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Sunday, May 6, 2012

CLOSE-UP: Chanel president Japan, Richard Collasse

Richard Collasse: Sold on brand Japan

For the last 27 years, Richard Collasse has been the head of Chanel in Japan — though this French luxury goods guru is a questing author, too

Staff writer

In Tokyo's high-end Ginza district, the Chanel Building stands out among the luxury fashion boutiques and global brands' emporiums thanks to its shining black-glass exterior.

News photo
Proud guardian: Richard Collasse, president of Chanel K.K., in his Chanel Building office in Tokyo before a portrait of the company's French founder, Coco Chanel (1883-1971). Collasse says Coco's spirit remains at the root of the brand to this day. SATOKO KAWASAKI

To go inside Chanel's flagship shop in Japan is, for the normal hom sap, however, to be overwhelmed by the variety of elegant and luxurious items including bags, shoes, suits and jewelry — and stunned by their prices.

Such is also the case in the perfumes section where, among the array of fragrances, is one of Chanel's newest, named Chance. The surprising floral bursts of this "decidedly young scent for those who dare to dream" is seemingly pitched at women with a nose for the unexpected — and who like to think they take chances in life.

In its mission-statement essence, though, Chance could be reflecting the life of none other than the president of Chanel K.K. himself — Richard Collasse.

But though he has been at the helm of Chanel in Japan for 27 years, Collasse's life began far from luxury fashion and Japan — in the beautiful, ancient town of Castelnaudary in the Aude department of the south of France's Languedoc-Roussillon region. Born the son of a senior Air France pilot in 1953, as an infant he was moved with his family to Paris until, when he was 9, his father's job took them to Morocco.

It was there, in the multicultural city of Casablanca, that Collasse enjoyed his teenage years until, at age 18, he returned to Paris to finish off his secondary education at the prestigious Lycee Fenelon.

Before taking his place in the Oriental Languages Department of the University of Paris, his father encouraged him to go to Japan in the summer of 1972. And, as he recounts in the autobiographical essay "Shall We Meet in Tokyo at 4 a.m.?" ("Gozen Yoji, Tokyo de Aimasuka?") he co-wrote with a French novelist named Shan Sa in 2007, "I became a captive of the kindness, delicacy and smiles of Japanese people."

That love for Japan was also dramatically revealed in Collasse's first novel, "La Trace/ Harukanaru Koseki" ("Far Ship Wake"), published in 2006 by Shueisha International Inc. There, the main character, a young French traveler in Japan, falls in love with a Japanese girl on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Then, after the two have been out of touch for decades, she sends a letter to her former beau who has become the president of a famous French company in Japan. It's a story that would appear to be not entirely unconnected with the life of Collasse, who returned to Japan after learning Japanese at the University of Paris.

In Tokyo, he initially worked at the French Embassy in Tokyo and in his early 20s married a Japanese woman. Then in 1979, he got a job with Givenchy before joining Chanel K.K. in 1985. Since 1995, when he was made president of the Japanese branch of Chanel, he has established the brand as one of the most prominent at the luxury end of the market in this country, with 37 fashion boutiques across Japan.

In addition, Collasse was also chairman of the European Business Council in Japan from 2002 to 2009, and in 2006 he was awarded L' ordre national de la legion d'honneur — one of the highest French decorations. Then, two years later, he added to that the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Stars.

Additionally, Collasse's second novel, "Saya," which he wrote in French and Japanese, won le Prix Culture et Bibliotheques pour tous (the Prize of Culture and Libraries for All) in France in 2010, and in November 2011 that was followed by a collection of short stories, "Les Voyageurs ne Meurent Jamais/Tabibito wa Shinanai" ("Travelers Never Die").

Then, on March 1 this year, he published a new novel in France set in a tsunami-hit city in the Tohoku region of northeastern Honshu. Titled "L'Ocean dans la riziere," ("The Ocean in the Rice Paddy"), the book is based on his experience of volunteering in that region following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.

