If you want the most luxurious feel for your night of sleep – or passion – there is only one name to remember: Frette, the most exclusive brand in bed linen. Chief executive Hervé Martin tells Philip Whiteley about the company’s ambitions at the launch of its new store in Mayfair, London
When we think of fine art and classic design, we tend to think visually. But human life is experienced through different senses. One of these is touch. This is mostly sub-conscious, yet also powerful; and not least when we sleep. The world’s premier brand in bed linen is Frette, established 160 years ago by Italian pioneers who pioneered the use of jacquard textile weaving for high-quality yarn required for creating the finest quality linens.
Frette is a company whose products combine manufacture and art, pleasing both sight and touch. For over 150 years its products have been first choice for the most luxurious settings: the Orient Express, superyachts, five-star hotels and the Vatican.
Hervé Martin was appointed CEO of Frette in 2014, after its takeover by Change Capital Partners. He is a brilliant and experienced business leader, and he brings the understanding of the paradox that lies at the heart of a classic brand: it has to be simultaneously traditional and cutting-edge. It has to be reinvented continually in order to give the impression of permanence. ‘I speak very little about history; it is not the justification, it’s the starting point, then you develop,’ he explains.
‘A brand cannot be static; it cannot be stable. There needs to be constant evolution, like a human being. When a person doesn’t move, he’s dead. A brand is the same. Frette has a historic name; it needs to be faithful, and clear about where it comes from, but in no shape or form can it be restricted to just repeating itself. It’s a brand invented as a business 160 years ago in Italy, which obviously makes it the most highly recognised historical name in our sector, and we need to be a brand of the 21st Century. That’s absolutely key.’
Our interview is on the day of the launch of a new Frette store in London’s Mayfair, on South Audley Street near the legendary Berkeley Square, nestled amid other designer stores, fine restaurants and hotels. We are surrounded by beautiful linens and cushions, including a special range of linens designed for Frette by Ashley Hicks.
Mr Martin describes the ‘subtle balancing’ of preserving the essence of a brand while adapting to the changing world. The challenge is complex; many are the cases where custodians of a brand have engaged in unwise change, resulting in brand stretch, or dilution. Mr Martin perceived that this had started to occur when he took over in 2014. There were Italian stores and some product lines aimed more at the middle market.
‘In Italy in particular there was an attempt to make the brand more accessible, with the result that it was probably stretched in product category – was not core business for us. Those kinds of diversification initiatives were tried but generated only confusion. [There arises] a question of whether you are still credible as a luxury brand.’
His strategic shift was clear, resulting in the closure of 20 Italian stores, discontinuing certain product lines, and reinvesting in designs and products for the very top of the market. Change Capital Partners have been supportive owners with a strategic view, investing in skills and resources to enable this continual innovation.
‘Now Frette is one brand, which is reinvented. What we’re doing in London [with the store opening] is part of that; a redefinition of the brand in 2015, with a new logo, new colours, new shopping bags.’
The Frette diamond logo, elegant and understated, sits modestly at a bottom corner of the store’s front window, and discreetly at other points of the store.
Some of the new designs are modern but with a nod to the past. Mr Martin, an aficionado of the visual arts, references the influence of art deco, the modernist designs of the 1930s that still manage to look daring today. Yet while this is an influence, his designers are empowered to think anew, and create something fresh.
‘For me, a classic style doesn’t mean a style of the past; a design today is for someone who is going to be buying our product in 20, 50 years’ time.’
Frette’s founders understood the importance of touch and feel, devoting hard work and ingenuity to providing the most luxurious finish. There is far more involved than just thread count in assuring the highest quality sheets, duvet covers and pillow cases. Their manufacture requires many features; finest yarn and finish. The thread count is but one factor. This is hi-tech manufacture blended with sophisticated design.
The company is steeped in tradition, but Mr Martin wonders if there needs to be an evolution beyond the seasons of traditional cloth manufacture, which run from new year till the summer break, then the autumn season (in the northern hemisphere) until Christmas. Bed linen differs from clothing in not having seasons; it is a 365-day-year product.
‘Distributors visit us twice a year in order to do their buying and the cycle follows that programme. I’m not convinced it’s the best way to organize. I want us to have more time to innovate.’
His vision is for Frette to have a business model more akin to an entrepreneurial design company that is continually innovating, every day of the year.
There has already been much innovation in the business model. Frette has learned to work more closely with business partners such as luxury hotels and cruise companies. The bed linen, after all, form part of the visual and tactile aesthetic of a suite. So as well as off-the-shelf products, Frette can produce bespoke items, working with the interior designer of the business partner.
Styles need to reflect changing tastes of a global audience. The economic world has altered out of all recognition compared with the 1860s. Wealth is now distributed widely, with significant luxury markets in India, South America and China, as well as the older industrialized regions of western Europe and North America.