When Wall Street faltered last October, so did the demand for luxury goods. Even so, 15-year-old Assouline Publishing, founded in France by Martine and Prosper Assouline, has managed to maintain its footing by publishing books that are intended to be just as much a luxury brand as watches at Cartier. While developing a following for 17-pound, hand-bound books with hand-tipped illustrations, like its newly released Oscar Niemeyer, with photos by Matthieu Salvaing ($550), Assouline has also created a niche for related products like an $8,500 wooden lectern designed by Brazilian architect Niemeyer. At the same time, Assouline continues to add more stand-alone boutiques and shops within other stores.
To explain the continued strength of Assouline's appeal, Ausbert de Arce, who joined the company in 2000 to head its U.S. office after serving as CEO of Taschen, noted: “There are two types of luxury. There's the vulgar consumer form of luxury and the inherent notion that some things are superior to other things.” For him, Assouline, with its heavily illustrated books, works of art in themselves, falls into the latter category. “We produce beautiful objects,” said de Arce. “They're not meant to be part of an overall consumer market. That particular customer is inured to the economy. They're taking a book into their collection because it's something they love. However, what does happen in a tough economy is that people will wait.”
To try to make purchasing its books an even higher priority for collectors, Assouline has made several changes over the past year, including moving the bulk of its operations to the U.S. The Assoulines now live full-time in New York City. In part, the transition reflects a migration in sales; in 2000 France accounted for 70% of sales, a percentage that is now generated in the U.S. The company, which prefers not to call itself a publisher—“We create gifts that are books,” said de Arce—also shifted its retail model. As early as 2002, Assouline began diversifying its accounts. By the end of 2008, over half of its business was from nonbook channels. Although the rate of sales has slowed for the startup—sales were doubling every year earlier this decade—Assouline is now a multimillion-dollar company with sales in eight figures.
In addition to reaching out to nontraditional retailers, Assouline began opening “corners,” or branded Assouline Shops in Shops, starting in 2003 with Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. Over the intervening years, Assouline has continued to add corners in upscale department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom throughout the country, as well as one in Sotheby's in New York in May; there are now 17 such sections. The only bookseller to have an Assouline corner is Books & Books, which added a dedicated Assouline room to its stores in Coral Gables and Miami Beach late last year. Those are also the only corners where the books and merchandise are sold strictly on consignment.
All corners are carefully planned out at the Assouline offices in New York. Every item is for sale: the trunks designed by French craftsman Goyard filled with 100 Memoires titles retail for $20,000; the Coach leather library cases lined with red suede that contain 40 Memoires list for $2,500. “Books are face out, stacked, upside down; everything coaxing anyone who visits to perceive the books as what they are meant to be, beautiful expressions of the Assouline universe. A universe of chic, elegance and one full of surprises,” according to Assouline's instructions to retailers.
Like Taschen, Assouline also has its own line of boutiques to showcase its books and products. De Arce describes them as “an immediate immersion in our world and the Assouline experience. They create the sense that books are objects and just being around them is a thing of beauty.” The boutiques carry all three lines of Assouline books—from the high-end ones priced at $500—$550, to the mid-range titles in the $45—$75 range and the smaller, $18.95 Memoires, compact books on cultural figures and objects that launched the company—as well as candles and lecterns.
The first Assouline boutique opened in Paris in 2005; the first U.S. one in New York City at the new Plaza Hotel in September 2008. The company, which currently has six boutiques, is adding more in the U.S., including one in Los Angeles's Melrose Place, which had a soft opening in late September, as well as a 2,200-sq.-ft. store at the Crystals luxury mall in Las Vegas, which will open in 2010.