with a standard of quality in this sector which is really unmatched.
What does your production look like, in terms of products produced and volume per year?
Well, see, that’s actually where I say we are a boutique brand.
Because our sales are, are global. In the last couple of years, we’ve sold on average about 75 million Euros worth of product.
“ To make one pen in our atelier in Faverges, or one lighter, requires about 50 to 60 hours of hand work ”
So we really are a medium-sized company. So on a yearly base, we’ll sell, say, a 100,000 units of lighters worldwide, and about the same in pens and writing instruments. So about 100,000 units. We’ve been relaunching orders in our leather goods in the last three to four years, so interestingly, it’s also about the same volume in the leather products – slightly less – 70-80,000 units of small leather goods. By that I mean, wallets, cardholders, and then about 20 ,000 units of large leather goods, so bags, travel cases, briefcases, computer cases, etc.
In terms of pricings, just to give you an idea, to make one pen in our atelier in Faverges, or one lighter – because it’s the same metal – requires about 50 to 60 hours of hand work – and we have about let’s say, 180 people working in our workshop. We use precious metals, so Sterling Silver, platinum, gold-plated – and sometimes we use brass, for a more affordable range – then we often add a touch of Chinese lacquer for effect.
So this means that most of our products, pens, lighters, even leather, start at around 400 Euros, up to 1,000 Euros or more.
“ We have a big belief in that smaller means more quality. Small & quality is beautiful ”
Are there any plans to expand the business?
We are happy now and we have a big belief in that smaller means more quality. Small and quality is beautiful. We are not trying to do what other people in this space are, where it’s almost like they are supermarkets of luxury with, you know, five floor stores, and then the coffee shop and ready-to-wear and accessories, and – everything.
That is not luxury to me. It’s a supermarket, and it’s not interesting. It loses its charm.
Here what I like, is with Dupont, it’s been a family business almost forever. We are a small team and we are all very passionate about what we are doing. So we are really trying to, you know, build the quality, with our craftsmanship – and the result is these quite expensive products, which are very exclusive.
And we are just happy to keep doing that. Although our aim is, of course, to, have a bigger plan for distribution and try to increase our production capacity overall. But, in doing that, we really want to remain very exclusive, you know.
If one day, we move from 100, to 120, or 140,000 pieces by category. I’m happy. I’m not trying to move from 100,000 to 1 million – that would be crazy.
On the topic of exclusivity – S.T Dupont has also made its mark through some very, very expensive and custom-made pieces that are one-offs and unique in the world.
Yes, that’s right. Not long ago, I actually sold a set of lighters to one gentleman for half a million Euros. So, yes, the prices can get quite high.
“ In the last two years, we’ve been coming back to the essence of what Dupont used to do – bespoke pieces ”
So those pieces are certainly bespoke. What we have been doing, in reality, is that, in the last two years, we’ve been coming back to the essence of what Dupont used to do, when he started this business in 1872, which was really, bespoke pieces for the Emperor or the French government. We call “haute creation”, so “high creation atelier” in English perhaps.
It’s a very small workshop, in Faverges, and that’s where we do the unique business of bespoke. This one gentleman, he was very inspired by French history. He actually was a big fan of Louis XIII and Louis XIV.
Particularly Louis XIV, the king that started Versailles castle.
So he knows everything about Versailles castle, and he wanted to have something which would b. representative of that in a lighter. So he showed me a lighter he had designed himself, which was just fully paved with diamonds; and I said: “Well, it’s interesting, but frankly, it’s not unique from a design viewpoint… but we can probably do something more interesting for you”.
“ We found the only remaining French royal highness, who happens to do some design ”
So what we did for him is, we found a lady who is actually the only remaining French royal highness – Princesse Tania de Bourbon Parme. She’s a 12th generation, straight from Louis XIII and Louis XIV, you know, and she happens to do some design.
So she took some inspiration from archives and the set we designed for him was, of course, in solid gold, adorned with the favourite stone of the monarchy in France at this time, which was the sapphire –cabochon sapphire, which is a very special cut. So we developed the whole thing and we designed the crown of France, with some beautiful cabochon sapphires as decoration. So it was entirely bespoke, and that’s why it cost so much.
Each year we also create, yearly, limited editions. For just one example, a few years ago, we partnered with Orient Express for its 130th year anniversary. It’s almost as old as Dupont.
S.T. DUPONT Limited Edition Versailles 5 Piece Set
The Dupont brand had worked with them, actually back, almost 30 years ago. So we designed for them an absolutely beautiful pe, which looked like a train, replicating the shape of the Orient Express.
The number of pieces was 1884 … something like that. Reflecting date of birth of the Orient Express. So we even limited the number in a creative way. And we sold out.
I would say that’s part of the beauty of being a small boutique house, is that you have the freedom for haute creation.