“I dream of restoring the leatherwork craft in Switzerland”
The Defrancesco brothers have rekindled the leather goods house J.Hopenstand. Today based in Switzerland, the house creates high-end belts and collaborates with renowned contemporary artists.
By Cristina D’Agostino11 janvier 2022
John Armleder, Olivier Mosset, Hans Op de Beeck, Blair Thurman, Sylvie Fleury, Gerold Miller, Johan Creten, Wolfram Ullrich. Major artists who matter in the contemporary art world. They all have in common their collaboration with the brand J.Hopenstand. While the last decade has totaled a great number of artistic collaborations with luxury labels, only great and longstanding houses have managed to federate artists around projects. Here, the brand is young, Swiss, and led by two brothers: Rémi and Renaud Defrancesco, great-grandsons of Jacques Hopenstand, based in Paris in the 30s and known for his savoir-faire and great mastery for cuts, the choice of his leathers and assembling tailored bags for clients as well as great couture houses.
Today, the heirs to high quality have rebuilt it all, as former generations did not pursue the business. The brand J.Hopenstand was born in 2016. The young brothers were barely twenty. Their passion for leather and leather good savoir-faire pushed them to try the entrepreneurial adventure. And to stand out from the thousands of existing brands, they decided to focus on solely creating belts and completing classical models by designing an artistic collection entitled Project A, which invites artists to express themselves through an original belt buckle.
Rémi Defrancesco knows it, the J.Hopenstand house growth can only happen through a scaled evolution, considering everything is self-funded. To manage, navigate in a highly world universe during a pandemic, is complex. Remi Defrancesco talks about his strategies to succeed.
Why did you decide to create the brand J. Hopenstand?
The brand was created by my great-grandfather Jacques Hopenstand in 1925 in Paris, at a time when it was normal to order tailored bags, just like going to the tailor to have a suit designed or to a bootmaker to get a pair of shoes. Great leather goods brands today were only ateliers that manufactured for clients back then. There were no brands, one sought after the artisan’s savoir-faire. For my brother and I, it was important to pay tribute to its rare savoir-faire by taking over the business, even though we did not follow any training in leatherwork. My brother is a designer, and I followed a university curriculum at HEC Lausanne, followed by a Masters in fiscal law. Nothing in common on paper! But already when I was a teenager, I drew leather pieces which I had made by artisans. I was always attracted to leather. And the entrepreneurial and artistic fibers run in my family. My other great grandfather, Paul Séchaud, was the official Zermatt painter and my family led until recently the Traceroute company which was just sold to its employees.
Tell us about the start of the adventure.
We managed to relaunch the brand with a bit of personal funds. Of course, for the time-being, we must pursue our main businesses, me in strategic advice to companies, and my brother in design, to keep on living and financing the business. We choose leathers of excellence, sourced from animals who have been treated with respect, from high-quality tanneries, in Switzerland and in France, who work in the utmost care for the environment. The buckles are made in France or Italy. We work with about thirty suppliers in total.
Do you wish someday to internalize your production?
Yes. We hope to internalize at some point and train artisans. But this means renting facilities, equipment, and a continuous flow of orders. And of course, reintroducing the leathermaking apprenticeship in Switzerland which no longer exists. I dream of recreating this branch, this training, this savoir-faire.
How did Switzerland position itself back then in terms of leather goods savoir-faire?
There was a longstanding tradition of leather goods in Switzerland, even in the army. The city of Lausanne, for example, built its fortune on tanneries. The Mercier family was a great family of tanners. It is regrettable that this was all lost. Today, the government finances many startups in tech, and for good reason, but many jobs linked to craftsmanship are forgotten. When visiting artisan workshops, it is shocking to notice there is a generation missing, the one that is today 45 to 55 years old.
What is your business model?
We didn’t have a specific objective in terms of figures when we started off, we simply wanted to produce high quality products. But today, it is different. We are facing a reality which pushes us to a certain production volume. We should manage to sell about ten pieces a day, with an average price of 420 francs (the entry price is 340 francs) to reach a certain profitability. We are still far from this.
Do artistic collaborations truly differentiate you from your competitors?
It is a very interesting project. We imagined it like a work of art to wear. Few artistic executions are supported on the belt buckle. But when you think about it, it is a medium with a certain size that artists can use to express themselves. It is visible, unisex, a jewel to wear. We now count a total of nine artistic collaborations, and the latest one launched in Art Basel, was created by John Armleder. In 2022, we will be presenting a beautiful collaboration with a renowned artist which will be revealed at Art Geneva.
Do you hope to conquer an audience of art collectors with these projects?
We have indeed found a collector audience today and Art Basel enabled us to reach a threshold in this sector. There is of course still a lot to do for our belts to be considered as artwork by the greatest number. But a true potential exists. It is a universe which we know well, related to our family that loves contemporary art.
How do you choose your artists?
Our belts don’t fit in the box “fashion project”. We don’t choose an artist according to the buzz they create with the younger generations. Our approach is rather one of an art editor. We don’t limit the artist’s work.
Isn’t it complex to collaborate with artists today, during the era of extreme image control?
It really depends on the way in which the project is created. On our side, everything is done in a simple and humane way. Our contracts are only two pages long and we have never refused projects. Each collaboration brings challenges, it is true, and we must each time find the good balance between artisanship and artists. But it also depends on the way we approach them. It is a very coded sector where any faux pas can quickly be interpreted as a kind of artistic betrayal. Consistency and logic in artistic choices is essential to be credible.
Are there artists with whom you dream of collaborating?
Those with whom we have created pieces were already those with whom we dreamed of collaborating. But if I had to name one, it would be Franck Stella. A great artist half-way between sculpture and painting. A sacred contemporary art character. I am in contact with his wife and himself. He has retired today. But I am not losing hope. A collaboration with him would make total sense.
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