The pastry war

Luxury brands acquire pastry outlets with historic legacies to bolster growth

Pastries in a window facing the street at Cova Caffe, owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in Milan, Italy.
Pastries in a window facing the street at Cova Caffe, owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, in Milan, Italy.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

MILAN • There is a new stop on this city's style circuit.

Flanked by Versace and Omega boutiques, the new Prada-owned, Roberto Baciocchi-designed Pasticceria Marchesi cafe opened several weeks ago, just in time for fashion week, in the heart of the city's glossiest shopping street at via Monte Napoleone, 9.

On a recent visit, upper-echelon Milanese were perusing the 38 vitrines displaying all manner of elevated tearoom fare while, outside, tourists crammed together to ogle elaborate and pricey pink Sacher tortes.

Though food and fashion have not been the cosiest of bedfellows (if you wanted the second, conventional wisdom said, you had to skip the first), Prada is, in fact, not alone in uniting the two. Indeed, food - or at least pastry - has become the latest weapon in the luxury wars.

Footsteps away from Marchesi, at No. 8, is another legendary city haunt, Cova Caffe, owned by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

The coffeehouse Sant'Ambroeus is around the corner on the Corso Matteotti; rumours have begun about luxury brands eyeing it as a potential acquisition.

And Mr Andrea Guerra, Luxottica's former chief executive, is reportedly taking on the role of executive president of the Italian food emporium Eataly this year.

"I think this trend is going to be powerful and important," said Mr Luca Solca, an analyst at Exane BNP Paribas.

"Consumers worldwide are expanding their notion of what luxury is, moving beyond products and into experiences. Food is a great way, like travel, to build high-quality experiences."

It is also a way for conglomerates to bolster their growth as the traditional luxury market stalls.

Indeed, the Marchesi and Cova flagships in the Golden Triangle are not experiments on the part of their new luxury owners, but the core of a new market grab.

By adding global muscle to small, historic businesses such as Cova or Marchesi (which has an Instagram handle), high-end groups can export a little bit of Italy, a fantasy destination for so many luxury-goods connoisseurs.

LVMH has 10 Cova locations in Hong Kong, the first opened in 1993, as well as in Japan and Shanghai. It plans to open two Ferruccio Laviani-designed Cova branches in Beijing next month and two in Taiwan next year. Further openings are being considered in Bangkok and Dubai.

Next year, the grandiose 19thcentury Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade in Milan is to feature an additional Pasticceria Marchesi inside the new Prada quadrant, called Prada Galleria, and it is likely to offer dinner options, too. The quadrant, spanning five floors, sits in the high-traffic area opposite the original luggage store opened in 1913 by Mario Prada.

The company is evaluating plans to export the Marchesi brand to Istanbul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Dubai, but has introduced a wide range of Marchesi merchandise, wrapped in its newly designed, sherbet-hued packaging.

Think of it as the new entry point: Instead of a lipstick, you get US$1 (S$1.4) marrons glaces in liqueur.

Mr Gaetano Marzotto, the entrepreneur and scion of the Italian textile family, who in 1993 invested in the sparkling Ca' del Bosco wine, said luxury fashion groups were finally realising that bars and restaurants were cultural hot spots for consumers, especially in the Middle East, which emphasises "Made In Italy" food products within its luxury malls.

This is, of course, not the first time fashion has dipped its toe into the food business. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, luxury labels tried to leverage their names by sashaying into categories such as restaurants and hospitality and moonlighting as hoteliers, with mixed success.

While Giorgio Armani has a well-developed food business, with 28 outlets around the world, Dolce & Gabbana's Gold restaurant is now in the hands of its Sicilian chef, Filippo La Mantia; the Maison Moschino, a hotel in Milan opened by the Italian label, has closed; and Hotel Missoni in Edinburgh has changed hands.

What sets the new initiatives apart from such predecessors are the decisions by Prada and LVMH to acquire free-standing companies, with ready-made histories and reputations, rather than trying to overstretch an existing brand name known for expertise in a different area.

"This time around, it's about buying authentic heritage," said Mr Armando Branchini, executive director of Fondazione Altagamma, a consortium of Italian luxury goods. "It's not something that can be created out of the blue in 48 hours."

Some are not sure the trend is positive.

"It should be food taking over fashion because it's more important," said Mr Oscar Farinetti, founder of Eataly.

"Everybody should have the luxury to eat something of high quality, and good food should be affordable to many people."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'The pastry war'. Print Edition | Subscribe