Under the radar no more

SINGAPORE - A simple, sleek 800 sq ft space, sandwiched between Italian brethren Miu Miu and Moschino in Paragon, heralds the quiet arrival of Milanese brand Valextra in Singapore last week. The brand, which first launched in 1937, is known for its leather bags and accessories.

On one of its walls is a black-and-white poster, showing the brand's Piazza San Babila atelier - the workshop above its first store - in the 1940s, with artisans working on a simple, rectangular top-handle bag. The bag would not look out of place on the wooden shelves of the store today, on which sit other bags that mimic its clean, classic embellishment-free silhouettes.

That kind of timeless elegance is what has earned Valextra a cult following, says newly appointed design director Alvaro Gonzalez, 48.

"It has no logo but those who know can recognise it from the other side of the street," says the Spaniard, on the bags' subtle trademarks such as black piping and handcrafted Italian calfskin leathers. Prices for the items range from $360 onwards for small leather goods and $3,100 onwards for bags.

The Singapore store is the brand's first in South-east Asia, and marks a global push for the lesser-known label, adds Valextra chief executive Marco Franchini.

While they want to maintain the niche, insider feeling the brand evokes, "we don't want to be under the radar any more", says the 57-year-old Italian.

Mr Franchini - formerly head of Swiss shoe label Bally - was appointed by the brand's new owner, investment firm NEC Capital, in March. The company aims to reach sales of 80 to 100 million euros (S$135million to S$169million) over the next five years, compared to current revenues of 13million euros. While the brand has a strong presence in Japan, South Korea and the United States outside of Italy, plans are afoot to open more stores in Asia and the Middle East. Over the next five years, the brand hopes to open 10 to 15 in Hong Kong, Beijing, Macau, Shanghai and Taipei.

"There will not be changes to the essence of the brand - which is its understated, minimal, impeccable taste - but we will increase distribution," says MrFranchini.

Valextra is perfectly suited for a changing market such as China, he adds.

The Valextra brand entered the Hong Kong market in 2006 under its previous owners, holding company Carfin 92, but left the market after three years. MrFranchini would say only that it was a different time previous to his tenure, and that finding the right partner for each market is of utmost importance. The Singapore store is the result of a partnership with local fashion group FJ Benjamin.

STICKING TO ITS ROOTS

Mr Gonzalez says fans need not worry about drastic changes to the clean lines, classic shapes and vivid hues that characterise the brand's wares.

"Other brands may introduce a lot of new stuff but we are proud that our customers bring in Valextra bags from the 1940s, 50s and 60s to be repaired," says the former design director of accessories at Jimmy Choo. Some of Valextra's bestsellers include the rectangular Boston bag with two short top handles, which sells here for $3,850 for the small, and the flat, purse-like Tammy bag, which features a long top handle and costs $4,250 for the medium. The Babila tote bag, which retails for $3,750, is also popular. Customisation of the bags, in terms of leather and embossed initials, is available for customers.

Inspiration for the spring/summer 2014 range comes from the brand's past. Mr Gonzalez describes a black alligator skin Tric Trac bag named for the popping sound it makes when it opens, in an almost origami-like style. Due to arrive in the store in February, it was inspired by drivers back in the day, he says, when they needed a bag that opened easily to grab coins for tolls.

Like other established leather bag brands such as Louis Vuitton and Goyard, Valextra has roots in travel as well with its Avietta 48 bag, which was designed in 1960 as an airplane cabin bag. It is still sold today, but is not yet available at the store here.

The La Scala clutch, also in the spring/summer 2014 range, features a wrist handle evocative of men's briefcases, that can be pulled out for use or tucked back in.

Such subtle touches have endeared the bags to a strong following of customers.

When the store's doors opened for its soft launch two weeks ago, one of its loyal customers was ready and eager to enter and purchase a bag at 10.01am.

"There is an appreciation for quality in Asia," says Mr Franchini, speaking of the brand's future in the region. "The brand's functionality and timelessness will appeal to many."

llim@sph.com.sg


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