Moleskine: A page out of (altered) history
Moleskine's claim that it was the notepad of Picasso et al might not be totally true – but who cares? Some other brands aren't quite what they seem, either.
Tim Walker is The Independent’s Los Angeles correspondent, covering entertainment and other concerns from the West Coast of the US. He was previously a features writer and the editor of the paper’s diary column. His first novel, Completion, is being published in January 2014.
Thursday 21 June 2012
On Monday in California, Microsoft unveiled its new tablet computer, the Surface, which is the sort of device that threatens to make pen and paper redundant once and for all. And yet, on the same day, back in the Old World, an Italian manufacturer of traditional notebooks announced plans to float on the Milan stock exchange.
In 2010, Moleskine, which markets itself as the "The legendary notebook of Hemingway, Picasso and Chatwin", enjoyed a turnover of €200m (£161m). It has been growing by 25 per cent every year since 2006, expanded from its Milan HQ to offices in New York and Hong Kong, and now sells about 10 million notebooks every year.
Far from threatening its popularity, the digital age has allowed the Moleskine to thrive, with creative types across the globe sharing their experience of the small, stitched black notebook on fansites such as moleskinerie.com, where they exalt its multiple potential applications. For example: writing notes, sketching, or... writing notes. Each Moleskine item comes with a fold-out leaflet, entitled "culture, imagination, memory, travel, personal identity." The brand's "family of notebooks", it claims, "ultimately [become] an integral part of one's personality."
The satirical blog Stuff White People Like has studied the Moleskine's enduring appeal, describing: "the puzzling situation whereby a white person will sit in an independent coffee shop with a Moleskine notebook resting on top of a Apple laptop... if a white person has a great idea, they write it by hand, if they have a good idea, it goes into the computer. Not only does this help them keep their thoughts organised, but it serves as a signal to the other white people in the shop that the owner of both instruments is truly creative. It screams: 'I'm not using my computer to check email and read celebrity gossip, I'm using it to create art. Please ask me about it.'"
However, the illustrious history that gives Moleskine its glamorous sheen is not as straightforward as it sounds. The brand was the brainchild of a teacher from Rome, Maria Sebregondi, who in 1995 read Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines. She came across a passage lamenting the discontinuation, a decade previously, of the travel writer's favourite line of "moleskine" notebooks. "To lose a passport [when travelling] was the least of one's worries," Chatwin wrote, "to lose a notebook was a catastrophe".
Sebregondi's subsequent research took her to the Picasso museum in Paris, where she found the artist's familiar little black sketchbooks. Ernest Hemingway's journals turned out to be remarkably similar, too. In a chapter about the Moleskine brand in his 2011 book, Niche: Why the Market No Longer Favours the Mainstream, James Harkin explains, "It was as if the whole history of the 20th-century avant-garde had revolved around a single hard-cover notebook held together by an elastic band." Sebregondi's boss at the small Milanese publishing company Modo & Modo trademarked the name Moleskine in 1997. The firm found a manufacturer in China, which began producing the notebooks to Sebregondi's specifications, and the first Moleskines went on sale a year later, wearing their inflated historical claims about Chatwin et al on a sleeve.
Moleskine is just one of many brands with hyperbolic back stories. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, produces outfits carrying the legend "Abercrombie & Fitch, Est. 1892", despite the present-day firm sharing nothing but its name with the late 19th-century sports outfitters. Its spin-off youth brand, Hollister, is named after its fictional founder, John M Hollister, who, "when he graduated from Yale in 1915 at the age of 21... knew he wasn't ready to give in to the Manhattan establishment his father had laid out before him." Hollister was actually launched in 2000.
Other companies trade on the authenticity of their supposed countries of origin: Foster's, apparently "Australian for beer", is these days rarely drunk by Australians, while the Indian-themed Bombay Sapphire is distilled and bottled in Warrington. Another Indian favourite, Cobra, describes itself as "splendidly Indian"; though it was once brewed in Bangalore, Cobra was famously created for Brits to eat with Indian meals, and is now brewed under contract in the UK. But perhaps we should simply accept this wanton romanticism as part of modern branding. As Modo & Modo's co-owner Francesco Franchesci once said of Moleskine's legend, "It's an exaggeration. It's marketing, not science. It's not the absolute truth."
Review: Of Mice and Men
By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work
Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar
What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?
Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings
The actor has confessed to his own insecurities
Allotments are the focus of a new reality show
Arts & Ents blogs
The Hobbit: There and Back Again set for possible title change
The best movies on Netflix: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'
Mrs Doubtfire 2: Robin Williams set to star in sequel to 1993 comedy
Grace Dent on TV: Game of Thrones has jumped the shark
The food poverty scandal that shames Britain: Nearly 1m people rely on handouts to eat – and benefit reforms may be to blame
US Navy christens huge $3 billion destroyer ship USS Zumwalt that appears as a fishing boat on enemy radar
Scottish independence: It is the English who should be on their knees, begging the Scots to vote ‘No’
Nigel Farage fatigue? Half of voters ‘immune’ to Ukip’s appeal
Nigel Farage on Have I Got News For You: Ukip leader ridiculed over expenses and party 'fruitcakes'
Nigel Farage: I’m taking on the status quo, and the Establishment’s fighting back
- 1 Are you turning into your dad? The top ten signs you've embraced dad-ism revealed as survey says 38 is age men turn into their father
- 2 Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'
- 3 Overheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
- 4 24 people applied for the 'world's toughest job', here are their interviews
- 5 Grace Dent on TV: Game of Thrones has jumped the shark