Exclusive: In Conversation with Mr. Eric Vallat
Having worked for some of the most prestigious fashion houses in the world, including successful terms spent as CEO of Louis Vuitton Europe and President and Representative Director of Christian Dior Couture Japan, Mr. Eric Vallat is a man with some impressive credentials to his name. With his recent appointment as CEO at one of the world’s oldest Cognac houses, Rémy Martin, his proven expertise in luxury goods now turns to the drinks industry at a time when the house is about to embark on a potentially revolutionary venture: La Maison Rémy Martin.
Part members’ club, part installation, La Maison Rémy Martin will invite attendees to discover the expertise needed to craft an incredible product through the famous Cognac and the skills of other selected artisans, including butchers Allens of Mayfair, fragrance brand Czech & Speake, and the luthier Luke Joseph Sharples to name a few.
As the launch of the club draws near Mr. John Francis Bowyer, Editor-at-Large of Ape to Gentleman sat down for an exclusive interview with Mr. Vallat, his first since being appointed CEO of the famous Cognac house, where he discusses his passion for the history of Rémy Martin, his unending enjoyment of Cognac and the importance of big ambition in successfully moving a company forwards.
Your past employment has been predominantly in the fashion industry where the product is trend focused. Do you feel there are any similarities between the fashion and drinks industries, or are they completely different?
I think both! First, there is a lot in common; they share the same values, including a real focus on craftsmanship. It all starts with the outstanding hand-made quality of the product. When I first went to Cognac I was very impressed with the 300 years of history and craftsmanship behind our (Rémy Martin’s) product. The second thing both have in common is passion. The people who work for Rémy Martin have incredible passion for what they do, which resonates for me. I’m the kind of person who needs to be proud of the product they are working for. Rémy Martin is family run which allows a lot of flexibility in thinking long-term for the product, you need the ability for long-term vision, it’s the only way you can build a successful high-end business.
And the differences?
What’s very different is that fashion is design-led whereas the drinks industry is much more driven by knowing the habits and cultures of the customer. These are products that are created for occasions, so you have to know the cultures and how and where the product is drunk. Fashion tends to create the trend and wait for the customers to follow, whereas in the drinks industry it’s about understanding the customer and how they enjoy your product and then of course addressing their expectations in an innovative and creative way.
On the relevance of occasion, the opening of La Maison Rémy Martin is fast approaching. What are you most looking forward to in that venture?
Plenty of things. The first is that it will be a unique brand experience. We are welcoming our guests in to a building that has been completely transformed for the occasion, not just expressing the product through a window display, but four floors of experiences that tell them about Rémy Martin. The second is that it’s a special happening, at a good time of the year, in a great place, which I find very exciting. Rémy Martin is much more than just a spirit, it’s about occasions and sharing moments in life, this is what La Maison Rémy Martin will offer. This experience could be a benchmark for the brand; this is the first time a Cognac brand has created an event like this.
The club certainly sounds like an impressive project in both size and scope.
It’s a huge workload for something that will only last a very short time. What I like is that it’s four floors with four different themes. It’s a lifestyle; it’s not just about what you’re drinking, but also where you’re drinking it and the people you’re drinking it with. There will be a lot of opportunity to discover new people at the club, especially with our London talents involved in various fields way beyond the wine and spirits industry, and a lot of opportunity for people to discover Rémy Martin.
Is there anything you find particularly intriguing in Rémy Martin’s history that stands out for you?
What strikes me beyond a specific moment is the overall age of Rémy Martin. There aren’t many brands that are 300 years old. The label’s story is one about a family, which is important. There are special values in a family run company and you can feel the history when you visit Cognac. This deep-rooted history is something I really enjoy about the brand and a great weapon to build on in the future.
Anything further that has left an impression on you?
I like that Rémy Martin has always been audacious and La Maison Rémy Martin is one typical example. There are other examples like the choice in 1870 of the centaur as our emblem, which is still now a core element of the label, or the tale of our crystal decanter for LOUIS XIII, based on a flask found in an old battlefield by our house in Cognac. It was considered such an amazing find that Rémy Martin used it to hold the oldest Cognac ever at that time. We still use the same decanter shape today, unchanged for over 100 years. This is one thing I really enjoy pointing out.
We’ve discussed the craft and heritage of Rémy Martin, how will you utilise these hallmarks in moving the label forward?
Beyond ‘how’ there is also ‘why’. On the ‘how’ I will be happy to talk more next year, there are plenty of projects, but very confidential. So first ‘why’, we have a product of great quality, but for me, having the best product is not enough. Beyond that it’s about emotion. Why do people buy one designer bag over another? What’s very important beyond the quality is the relationship you have with the product; this is where the brand comes in. The brand tells the story, it’s a universe you either like or not. It tells a lot about who you are. The way we do it is to not just talk about us and our product, but to talk about the customer and to address their needs. The more we can offer a full experience of the brand the better.
It’s an interesting approach to look away from the product and more at the lives of your customers. In your personal life, what rules, if any, do you live by?
There is a sentence from Oscar Wilde I use because I love it:
“Wisdom is to have dreams that are big enough not to lose sight when we pursue them”.
I don’t know if it is a rule per-say, but we are a new team with me joining, so it is a good moment to have big dreams that you can see from afar and that you can stick to.
Have there been any words of wisdom that have been passed down to you that have helped you in your career?
I’m probably too intuitive and not as rational in my choices as some people. For me, what is most important is to like what I do. It makes waking up in the morning much easier. It’s easier to work hard if you are passionate about what you are doing, and it’s easier to sell your product if you are proud of it. What has always guided me in the choices I make is to make sure that I am myself a customer of the products I work for. When I was the head of Bonpoint, a luxury childrenswear brand, my children wore the clothes. Now they are teenagers and they don’t anymore so I am no longer a customer, this is perhaps one reason I left that brand. The good thing is I am going to drink Cognac until the end of my life, so I don’t see my use of the product fading!
That’s a big advantage! Finally, are there any words you will be passing on to your colleagues as CEO of Rémy Martin?
I like the idea that alone, you go quicker, but together, you go further. Teamwork is very important to me; you don’t build things on your own. It’s good to build on the expertise of others, especially at Rémy Martin. It’s something I like to tell my teams. That’s why you need dreams, to have everyone looking in the same direction, and to build with enthusiasm towards them.