Exploring craft offers the opportunity to look more closely at a brand's DNA and origin…
For luxury furniture brand, Sé, this year has meant certain set-backs, but also an appreciation for better quality, a greater focus on communication and a chance to examine the tradeshow system. It’s also been a worthwhile opportunity for the industry as a whole to address sustainability issues, such as wasteful packaging, says Pavlo Schtakeleff.
HOW’S BUSINESS THIS YEAR? A TOUGH YEAR FOR LUXURY DESIGN.
Business hasn’t been as bad some. After the initial panic I started to look at things rationally and what I could do to get through it. It has been quite full-on for sure. My wife and I had a baby earlier this year and we have a six-year-old too, so life has been exciting and madly busy as it has for so many people. Sé was poised for Milan, which of course couldn’t happen in April and then there were conversations about it happening in June, but I sensed that wasn’t going to happen either, so in March we cancelled all of our production. That was hard. But there’s still a lot happening, we’re launching in China for example and we have lots to talk about, but we have to communicate in a slightly different way.
WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN BASED THIS YEAR?
I’ve been in London the whole time and our showroom was closed in March. We had to furlough the whole team, so I went back to how it used to be for me a long time ago, which was running A-Z of the business myself. At the beginning was okay because it was quiet, but it actually got me into the back office of the business, which I hadn’t done for a long time. I haven’t not travelled for such a long period of time in about 12 years, so for me just the cycling across the bridge to get the showroom everyday made me feel like I was still working. This is a brand I’ve been building with my business partner Marc (Sharifi), for 12 or 13 years now, so I was not going to resign myself to it not working.
YOUR MAIN OFFICE IS IN HONG KONG AND YOU HAVE ONE IN TAIPEI. ARE YOU ALREADY USED TO WORKING REMOTELY AND USING VIDEO PLATFORMS?
Yes, we started a while ago. Last year Hong Kong had some hurdles, so we had weeks when we couldn’t go to the office and because we’ve always been using laptops we’ve been used to working from home. Every morning people would just get online and start our daily meetings. And then this pandemic instead of being in the office, people are home and I’m in Japan and it has all felt quite natural. We’re also setting up a Milan office too.
BY EARLY MARCH EVERYTHING WAS LOOKING PRETTY SHAKY. WHAT HAD YOU BRACED YOURSELF FOR?
I think at the beginning it was more of a question of ‘what’s going on?’ and then it became more about ‘what are we and where do we sit in the market and what is our business?’ Knowing what we are and looking at it historically, I started to reassure myself. We are at the high end of the market, we sell a luxury product, but luxury brands have gone through worse events in history and have survived. We may have to slow down a bit, we may have to re-adjust, but we will get through this. And then customers and agents and designers were on the phone again and realised I was not the only one feeling like this, a lot of others are in the same boat.
DID YOU HAVE BIG PLANS FOR THIS YEAR?
Yes and all of it has had to go on the back burner for now. We were due to launch in Shanghai in March – we have a new partner for China – their order was ready to go. Then Milan, we had planned a big installation. Then we were to go from China to Milan and then to LA to launch there. And then, on to Moscow, where we’re in talks with a company who want to open a showroom with Sé at the heart of it. It has been very frustrating, but we have to be patient. It’s a moment to focus on how we develop the business in a more efficient way to allow us to get out of this situation, to really streamline.
WHAT ARE THE THINGS YOU NEED TO FOCUS ON?
The communication and education of the brand for those working with our products. Getting that language clearer and out of my head and on to a piece of paper. There’s a whole story of what the brand stands for. That was becoming apparent to us before all of this, so it made us focus even more.
HAS THERE BEEN A SHIFT IN REQUESTS FROM ARCHITECTS AND INTERIOR DESIGNERS FROM COMMERCIAL TO RESIDENTIAL NOW THAT WE’RE ALL HOME?
The focus has shifted very much to residential projects. That’s not to say commercial projects aren’t happening, we’ve always been a company that have sold in both. The thing that has surprised me is the urgency at which people need products – that hasn’t changed. I think people were more forgiving of extended lead times in May, but have lost their patience now. That’s a good reminder that the experience that we’ve had in the UK is different to other parts of the world.
WHERE ARE YOUR FACTORIES AND HAS EVERYTHING BEEN CLOSED?
Our factories are based in Slovenia, Italy, France and Portugal. Italy. The factories in Northern Italy were closed quickly and nothing was happening until early May. We would speak regularly, but people weren’t able to leave their homes and then later were only able to move within their own districts. There was such fear in Italy at the beginning whereas Portugal worked the whole way through. They had to socially distance and had to change their working model, but kept producing at a regular pace. France was the same aside from a few weeks. They were very pro-active and in Slovenia it was the same. A varied story for different people. I was in touch with everyone everyday and to talk to those not having a negative experience made me feel much more positive and enabled me to have a better grasp on what was happening elsewhere. I think I now appreciate the plug being pulled for a bit. Everyone was running at 100 mph. I think if I had focused on just London it would’ve felt quite different, but I try to focus on the international market.
DO YOU FORESEE A CHANGE IN THE TRADESHOW SYSTEM NEXT YEAR OR WILL BE CHURN ON AS BEFORE WHEN THE PANDEMIC PASSES?
Some people will want to get a plane and get going and do what they were doing before as quickly as they can, but I also think that there will be a lot of reassessment. I think financially many brands won’t be able to do what they were doing before, all of that travelling. The Zoom calls though – I’m not a huge fan and I’m finding that others feel the same. I think the face-to-face thing is still a necessity. And when you’re handling products at this end of then market you do still need to meet with clients. We’re also looking at how to promote ourselves differently without the constant meetings. However, having not done a tradeshow this year and still seeing the company grow makes me realise I don’t really have to do this every year. The social aspect of tradeshows, for designers and brands and buyers and so on, over the commercial bit, is the part of the experience that everybody has missed. Not having those conversations that inevitably lead to business can’t be replaced- we still need that.
DO YOU THINK PRESERVING CRAFT SKILLS AFTER THIS, WILL BECOME MORE APPRECIATED?
The whole story of provenance became such a gimmick. There are always certain people that really value quality, but also when companies restart and can make their margins on volume again I think they’ll go back to the way it was. For us it doesn’t change – we already stood for craftsmanship and high quality. I think the reality will be, as it is already, there will always be people who are deeply interested in the provenance, but you will also always have people who think, ‘that’s nice, but I will still buy something at a better price’ regardless of how it’s made and where it’s from.
THE DESIGN INDUSTRY OF COURSE IS HYPER-AWARE OF SUSTAINABILITY, SOME BRANDS EMBRACE IT, OTHERS, LESS SO. IS THIS THE MOMENT TO ASK MORE QUESTIONS, TRY HARDER?
I hope so. Again, there will be those who are interested because, rightfully so. Has human nature changed that much? Hopefully we’ll evolve from this. There are things we know we need to improve on as an industry, notably our packaging. The amount of bubble wrap and foam we use to pack up a table is crazy. If we could focus on that there would be a direct impact. It’s all down to the margins though. If the story is strong enough, the demand is there, and also a way to do it economically, then we will see change throughout the industry. It has to come from the big brands to show the way.
HAS REFLECTION BEEN GOOD FOR YOU?
Yes, for sure. The point of having to stop and reflect means you’re not just going to churn anything out next year, you’re going to think about why you’re doing it and if financially do you really have to do it and therefore what you do must be so much better. It’s a bit like the crash in 2008: people had to readjust and focus on the quality of what they were doing. I think designers have an opportunity to examine what new environments can be. We certainly want to focus on that, focus on quality even more.