It is celebrated by the decadent and colorful designs that wrap a woman’s wrist like a snake, sparkling with the most exquisite gems in the world – but Bulgari is much more than a jewelry brand. Founded in 1884 in Rome, the House is known for its capacity to adjust to its time, providing jewelry for the biggest stars and red carpet events in the world, and also for the new generation of working women who emerged after the second world war.
In these uncertain times, when Covid-19 has swept away all we had taken for granted, Bulgari again plays a key role in society, by focusing on serious human policies that aim to soften some of the impact of the pandemic in Italy. Following a major donation to the Spallanzani Hospital to help it acquire a new state-of-the-art 3D high-definition microscope, the brand also started producing hand sanitizer gel, manufactured with Bulgari historical fragrances partner ICR, and distributed in 75ml recyclable bottles through the Protezione Civile (Italian Civil Protection Department).
Vogue Arabia chats with Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari CEO, about the present and future of Italian luxury and how we will consume post coronavirus.
In what way is Covid-19 affecting the luxury market and Bulgari specifically?
Covid-19 is infecting people globally, creating the greatest challenge to humankind in one century, together with global warming. This is a major health and economic concern for citizens and companies. The market is obviously affected, not only by the closure of most stores and all factories – except the perfume unit, which was reconverted into sanitizing gel that we donate to the Italian and Swiss hospitals – but by a psychological aspect of stress and fear that must be considered with great attention. The propensity to buy, although supported by e-commerce, obviously lowers until it almost disappears in the moment of great peak. We must not see it in the long term, but limited at this specific moment, and we must more than ever work on projects and strategies to be put in place when it will be possible to start again.
Historically, Bulgari is a brand that has overcome many hard periods in history and has always been able to adapt – for instance, with the Serpenti watch, which has a more discrete design for the post-second world war era. Will this health crisis also have an influence on the style or positioning of the brand?
Our founder, Sotirio Bulgari, is an example of resilience and adaptation to adversity and foresight. In times of war and after war, he was able to build a company now recognized as the biggest Italian jeweler in the world. When he arrived in Naples from Greece, he was robbed of everything, but he didn’t stop. He continued with what was left and arrived in Rome, where he founded today’s Bulgari. It is no coincidence that the Snake is a brand icon, with its capacity for transformation, adaptation, rebirth, and changing the skin to always transform and renew itself. It is part of our DNA and this great strength is what will guide us out of this new and terrible crisis. I’ve said that I believe our icons such as B.zero1, Serpenti, Octo, Diva or Fiorever will ever remain the bestselling and most desirable lines of Bulgari.
Internally, how is Bulgari protecting its staff? What measures have you taken?
We have relied heavily on the directives of the various governments in all areas of the world most affected by Covid-19. There have been gradual closures until production stops and smart working. All boutique staff have received masks and sanitizing gel for themselves and our clients. We work differently but efficiently, maximizing smart work technology that enables working from home and is run via software like Zoom. We host meetings bonding and aligning everyone behind the short-term contingencies and the post-Covid recovery initiatives. All our employees are strongly linked to the company with a great sense of belonging and responsibility.
How difficult is it to manage such a big company while not being physically present?
At a time like this, it is possible. First, I’m often at our Swiss headquarters where I can take advantage for some meetings of HD video technology, typically for product meetings. I also continue to Zoom all my Comex colleagues almost every day, while doing interviews with the press and even some candidates on Zoom, Skype, or WhatsApp call. The important thing right now is, on the one hand, to work on future strategies that will help us to be ready and start again successfully, and on the other, to continue to motivate employees and help them not to feel isolated and abandoned by the company. I myself am a lot on Yammer and on the portal’s Bulgari TV internal channels followed regularly by close to 90% of our worldwide employees. I personally involve them more than before in the various projects. You need to pay attention to the way in which you compare yourself, try to always be constructive and feel part of a great team.
How did you select the organizations that Bulgari is supporting during the Covid-19 crisis?
