Officially, however you want. The company says that because Moleskine has an “undefined national identity”—it was derived from French, popularized by a Brit, headquartered in Italy, and sold across the world—you are welcome to say MOLE-skin, mole-SKEEN, mole-ay-SKEEN-ay, or whatever variation suits you. Can you imagine Louis Vuitton or Hermès being so liberal with the pronunciation of their brands?
But this isn’t just a question of phonetics. Moleskine’s proclaimed statelessness is unlike most luxury brands, which often identify strongly with a place, but is very much in line with the recent emergence of a ”transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen.” There are only so many of these truly global citizens but many more who fashion themselves citizens of the world from the comfort of their living rooms. Moleskine figures it has 228 million potential customers, about half of whom are in Europe.
According to the company, 3.3 million people, or 1.5% of its potential customers, have purchased a Moleskine product in the last 12 months, which either means it has plenty of room to grow or will always be a niche product.
Moleskine’s identity as a brand without a country fits, as well, with its origin story, which is printed on ecru paper and slipped inside most of its products. The iconic notebooks, bound in coated cardboard and kept closed with an elastic band, were first made by Parisian bookbinders in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the city’s creative class was largely comprised of expats. Moleskine likes to brag that the notebooks were favored by Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, and other notable artists who had transplanted to Paris.
The term “moleskine” was used by British writer Bruce Chatwin to describe the notebooks in his 1986 novel The Songlines. In 1997, a Milanese stationer, Modo & Modo, began producing the notebooks again, using Chatwin’s coinage. The company was bought by the French bank Société Générale in 2006, with later investments from two private equity firms, Italy’s Syntegra Capital and Switzerland’s Index Ventures. It’s transglobal business development.
Moleskine, incidentally, has been opening retail stores in train stations and airports. “The very essence of these places is one of transience,” the company says in florid marketing material, “origin and destination, start and finish, arrival and departure converge.”
Moleskine’s operating margin, its profit as a percentage of revenue, was 41.7% last year. That compares favorably—indeed, very favorably—to the luxury brands the company considers to be peers, like luggage-maker Tumi (19.7%), fashion firm Prada (27.2%), and beauty-product boutique L’Occitane (16.7%). It’s not hard to see why. The raw goods of Moleskine’s paper products, which represent 93% of the company’s revenue, are cheap compared to most luxury wares, so there’s more room to mark up the price.
The higher margins are being used by Moleskine’s bankers to justify a valuation between 22 and 29.1 times the company’s earnings last year, which is higher than brands like Burberry and Richemont. But is Moleskine best compared to all these luxury brands, which sell clothing and accessories, or companies that actually make, you know, paper? An illuminating chart from the company’s IPO prospectus makes the case that Moleskine is actually the opposite of a stationery company.
Wrap your head around that for a second. Here is the company acknowledging that it doesn’t so much sell notebooks as it does a sense of identity and culture. But that’s the essence of luxury brands: they don’t sell physical goods so much as the notions that the goods are supposed to represent. These intangibles—”culture, design, imagination, memory, and travel,” according to the company’s bankers—are a better business to be in than paper.