Why Moleskine Has Managed To Succeed As A Brand

As the stationary maker goes public, here is why people want to own part of the literary tradition.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Calling all Moleskine fetishists – you may yet get a share in Hemingway” was written by Steven Poole, for The Guardian on Friday 8th March 2013 13.45 UTC

Do you want to write like Ernest Hemingway or Bruce Chatwin? Then you need a Moleskine notebook. Purchase one of these marvels of stationery engineering – the strokable black cover with rounded corners, the bookmark, the expandable back pocket, the sewn pages – and it surely won’t be long before you are composing muscular sentences about exotic perambulations and recently deceased animals. The Moleskine has become such a writer’s fetish object, indeed, that the company is now planning to go public on the Milan stock exchange, potentially valuing it at €600m.

This despite the fact that Hemingway and Chatwin never actually used a Moleskine. The Italian publisher Modo&Modo created the brand in 1997, so its “heritage” – the website also mentions Picasso and Van Gogh – is more myth than fact. Even so, Moleskines (based on a description by Chatwin of a type of notebook he used to buy in France) are seriously good products. And writers must be allowed their little tool obsessions – some swear by £80 mechanical pencils, others by a certain obscure brand of Japanese gel pen. Famously, the sci-fi novelist William Gibson composed the stories in which he gave the world the concept of “cyberspace” on an old manual typewriter.

It might seem strange to be floating a paper company in this virtualised digital age, but Moleskines are paradoxically popular with the techy subculture of productivity, or “Getting Things Done”. Smartphones and iPads offer innumerable apps for to-do lists or sketching, but many find it easier to organise themselves with pencil and paper. And a Moleskine will never crash and lose all your data. (Of course, it also can’t be backed up to the “cloud”, but those who don’t want their screenplay ideas or drawings of louche sheep scrutinised by Silicon Valley corporations will be happy with that too.)

Rising stock markets in 2013 have increased confidence for initial public offerings generally, compared to the gloomy peak of the financial crisis. It’s true the Facebook IPO last year was almost a new dotcom boom and bust all in one – Zuckerberg’s empire is currently trading at only 70% of its offer price – but perhaps investors will feel happier about a firm with tech-hipster cred that also makes something tangible.

Moleskine is now owned by the private equity firm Syntegra, which may disappoint literary romantics, but the company is still careful (perhaps all the more careful) to cocoon the product in a nimbus of feel-special rhetoric. Apparently, for example, Moleskines are “nomadic objects”. Let’s assume this doesn’t mean the notebooks will wander off by themselves when you most need them. No, it must be that owning a Moleskine makes you a nomad, a footloose cosmopolitan littérateur, even if you’re only taking it down to Starbucks to ostentatiously scrawl in while frowning. The company even claims that the Moleskine brand is “synonymous with culture, travel, memory, imagination, and personal identity”, which is a lot to be synonymous with.

At base, the real appeal of Moleskine’s IPO is not the bookish psychobabble but the fact that the company operates in the market identified by analysts as “Italian luxury goods”. So the person who buys a Moleskine, far from being some kind of dissident intellectual, is really just a close cousin to customers of Bulgari and Salvatore Ferragamo.

If Moleskine succeeds, who might follow? The world of stationery obsession is a deep rabbit hole. Some claim to find Moleskines too déclassé and mainstream, and instead prefer the all-American minimalism of Field Notes, or the more obscure cachet of Moleskine’s older German rival, Leuchtturm1917. Scientists have yet to determine whether using a Leuchtturm is likely to make your prose style more like Schopenhauer‘s. But the important thing, as with a Moleskine, is just to make sure people notice you are writing in it.

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