Amid his busy life, the 58-year-old head of Chanel in Japan made time to meet The Japan Times on April 12 at his office in Ginza.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, I didn't imagine I would become an employee of a company. My father was a senior pilot with Air France and I didn't know about office work and people in those kinds of jobs.

News photo
Landmarks: Richard Collasse and a friend at his seventh birthday party in Paris in 1960. COURTESY OF RICHARD COLLASSE

At school, I could get perfect scores for writing in French even without trying, and that was the subject I enjoyed most. So I wanted to do something related to writing. For example, a news reporter or a novelist.

When I was small I also wanted to be a photographer, and I got my first camera when I was 13. It was a Topcon, which was made by a Japanese company called Tokyo Kogaku that no longer produces cameras.

Could you tell me about your childhood in Morocco?

I had the ordinary life of a child then, when we lived in Casablanca. School hours were longer than they are now, and I studied at junior high and high school until 6 p.m. After that, I went to a cram school for mathematics because I wasn't good at the subject.

In Casablanca, the weather was nice so I enjoyed outdoor activities including playing tennis. During my long school holidays, such as Easter, my father took days off and we drove to the desert, which is on the other side of the Atlas Mountains from Casablanca. I had very exciting experiences during those travels.

Morocco has a great diversity of cultures that are influencing each other. Although it is a largely Arabic, Muslim country, various religions coexisted in peace. It is a beautiful country with a rich culture, and I had no problem growing up in such a diverse cultural environment.

When did you go back to France?

Right before I entered university. Then I felt as if I'd fallen into hell from heaven. In Paris, the weather is often rainy or cold, and people there are not very friendly. Although France is my home country, I didn't spend much time there during my childhood. I had an idealistic view of France in my mind. I suffered from Amelie Poulain syndrome — do you know what that is?

No. What is it?

Well, "Le Fabuleux Destin d' Amelie Poulain" is a French movie made in 2001 that depicts a beautiful Paris full of gentle people. Many young Japanese women watched the movie and traveled to Paris. But when they got there, many of them experienced such problems as having their bags snatched or slipping on dogs' droppings. Their dream of Paris was punctured. That is called Amelie Poulain syndrome.

I also experienced something similar to that syndrome. It's a long story, and I wrote about it in my novel "La Trace", but basically, when I first came to Japan, it was as if I encountered heaven. I found myself very comfortable with Japanese people.

I had been planning to study French literature at university, but I changed my plan and decided to learn Japanese and other subjects so that I could become a diplomat in Japan. After graduating from university in Paris, I got a job at the French embassy in Tokyo and worked there for two years. But after that, I found the job was unsuitable for me, because my personality is not calm enough.

What was your impression of this country when you came for the first time?

News photo
Collasse, age 11, receives his first communion — at St. Dominic's in Casablanca, Morocco. COURTESY OF RICHARD COLLASSE

Actually, I'd come because my father told me Japan was a beautiful country — and to buy a Nikon camera. But when I got here, I was impressed by Japanese people. Although it was very hot in the middle of summer, and there were not many air conditioners, I didn't care at all about the heat. For 50 days I traveled around Japan, and the people I met were very kind to me.

Before I left France, I went to the offices of the travel organization Nihon Kotsu Kosha (now JTB) in Paris and told a staffer there that I wanted to stay at homes in Japan. He said that was almost impossible. However, a friend of a friend of my father's in Tokyo agreed to let me stay at their home in Tokyo, and that was good start. After that, I stayed at the homes of people I happened to meet in my travels around the country.

In your first novel, "La Trace," the narrator goes to an island in the Seto Inland Sea and stays at a family's home there. Was that your experience?

Exactly. I met a young man on a bus from Tokyo to Kobe. He said to me, "I live on an island in the Seto Inland Sea. Why don't you come and visit me." And I said, "I'm going to Kobe now, but after that I would very much like to visit you." I stayed at his home for a week.

In the novel, the narrator falls madly in love with a beautiful Japanese girl on the island. Was that also your experience?


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