Sara Ferrero, CEO of luxury leather goods label Valextra since 2015, explains how to reboot a heritage brand through retail, what it takes to extend the lifespan of pop-ups and why it’s time for the product to reclaim its role as protagonist.

Building a future based on the past

‘When I joined Valextra my first question was why a luxury company with such a rich history, quality product and tonnes of patents didn’t grow to be the size the likes of Gucci and Chanel are today. Looking for an answer, I tried to define what makes Valextra unique. I found it was its architectural approach towards product development, and decided to highlight that even more in store.’ 
 ‘Valextra was much more focused on products – which are obviously super important – than the retail aspect before I arrived. I wanted to give more substance to the brand and show customers what they were buying besides a product. At the time, we were moving away from a one-store and wholesale business. Simultaneously, the luxury sector was starting to focus more on offering full experiences. So how did we grow? We opened new stores, but treated them like houses – all different and specific to their location.’
 ‘We don’t have a creative director. Instead we rely on a community of architects and designers and we act as curator.’

Since joining Valextra, Sara Ferrero has initiated over 80 design projects with 38 different creatives.

Chance over strategy

‘Our Via Manzoni flagship in Milan has gone through many transformations, but contrary to what you might think, not as part of an outlined business plan. Right before Milan Design Week 2015, we decided we wanted to communicate our architectural approach towards designing bags. But we didn’t believe we’d be credible doing that in a store that looked a little old. So we called good friend Martino Gamper and said: ‘We want an intervention in our store, but we have no time, no money, and we want everything to go back to normal after the Salone.’

He accepted, which reflects the enormous generosity of our community. The result was Magnetico. In this in-store display installation, the walls and windows were lined with magnetic sheets, hidden behind panels upholstered in woolen fabric by Kvadrat. Magnets concealed inside every bag, wallet and leather item made it possible to stick them to the walls. To save costs on the floor, Gamper re-created a piazza, using typical Milanese street stones.

Immediately the number of visitors multiplied, as did our sales, and we decided to extend the duration of the intervention. Because Gamper’s concept was originally built to last for just a month, it was completely worn out after a year. We needed something new, but we couldn’t afford to close for too long. We still had very few stores back then. So we decided to do another year-long intervention, and another, and another. Having limited time and resources helped us to be more experimental and more extreme. And these interiors are not just interesting and beautiful, they actually attract and engage clients. Foot traffic increased by nine times in the last three years at the Milan store.’

Attracting top-tier architects

‘Because our Milan store was changing so much, we soon started to attract the attention and interest of some really amazing architects. They were interested in experimenting with retail spaces after doing mainly large-scale projects such as stations, churches and museums. And because our stores are one-offs, I think architects get more emotionally involved. They treat them like masterpieces. The interiors become very specific to the place, all substantially different from each other, and thus destinations for our generally well-travelled customers.’ 

Some of the interventions we did were so strong and particular – bonkers even – that they took over

‘We pick creatives with a very strong, original and recognizable identity. We look at how they design in this specific moment, how they are leaving their mark. It results in spaces with a clear signature. There will be moments that these interiors feel a little passé because of the fact that they are made in a certain period – and reflect that – but that actually makes them more valuable with time. Just like you wouldn’t just destroy a Portaluppi building, you would never think to carelessly tear these shops down because you have a new creative direction.’

Bending the rules of retail

‘Anyone that understands retail would say “oh my god, this is anti-retail by definition” about some of our projects. But we have done them anyway, and quite successfully. Kengo Kuma’s transformation of our Via Manzoni boutique, for example, featured floor-to-ceiling panels of cedar wood, all positioned at different angles. It meant our bags, too, were visible from various angles. Normally you would carefully select the best side for presentation: 99.9 per cent of retailers would choose to give a full frontal view of the product. In addition, the presence of mirrors disoriented visitors – not a very common retail tactic either. But the store offered a unique experience and, again, sales increased. We once even took the whole first floor out of one of our stores, sacrificing costly square metres for a more spacious feeling.’

Following an installation in Milan and store interior in Venice, Martino Gamper designed Valextra’s Chinese flagship in Beijing. Inside, hanging shelves remind visitors of playground swings, while a light-blue terrazzo resin floor references the brand’s Italian roots.

Creative follows concrete

‘When we start working on the concept for a new store, the location is our starting point. It often determines the creative we work with. We look for the person we think can best interpret the space. In the beginning it helped us – both financially and practically – to work with local designers. But it can also be the character of the space that draws us to a specific creative. We know a lot of designers and have a big community, but sometimes it takes years before we get a chance to work together. The right project has to come along. We had wanted to work with Max Lamb for a while when the Hong Kong project came up. The space in the city’s Harbour City mall was dark, with low ceilings, and would easily go undetected. We wanted an interior that sent one strong message. Lamb managed to brighten it up, creating an immediately identifiable store using Venetian terrazzo all over. That same approach wouldn’t necessarily work elsewhere.’

Practical but flexible

‘We try to keep “rules” to the bare minimum when we commission a project. Some of the creatives we work with have never done retail, or at least no accessory stores. So it’s mainly practical directions that are a recurring element in our briefs, such as the amount and types of bags we want to show, the ideal shelving heights and how many square metres should be dedicated to stock room. We also give an idea of what we expect to make and what product categories we think will be most important for sales. It helps divide the space. Sometimes bringing in practicalities such as hangers and mirrors can be a challenge. Fundamentally, (interior) architects want to safeguard the purism of their spaces, so anything that creates disharmony is something that they prefer to remove.’

For the presentation display of his Flute handbag collection at the SKP mall in Beijing, Michael Anastassiades created 15 limited-edition lights that are now for sale.

Extending an installation’s lifespan / Pop-up versus permanent

‘More and more often, we try to find an afterlife for temporary installations. We’ve started to commission bespoke pieces that can be sold when we’re done with them. Take the installation we did with Michael Anastassiades for the presentation of his bag collection Flute at SKP Beijing. He created a series of 15 limited-edition lights that collectors can now buy. It gives us the opportunity to include quite unique objects in our interiors, as we don’t have to discard them after the pop-up is dismantled.’
 ‘Similarly, all 122 planks of Kengo Kuma’s forest were transformed into desks for our offices and those of people who work with us.’

Refocusing on the product

‘After years of change in our Milan store, we feel it’s time to slow down and refocus on the product, instead of the packaging. Some of the interventions we did, to be honest, were so strong and particular – bonkers even – that they took over. It was the whole that remained stuck in a visitor’s mind, rather than a single product. 

We now have 23 stores, so the variety is more than evident. We felt we needed a space that can evolve without becoming the protagonist over our products. That’s why we commissioned John Pawson to come up with a longer-term interpretation of Via Manzoni and to create an interior that functions more like a platform, a gallery, a flexible canvas.’

We spoke with Sara Ferrero during Next Design Perspectives, a conference organized by Altagamma in Milan, where she presented Valextra’s alternative approach to retail. 
This interview was originally featured in Frame 132. Get your copy here.

Hero image: After a period of yearly transformations, Valextra’s Via Manzoni has recently received a more permanent overhaul, courtesy of John Pawson. The British architect created a minimal space – a flexible canvas that can host a series of art exhibitions.