Gilles Laumonier – Jeans In His Genes

Do you consider your longterm experience at a brand such as Eastpak the milestone in your curriculum?
Yes in fact, I started taking care of the communication of Eastpak to better extend it in Europe and back in 2000, they asked me to become Vice President of marketing for Eastpak and Jansport. By then I was 29, doing two brands and again in 2004-2005, the group asked me to become President Global for Eastpak, which I did for five years.

Do you think the kind of experience you got from Eastpak could be transferred to a denim brand?
Your question is so interesting because before joining this business I thought I was ‘joining a sect’ but at the end it is not that different. Yes, there is a specific technique and knowledge and it is good to join a company like Lee with their big time expertise, but at the end of the day the point is to respect the brand’s DNA while being able to contemporise it. Bags, denim what is the difference?

What does a president do during the day?
I am really passionate about trends, design, architecture and all these kind of stuff and it is a job where I can have my hand on the design work as well as on the marketing side. Being a number result freak, I spend my day between solving problems, shipment, protection, sales, profits, profitability. In general I can jump from the designer’s office to the CFO’s and the logistics office because my role is just that: to give solutions.

You must have a favourite part.
It is difficult to say. I would say my favourite part is more the design, the marketing side, but if the product is not making good results for the company, I get disappointed, so I am really into the commercial side as well. That is how you see if something is working at the end of the day.

Lately, due to the Credit Crunch, we see many brands, not only denim ones, going back to their routes. They design the old favourites and it might seem that there is not really a development. How do you react to this?
Every brand should look back into its origin because the market will go back for the real thing. Having said this, it doesn’t mean that we should just do vintage stuff. I think we should look at what is our DNA, what is the history, but at the same time we have to innovate and make it contemporary. I think this is what we show here; the ‘101’ collection.

Yes, but on the other hand, Eastpak that is not a historical brand, was always based on making new collaborations and suprising its clients.
That is a different story. For example we just did a collaboration with Vivienne Westwood. Even a historical brand like Lee has to be pulled forward and it does so by such collaborations with iconic designers.

Is it maybe in your future plans to collaborate with an up and coming designer?
I joined the company two months ago. Wait, it’s coming! (laughter)

What are the best values of Lee, as you have seen in these two months?
When you look at what makes Lee different, is that it brought so much innovation and so much attention to the field such as the smarter fit and details like the zip on jeans. Now everybody has a zip or a button but it
was Lee that invented the zip back in the 20’s-30’s. It is revolutionary. Lee invented the first uniform, a true work wear. Lee was also the first one to introduce slim fit and slim jacket for the European cowboy and that says it all for me. This is where I think we have to act now for the future.

So if we were making a SWOT analysis in the economics field, the strengths of course are the values that you mentioned. What are the weaknesses of Lee as you see, being the new president?
I think that Lee over the past few years has, like most of the American brands, lost its identity. Most of these historical brands have been taken frontal by the wave of the Italian denim and the trends that happened in the beginning of 2000. Trends change and so they overreacted and at the end
what happened was that they lost their identity. I think now the main job for brands like Levi’s, Lee, and Wrangler is really to look who they are. These brands have 100 years of history behind them. I will maybe work five to ten years for this brand and it will only be a 10% of Lee’s lifetime.

The opportunity of the times?
Trends are going big time in our direction so that is a big opportunity.

And the threats?
The threats are that the economy is not really recovering fast, but we are positive. I think we see some good sign.

Why did you choose to present only two lines at Bread&Butter?
Because again that’s part of the strategy I just described. This is for me what Lee will be from now on. You have the archives, you have the 101. That really says it all. That is what Lee should have been forever.

What do you see as a trend now in denim?
To come back to the real ‘no bullshit’ denim, maybe more dark, more solid, more clean and a good value for money.

We are going to feature your interview, in our ‘sweet dreams are made of jeans’ issue. What would be the best ever dreamy location that you could see yourself in denim?
My ideal location is the Mauritanian desert where I’m coming from. That is where I have to go sometimes to get out of this.

Do you go often?
I’m trying to go once or twice a year in order to get disconnected. The work I do is full of energy and sometimes you just have got to go back to yourself and return with fresh ideas.

Interview: Yorgos Kelefis