It was an instinctual choice. A few days after China declared its first Covid-19 case in January, a team of researchers at the Spallanzani Hospital in Rome had isolated the virus and cracked its DNA. We were in New York for the launch of the new B.zero1 Rock and the decision was immediate: to do something for those smart hands that represent Italy’s excellence and that deserved immediate support to accelerate the search for the vaccine and help China. In fewer than 20 days, we managed to get a very high definition 3D microscope, allowing them to track and undertake the virus’s dynamics when attacking human cells. The open dialogue with this wonderful team then gave us the right suggestions to continue to give our support when the virus swept Italy; the hand-cleansing gel with sanitizer was one of the missing products necessary for the daily work of doctors and nurses. We, therefore, joined forces with our historic fragrance partner ICR and in one month, we created and stabilized the formula. Production began on March 26 with ever-increasing quantities: donating 6,000 pieces a day at the beginning and 10,000 pieces a day to date. We believe we can reach 12,000 pieces a day as soon as we are up to speed. In this way, we can help not only the Italian hospitals but also that of Neuchatel, a Swiss canton so dear to Bulgari, home of our second headquarters where we develop all the watches and perfumes business. Now we are targeting to 20,000 per day to cover all of Switzerland and a few highly infected European countries.
How will this impact the business?
There is no business impact as factories must be closed by government directive. In this case, we were able to reactivate the perfume factory and to reconvert the amenities line to produce the sanitizing gel – thanks to the help of the people who voluntarily produce the gel every day and whose intelligent hands have turned brave, to help those who are on the front line every day, without stopping.
Fashion history says that after periods of struggle, clients crave over-the-top luxury. In your opinion, will people start shopping differently after Covid-19?
It is true that the return to normal after a period of great crisis has always led to an increase in the propensity to buy. It’s definitely a way to gratify yourself, a cuddle for having made it after so much suffering and uncertainty. Fashion and luxury have always been great protagonists of these moments after crises. Just think of the world wars; after the second world war, Dior’s New Look certainly entered with the proposal of a new woman. If I think of the history of Bulgari, one of the moments of maximum splendor was that of the Dolce Vita. In the late 1950s, Rome was a living city, recovered from the sufferings and hardships of the second world war. These are the years of the economic boom; the desire to live and enjoy the beauty, climate, and entertainment of one of the most beautiful cities in the world exploded. All the big film productions take place in Cinecittà and Bulgari became the jeweler of the stars. These are years of incredible creativity, and a need for beauty, of lightheartedness. After Covid-19, I am sure that the recovery will be just as strong, even if it will go towards a completely different approach to the product. It’s a path already started with CSR and sustainability that will lead us to have customers and to be ourselves the most demanding customers, in need to be informed and respecting what surrounds us. These are all values already belonging to the Bulgari brand. It will be nice to deepen them and make them even more part of everyday life and a new way of working.
China, a key market for all brands, is starting to show signs of recovery from Covid-19. Are the business numbers promising?
China is the answer to the previous question. The first case was declared by them in January and since then they have been observed by the whole world in the evolution of the virus. Today, finally, the phase they are experiencing is the second one, with a reopening and return to work, even if gradually. In the peak period, as per government directives, we closed more than 60% of our stores, which have now all been reopened and start billing again. Here, too, China confirms the natural propensity to buy that comes after a crisis. It’s been three weeks now and we are growing at strong double-digit figures in China as well as Korea, which is the other country which insofar has best managed the Covid-19 outbreak. Let’s hope it will soon be the case in the rest of the world. First to relieve people from the fear of this life-threatening virus, and second to allow all activities to resume and avoid hundreds of millions of people on temporary leave or even losing their jobs, as we’ve started seeing in some countries.
Now, as a regular citizen, not the CEO of Bulgari: What is the first thing you will do after the quarantine is over?
Nothing different from what I’m doing these days. Being strongly at the helm of the company and more than ever lead it to recovery, motivating the whole organization to move beyond its limits in terms of clienteling, excellence at 360 degrees, and ambition to share the joy of crafting the gems of nature from precious stones for jewelry to delicate flowers for fragrances. Privately, being currently in Switzerland, I can see four of my kids regularly and I am often in contact with the fifth one in France via WhatsApp. I’m missing nothing and I am particularly privileged to be confined in Switzerland, where I can enjoy relative freedom and continue to feed my passion for trekking.