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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.

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."