President of Chanel Japan
Text by Andrew Howitt / Photo by Kageaki Smith
At 17, Richard Collasse came to Japan knowing very little about the country, except that he wanted to buy a Nikon camera. Now, after having lived here for over 40 years, 20 of them as president of Chanel Japan, he has a deep appreciation of the country’s language, culture, history and people, as well as a keen understanding of the business of the international luxury goods market. Eurobiz Japan sat down with Collasse to talk about Chanel Japan, and his past involvement with the European Business Council (EBC).
Could you tell me a little about Chanel’s presence in Japan?
We have three different businesses under the same roof. We have the cosmetics business, we have the fashion business, and we have the watch and fine jewellery business. For the cosmetics business, we are a foreign brand in Japan, so we have hyper-selective distribution. We are at the top of the pyramid in the department stores — we are in about 200 department stores. In fashion, we have 34 boutiques, which is the highest number of boutiques in one single country for Chanel — we don’t have as many boutiques in France — and they are all directly run by ourselves. They are very often inside department stores, but we run the business. And we have 13 fine jewellery boutiques, which is also the highest number for Chanel in any single country.
How do you think the Japanese Chanel customers differ from others in the world?
This is something that you will find across all industries — not only for Chanel: they are very demanding. They want the best and only the best. The Japanese are very sophisticated consumers, and they expect everything to be perfect. The product has to be perfect, the environment has to be perfect, and the service has to be perfect. So I always say that being in Japan for any kind of business is actually a kind of label of top quality. Thanks to Japan, I daresay we have increased the quality of our products, and that to the benefit of the rest of the world. And if they are happy, they are very faithful customers. And that’s very important.
How would you describe your work culture here?
We are very Japanese: 99% Japanese. Very few foreigners. We have mainly a female population: 96%. And some of them are in very high-level [positions], because we have directors and general managers who are women. Coco Chanel was a woman. She promoted the freedom of women at a time when there was not really a very public life for women — at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. We think we have to keep that spirit alive.
Aside from the boutique, what is special about your flagship store in Ginza?
When we decided to do the construction here, I said, “I want a restaurant” — at that time, no brand had a restaurant — and I said, “I want a cultural centre.” Coco Chanel was a Pygmalion of the arts. She helped a lot of people — she helped Picasso, she helped Stravinsky — to get their start. So I said, “Let’s keep the spirit of our founder alive”; and [so] we created this cultural centre we have on the fourth floor, called the Nexus Hall. We are helping young artists to blossom here. We [have] a classical music programme. We choose, every year, five young artists from the music university, and we give them 50 concerts during the year. And we [also] do mainly photography, but also some plastic arts. They are all, technically speaking, wonderful artists. We call it the Pygmalion programme, and it’s open to the public.
As the former head of the EBC, do you continue to be involved in EBC-related business?
I am not involved anymore. I was the head of the EBC for seven years, which is a very long period. I was very lucky because Prime Minister Koizumi was in charge and he wanted to have a counterpart to the bilateral relationship he had with the United States. And thanks to that, I met him very often in person. I think the EBC is a treasure that has to be protected. I know that today there is a little bit of tension; some chambers of commerce say, “Why don’t we do it ourselves?” I say, “Keep the EBC.” It’s very important. Maybe the FTA will at long last be signed, but don’t think that when the FTA is signed it’s over. It’s the beginning of a different cycle where we’ll have to make sure that what is in the FTA is respected by the Japanese. And I think that the EBC is very well-placed to do that job. So it will probably be a different mission from the one that they have had for the past 50 years, but it will be a very important mission. People who have not been here for a long time sometimes don’t realise what it means. The EBC is a label which is respected by the Japanese ministries, by the administration, by the Keidanren [Japan Business Federation]. They know the EBC very well, but they don’t know the individual chambers of commerce.
Are you optimistic about having a Japan-EU FTA signed in the autumn?
Well, you know, I’m like St Thomas. I’ll believe it when I see it. But they are making good progress. The problem between Japan and Europe is that the Japanese have a problem with tariff barriers with us, and we have a problem with non-tariff barriers with them. It’s complicated to negotiate, but I trust it’s possible. I think we will come to something because the Japanese need it and the Europeans, we also need it. I think nothing has changed in the necessity for Europe and Japan to really get closer together.