As the big luxury brands grapple with brand dilution, overexposure, and jaded consumers, a new and innovative luxury concept has sprung up in one of the most competitive retail markets in the world.
For twenty years, Olivier Dauchez made leather handbags and accessories for some of the most renowned French luxury brands in the world. Initially enchanted by the creativity and artistry of France’s traditional leather-making industry, Dauchez found himself becoming increasingly stressed and disillusioned as even the most exalted, high-end clients pressured him to lower prices, even at the cost of quality and design.
“For example, a bag that was once made from a single panel of leather would be made from two, in order to optimize leather consumption. It didn’t matter that the bag was less beautiful,” he explains.
Dismayed by the general decline of quality in the industry, Dauchez shuttered his own factory two years ago in order to launch a radically new concept, D’AUCHEL.
“I had been doing the same thing for twenty years. Instead of 30,000 pieces per month, I decided, to make four or five pieces. And to offer perfect quality where one artisan makes one bag. True, pure quality product,” Dauchez says.
What’s more, he wanted the client to witness and share in this return to quality, “The market has been moving online so if people come out to shop, it must be to do something besides buying a product. Therefore, I wanted to offer an experience which involves all the senses and which is educational as well: learning how a bag is made the French way, truly, fully hand-made.”
An artisan who knows all the steps in the making of a bag has trained in several ateliers and received a specialized education, meaning that, typically, he or she “possesses the highest skills.” Just as importantly, when a bag is made by one individual, that person is aware of all the preceding steps and the particular characteristics, idiosyncrasies, challenges of that bag’s making.
It allows him to adapt, refine and perfect the product in a way, which is impossible in a mechanized factory. A bag made in a factory is the cumulation of 100 different people doing 100 different steps.
Made by French
After gestating the concept and launch collection in Paris for three years with a team of artisans and one designer, Dauchez decided to ignore the customary narrative of European brand building. Rather than opening a costly boutique in a storied Parisian location, he launched the business where the customers were. Hong Kong.
“We know the main clients for luxury are not French people but come from overseas, mainly China and US. So, the idea was not to ask the luxury client to come to our atelier in Paris but to bring the atelier to them. Instead of ‘Made in France’, the concept is ‘Made by French’.”
In 2015, the first D’AUCHEL showroom and atelier opened its doors on the 14th floor of a non-descript office block in Central. There, Dauchez installed two French artisans in a purpose-built workspace complete with all the tools and stock-in-trade necessary for making leather accessories by hand.
While there is a sample collection of 22 styles of women’s and men’s leather accessories on display, there are literally no ready-made products available for sale. Thus, clients choose every single element of their bag, down to the color of the ink applied to the outside-facing edges of the bag.
On the occasion they’re in doubt, D’AUCHEL’s artisans are on hand to create a small hand-sewn sample showing all the permutations of thread, ink, leather and lining on the spot. Clients are then invited to watch the making of their bag during the most interesting phases, e.g., hand-stitching, and can even try their hand at some of the techniques.
This way, they gain an understanding of the laborious and specialized processes entailed by their commission.
On average, it takes two months for each bag to be completed, with each artisan taking approximately two weeks to make each piece. Although gratification is delayed, clients understand that this is the price of having a single human being master the fabrication of their bag from beginning to end.
The end result is not only a product, which reflects the choices and personality of the client, but an emotional bond with the finished product that has no parallel among ready-made or prêt-à-porter objects.
Ladies who lunch
The pampered super-shoppers of Hong Kong have never experienced anything like it, so word of mouth of D’AUCHEL has been steadily spreading among tai tais eager to own something beyond the latest furry frippery from Fendi or Louis Vuitton.
The Cantonese word tai tai means “Mrs.” in English and is roughly synonymous with the term “ladies who lunch.” “My client has a lot of luxury bags already and they arrive at a certain stage where they no longer need a big brand to show to others. They are extremely educated and come to me to find something rare, not to have the same thing as everyone else.”
The choice of Hong Kong for Dauchez’s audacious “back to the future” strategy looks set to pay off handsomely, since well-heeled shoppers consider paying 40% of Hermès prices for the same or better quality “cheap.” A D’AUCHEL handbag begins at US$2,500 (€2,120), with an average price of US$6,000 (€5,100).
If things go according to plan in Hong Kong, Dauchez will open his next atelier in Paris. Far from bringing coal back to Newcastle, a D’AUCHEL atelier in Paris could bring precisely the kind of fresh and sustainable energy that nourishes the imagination of the luxury industry and shines a light on the path forward for an industry, which has mostly lost its soul.