A down jacket is probably the last thing anyone living in sunny Singapore would think of buying. Yet to Moncler, a brand synonymous with posh puffer coats that start from $1,600, it makes perfect sense to set up shop here.
"People there travel a lot and there are a lot of tourists," explained Mr Remo Ruffini, 54, its chairman, chief executive and creative director. He met Life in Tokyo, where Moncler opened a two-storey flagship store in upscale Ginza two weeks ago.
Its first South-east Asian outpost, unveiled at Ion Orchard on Sept 14, is officially launched today.
The self-possessed Italian with a mop of curly hair recounted how he was taken with Singapore's dynamism and strategic location during a stopover here in November 2013. "It's a city with strong energy. It's very international and it's a financial hub in Asia," he said.
Posh and playful
The usually sleek and chic Moncler jacket is getting a cheeky makeover. Whimsical Los Angeles artist duo FriendsWithYou have pepped up the Italian label's down-filled outerwear with their trademark exuberant colours and playful icons in a new capsule collection.
An exclusive preview of the range, which includes T-shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers and bags, was held at the new Moncler flagship in Tokyo's Ginza district on Oct 24. It will be rolled out to all other Moncler stores next year for the 2016 fall/winter season.
Mr Remo Ruffini, the luxury label's chairman, chief executive and creative director, said of the collection: "I realised we needed something younger, something much more pop, something with humour. I thought FriendsWithYou would be interesting for that."
While some market watchers and investors might be concerned that Moncler's business revolves around one product that is worn mainly during one season each year - its quilted winter jacket - Mr Ruffini has been cleverly tapping new markets and turbocharging the brand through canny collaborations over the years.
The diverse brands and personalities Moncler has worked with include storied French fashion house Balenciaga, cult Japanese brand Mastermind Japan, German luxury luggage maker Rimowa and American singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams.
In September, Canada-born designer Erdem Moralioglu unveiled a limited tie-up collection that some critics lauded as both dramatic and romantic.
FriendsWithYou, known for their fantastical large-scale installations bursting with bright hues and inflatable shapes, inject a markedly different flavour.
Samuel Borkson, 36, one-half of the artist duo, said: "I was excited that we could do something very high-end and also very playful. I thought if we could mix the two nicely, we would have reached our goal."
There were limitations to the medium, though, said his other working half, Arturo Sandoval III, 39. "There's just so much you can do with jackets and stuff," the father of one noted. "But the freedom comes from Moncler wanting to apply our iconography. They were very open to us sharing a wide range of things."
There is Cloudy the white puffy cloud; Happy Virus the yellow smiley face; Malfi the penguin; Mr TTT, a fluorescent pill-shaped rainbow; a pair of googly eyes named Look Who Is Talking; and the roly-poly Snowman.
These kawaii pop-art motifs are showcased to best effect on the reversible down jackets. One side features a single patch of an icon, while the other sees the same motif plastered all over, as if with unbridled glee.
The contrast sums up neatly the marriage between Moncler's stealth-wealth aesthetics and FriendsWithYou's brand of accessible art that makes one smile.
"It's wearable art that is fun," Borkson pronounced with a grin.
Fashion insiders here share his optimism. Singapore Fashion Week chairman Tjin Lee, 42, said: "Singapore is a metropolitan city with more visitors a year than residents. An international brand like Moncler that offers lifestyle wear could do well all year round."
While the store here is not expected to be a cash cow by any stretch of the imagination, it adds value as a gateway to the region for the Italian luxury brand with French roots.
"Opening a Moncler store in a place where there is no winter is not easy," Mr Ruffini conceded. "But it is very important for Moncler to be in the right place, to have a relationship with a very important market."
While the company declines to give figures, it says the 115 sq m Singapore outlet, where prices start from $260 for a cap, is "performing well and met all expectations".
If things go according to plan, Moncler may open another store here, possibly at Marina Bay Sands, said Mr Ruffini.
Founded in 1952 in the French city of Grenoble by two Alpine climbers, the label started off providing mountaineering gear such as tents and sleeping bags.
It began producing down jackets two years later and grew in fame when it dressed the French ski team for the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble.
French and Italian teens helped burnish Moncler's style cred when they took to wearing its ski jackets as a fashion statement in the 1980s. By the turn of the new millennium, however, its appeal had waned.
Enter Mr Ruffini, who cut his teeth in the fashion business by running the American operations of his father's menswear company, Gianfranco Ruffini, and later set up his own men's shirt label called New England.
He was then consulting as a creative director at Fin.Part, a now- defunct holding company that owned Moncler and a few other smaller brands. With Fin.Part on the brink of bankruptcy, he acquired Moncler in 2003.
His emotional ties with the brand stretch back to his teenage years: At 14, he coaxed his mother into buying him one of its coveted jackets.
With him at the helm, the once faltering Moncler is now a retail star. Listed in Milan, the company was the most successful European stock-market flotation of 2013, after its shares shot up nearly 50 per cent on the first day of trading. It turned Mr Ruffini, who owns a one-third stake, into a billionaire overnight.
Last year, revenues jumped by 20 per cent to €694 million (S$1.06 billion). The label now has 185 stores around the world, up from about 120 two years ago.
Mr Ruffini attributes the success to Moncler's focus on its best-selling jackets, which reportedly make up 85 per cent of its sales.
He told The Wall Street Journal last year: "I'm not Giorgio Armani or Miuccia Prada. I focus on a single product. Not a style - a product."
Each jacket is made from scratch in Italy and every component, from new zippers to top-grade nylon, is made exclusively by or for the company, which has invested heavily in research and development since Mr Ruffini took over the reins. For example, its down jackets now come in novel fabrics such as wool and tweed.
Naturally, this dedication to quality and innovation comes at a premium. At the Ion Orchard store, prices for its quilted jackets range from about $1,600 for a basic style to about $4,000 for fancier designs, such as those trimmed with fur.
Combining keen business acumen with an equally sharp eye for fashion, Mr Ruffini has picked avant-garde design talent such as Junya Watanabe to produce capsule collections over the years.
These add to the cachet of the Moncler brand and push it beyond the ski slopes and plant stores in cities from Hamburg to Honolulu to Hong Kong.
In 2006, it launched Moncler Gamme Rouge, a top-end women's line that is now helmed by Italian designer Giambattista Valli. It fulfilled Mr Ruffini's vision to
"create down jackets so elegant that women would wear them to La Scala", referring to the opera house in Milan.
A men's range, called Moncler Gamme Bleu and designed by American Thom Browne, followed in 2009, while Grenoble, a more innovative technical range for men and women, made its debut in 2010.
All are known for staging spectacular catwalk shows at the various fashion weeks that turn heads and, more importantly, generate buzz.
Still, Mr Ruffini insists he prizes substance over style.
"We are not very keen to be in the fashion system. We try to make products that last for years and a product that lasts for years cannot be very fashion-oriented."
His own favourite Moncler down jacket, for instance, is one made of wool that he got at least 10 years ago. "It's the one I use every time in the mountains," said the father of two sons in their 20s, who splits his time between Milan, where Moncler's head office is, and Como, where he was born.
An avid sportsman, he is known to sail in summer and head for the pistes in winter.
Elaborating on his business philosophy, he added: "If a customer is satisfied with your product that lasts for years, the relationship you have with him is very strong.
"This is a good strategy, more so than to have customers come to your store four, five times a year, but then become bored with the brand."