Moleskine's enduring lure of pen and paper

Italian notebook manufacturer Moleskine's sales have more than tripled in the last seven years.
Italian notebook manufacturer Moleskine's sales have more than tripled in the last seven years.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MILAN• From spelling out New Year resolutions to jotting down brainwaves, sometimes only a pen and paper will do, even in the digital era.

And those are the kind of niches that have enabled Italian notebook manufacturer Moleskine to leverage its historically evocative brand to the kind of rapid growth not usually associated with the staid world of stationery.

The Italian group's sales have more than tripled in the last seven years.

Turnover in 2015 was €128 million (S$195 million); €200 million is the target for next year, with Asia in the frontline of the company's plans to expand its retail network from 80 outlets to 120 over the same period.

Business expert Alessandro Brun said the growth has been driven by Moleskine's ability to successfully pitch an "extremely ordinary" item as an object of desire imbued with history and an essential lifestyle tool for the contemporary creative.

"It is fair to talk about a Moleskine phenomenon," added the professor of company management at Milan Polytechnic.

From its launch as a brand in 1997, under then-owner Milanese publisher Modo & Modo, Moleskine has hammered away at the idea that it has revived the classic notebooks favoured by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh and Hemingway.

Those now sold under the Moleskine brand are indeed modelled on those once manufactured by a French provincial bookbinder for Paris stationers. But they are made in China, rather than the Loire valley.

With their rounded edges and distinctive elastic binder, the original notebooks were known as "carnets moleskines" in French because their smooth black covers were thought to resemble moleskin.

They were a classic of simple design, but production stopped in 1986 when their original manufacturer, based in the town of Tours, closed.

Famously, travel writer Bruce Chatwin was so distraught he went round buying up as many as he could find, then wrote a lament to the notebooks in his book The Songlines, which came out the following year.

Inspired by that account, Modo & Modo registered Moleskine as a trademark almost a decade later and the notebooks are still instantly recognisable, even if the new owners have substantially expanded the range of sizes, formats and paper quality on offer.

So who buys them? Moleskine chief executive officer Arrigo Berni said the primary market is so-called "knowledge workers" - designers, architects, engineers and lawyers.

"Our customers are marked out not so much by their level of income as by their level of education," he added.

The advent of the digital era has not reduced the importance of physical experiences, he argues. If anything, the opposite is true, particularly for the 30something generation.

"Consumers are sometimes a little more astute and intelligent than financial analysts give them credit for," Mr Berni said.

As with the revival of vinyl in music, an aesthetically pleasing, robust notebook adds on to what an iPhone or a laptop can do, he said, citing a survey of 4,000 designers which found that 65 per cent of them prefer a pen-notebook combination for recording ideas.

So how does he explain Moleskine's growing sales at 20 per cent a year in a global stationery market expanding at 3 to 4 per cent?

"Beyond having a quality product, it's about selling a brand and a sense of belonging, which is exactly what Apple does," he said.

That vision has been behind Moleskine's recent diversification, with the brand now found on pens, accessories such as backpacks and, less obviously, in cafes.

The first Moleskine Cafe opened at Geneva airport in 2015, the second in July last year in central Milan.

Customers can enjoy a cup of coffee and light fare surrounded by exhibits such as sketches done in Moleskine notebooks. And, of course, stock up on Moleskine products.

"The cafes are about creating a link between customers and the brand," said Mr Brun.

Currently listed on the Milan stock exchange, Moleskine is now 95 per cent owned by D'Ieteren, a Belgian group best known for its car dealerships.

The new owners are planning to take the company private, but Mr Berni is not expecting any other changes. "They have a long-term vision," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 02, 2017, with the headline 'Moleskine's enduring lure of pen and paper'. Print Edition | Subscribe