Marc Cain: the secret of desirability

Helmut Schlotterer founded the premium fashion brand Marc Cain in Italy in 1973 - at a time when people were still talking about "merchandise" and not brands. What marketing and branding mean, the now 75-year-old recognised very well. Then he came back to Bodelshausen in Swabia and built up a more than successful brand.
Text Michael Köckritz
Photo Marc Cain

Mr. Schlotterer, you established Marc Cain under very difficult conditions in the early seventies and turned it into a leading premium brand in women’s fashion. How exactly would you define a premium brand?
As the Chinese like to say, premium is affordable luxury. Luxury brands like Gucci, Dior or Chanel might charge three thousand euros for a blazer that I would charge four hundred for. But you can measure this four-hundred-euro blazer against one from Zara, which costs just sixty euros. Boss once tried to enter the luxury segment, but the market taught them that they are premium after all.

Perhaps we should start from the very beginning. Can you tell us how it all began?
One day my father and I were discussing what I should study. I was leaning toward architecture, but he said to me, “You have a car and an apartment. Do you want to keep them both? Then study textile engineering.” So I first went to the Technikum, a type of vocational school that all future textile engineers, managers and designers in Germany had to pass through. There I realized that this career wasn’t all that uninteresting. I mean all the surface structures you can make from yarn, knitting, weaving, printing, fabricating. I learned all that from scratch. There’s this creativity in textile design that I really liked. After I graduated, my father said I could go to Paris for a year. So in 1968 this boy from the country went to the big city of Paris.

That must have been quite a culture shock!
First thing I did was to look around the city a bit, then I searched for an apartment and went to the Alliance Française to improve my French. But I didn’t find the language school very interesting, because as a German student I would never meet any French girls there. Among the older French, there was still quite a bit of anti-German sentiment at that time. They certainly didn’t roll out the welcome mat for me. Many of them would spit in front of my car as I drove by when they saw the German license plates. It wasn’t very easy.

Doesn’t sound like it.
Anyway, I decided to go check out all the luxury stores in Paris. One day I was standing in front of a store that sold these brown PVC-coated bags. I thought to myself, “All the same color, ugly, brown, with an L and a V on them.” Then I saw the prices and thought, “No way! A PVC-coated bag that expensive? What kind of a world am I living in?” Just then a tour bus pulled up in front of the store, and a herd of young Japanese women jumped out and stormed the store screeching and screaming. I followed them in and saw them going for the bags like crazy. That’s when it hit me: So this is branding. That was something I’d never seen before. Louis Vuitton taught me what a brand is all about: desirability.

“When I came to Paris in 1968, I decided to go check out all the luxury stores. One day I was standing in front of a store that sold these brown PVC-coated bags. I thought to myself, ‘All the same color, ugly, brown, with an L and a V on them.’ Then I saw the prices.”

Helmut Schlotterer

It’s like that with Rolex or Patek Philippe. . .
Exactly, they’re doing it that way right now too. When I go into a store and ask for a watch, they say, “Sorry, I can’t sell that to you, I have to keep it as a display piece.” We’re nowhere near that at Marc Cain. Nevertheless, that desirability is just as important for a brand in the premium sector. It’s about products that a woman – and it’s always women we’re talking about here – has just got to have. Her closet is full, so it’s not about selling her something she really needs. This minimum level of desirability is part of the reason why we can charge four hundred or five hundred euros for a blazer and not a hundred and twenty. It doesn’t help to say, “Our quality is better, go ahead and feel it.” That alone isn’t enough.

Let’s take a step back. Your father’s knitwear factory was drifting into bankruptcy at the time, wasn’t it?
That’s right. After my studies, when I saw that business was going downhill and I couldn’t turn the company around, I said to my father, “Give me twenty thousand marks, I’ve got to start a company.” He gave it to me and I went to Italy.

When was that exactly?
I started working in Italy in 1973, knocking on all sorts of doors, saying, “Buongiorno, I’m working on a collection here.” My intention was to get a collection to sell north of the Alps, in Switzerland, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands. I was a one-man company. I then packed the collection into my father’s old VW bus and drove to Düsseldorf to a textile fair, my first ever. And when I got there, I set up a trade fair stand.

"Architecture is marketing, too. Everything is branding. It all goes together. That’s what I learned in Paris."

Helmut Schlotterer

And how did you end up back in Bodelshausen?
My father could no longer work – his nerves were pretty frayed because his company was in decline – and my brother was still studying. Then I had the crazy idea of clearing out the whole company, leaving only the knitting machines, the people and the buildings, and turning us into a contract knitting factory for Marc Cain. The idea was pretty good, except that the machines couldn’t knit what I wanted them to. So I got underneath and showed the people how to tune them and how to knit the things I wanted. Unbelievable, actually! And slowly we got it right. I told my wife that I had to go to Bodelshausen for two years to restructure my father’s knitting factory. And here we are, fifty years later.

You later paid your brother off, right?
That was in 2007. This white campus didn’t exist back then, you couldn’t sit here the way we are today, look out and say, “Wow, nice little factory!” It was nothing more than a concrete block at the time.

Things have worked out pretty well for you.
Yes, business really took off. The collection was good, the market forecasts were right, and so was my positioning of the brand. And we had between eighteen and twenty percent profit for several years after that. I invested the money. I didn’t need it for myself at the time, and I didn’t give myself a raise.

How long have you been paying yourself the same salary?
About ten years now. It certainly isn’t a small salary, but it was enough for me, and I don’t have an overly lavish lifestyle. So I was able to invest. My brother always opposed the idea of building a new factory, saying, “You just want to create an architectural monument for yourself.”

"The collection was good, the market forecasts were right, and so was my positioning of the brand. And we had between eighteen and twenty percent profit for several years after that."

The building really is a statement!
Especially in a place like Bodelshausen. Visitors always ask themselves where they’ve suddenly landed. It could easily be somewhere else. In a way, my brother wasn’t wrong: it is eye-catching. Especially because the old buildings all have the same façade and everything inside is so spotless. The campus has a very homogeneous feel, despite the fact that it was built over three or four decades. The moment I realized that a cohesive ensemble makes an impression, I thought to myself: “Architecture is marketing, too. Everything is branding. It all goes together.” That’s what I learned in Paris.

What comes to mind as you look out the window today?
That I should write a book. It would be titled: Turned Out Alright After All.

→ Read the whole interview with Helmut Schlotterer in rampstyle #26.

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