Montblanc writes (RED) to end AIDS

The historic German writing instrument and luxury goods manufacturer Montblanc recently unveiled its latest offering in support of the (RED) Foundation in Paris

A fine rain was misting over Paris but on the Champs-Elysées, tourists and residents alike were braving the weather to immortalise themselves in front of a striking yet ephemeral landmark. The vivid red that adorned Montblanc’s flagship store on the iconic avenue certainly cut a brilliant figure against the sandy buildings of the French capital.

Hours later, the historic German writing instrument and luxury goods manufacturer, part of the Richemont group, unveiled its latest offering in support of the (RED) Foundation’s continuing fight to end HIV/AIDS, with the foundation’s signature hue splashed as an art installation – complete with hand-written messages scrawled across the facade and walls of its Paris flagship by Belgian artists Denis Meyers and Arnaud Kool – and a range of Montblanc products. The futuristic Marc Newson designed (Montblanc M) Red writing instruments, of course, but also luggage with the introduction of the (Montblanc M) Red Trolley. 

Achtung Digital sat down with chief executive officer Nicolas Baretzki ahead of a night of generosity and celebration, to find out how heritage undersigns a youthful and thoroughly contemporary mindset and how Montblanc saw red. 

From left to right: Adrien Brody, Nicolas Baretzki, Georgia May Jagger and Billy Porter at the RED Montblanc event in Paris.

Achtung Digital: So you’re in Paris to paint the town (RED) tonight. 

Nicolas Baretzki: Kind of! Besides contributing to the inspiration created by this wave of red, more seriously, we’re here in Paris to continue to contribute to our association with the (RED) foundation, rather than to celebrate the launch of this second edition. Coming here made sense as it coincides with the Global Fund Replenishment conference, a major step in global AIDS fundraising held this year in France, with President Emmanuel Macron. They’re looking to raise 14 billion US dollars.  

To achieve this, they need awareness, attention, and we believe as a brand that we can definitely give that kind of attention. For us, it was a rather exciting experience. That’s why we decided that, having a flagship on one of the iconic avenues of the world, why not convert that whole place into a sensational red pop up to give a strong message about this collaboration. 

That’s why you have “Write (RED), end AIDS” on the facade. I believe that when you see the sheer number of people standing there having their picture taken, and sharing on social networks, we created exactly the kind of buzz we wanted to have.  

And finally, of course, it’s not just about awareness, it’s also about money and in our own way, contributing to the funding of this association.  

“Write (RED), end AIDS”.

AD: Now in your second collaboration with the (RED) foundation, can you retrace how the collaboration came together? 

NB: You know, it was in fact pretty simple. We had pretty close connections with people who are themselves close to the foundation, like Marc Newson. But what we really liked in this foundation is twofold. 

First, that it’s about people, and it’s about education. We believe that this is very close to the roots, the DNA of Montblanc. In a way, we can be much more meaningful when it comes to education because of who we are. So it was a very interesting project in that respect, like what we did with UNICEF for many, many years. 

And second, the way it is managed, in a way that ensures that whenever a dollar is collected for the cause, close to a dollar goes to the full project and its execution. We are not financing an organization, we are financing the result of what this organization wants to achieve. That’s how it all started and I have to say it’s been an interesting journey.  

AD: How do you continue to expand on the original brief?

NB: At the end, the brief is quite simple: use the (RED) Pantone and work with it to create maximum exposure and visibility.  

So we decided to go with our writing instrument and thought “let’s go with a completely new product line in that partnership.” That’s why the new luggage, with its red polycarbonate body and leather detailing, was launched this year. Can you believe that it’s the same Pantone for every product? Depending on the material you’re using, it turns out to be very different from one red to another, even though it’s the same Pantone colour. 

Introducing lugging to its product range.

AD: At play seems to be an endless ability to rethink simple objects – a suitcase, a pen. How do you incorporate constraints, new technologies, evolving customer desires into the heritage of Montblanc? 

NB: I think it’s a simple answer: it’s what we’ve been doing forever, ever since the beginning of Montblanc. If you think of the origin of the company, it started with an idea, an innovation and a very unique formula – having not just one or two founders but three, with very different expertise. That kind of start-up mindset, although the term didn’t exist 113 years ago, stayed along the journey of Montblanc.

I don’t oppose heritage with innovation, with daring concept or even disruption. It’s how we’ve handled things at Montblanc from the start and has contributed to the success of this maison. An ability to be know for great value, strong expertise and craftsmanship, and a very important heritage while at the same time, challenging the status quo and being able to go into a completely new category. 

AD: So you transform innovation into heritage? 

NB: At the end, it’s a cycle so I would agree. More than that, if you think about it, we started with writing, then we went into leather, watches and today, into a fourth category with the new tech devices. The philosophy of Montblanc is that we believe in skills and expertise. Without arrogance, for writing instruments, the origin is Hamburg, Germany. When we went into watches, it wasn’t just opportunistic. We went to Switzerland; we now have two manufactures, and a whole team that thinks about watches from morning to evening. 

Now entering into smart devices and new technologies. We built a tiny team but of people who understood how to work in this universe, dialogue with the Googles of this world. 

Innovation, heritage or craftsmanship are always present. Their relative weight in each category services only our ultimate aim: give our customer what they need, what they want or what they don’t even know they could want. 

A (Montblanc M)RED on the desk of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, photographed by Lottermann Fuentes for Achtung Mode Nr. 37.

AD: What does that mean for the smart device space?

NB: This is a fourth and growing pillar of the company. We live in a world where these technologies are more and more present, and where we make these objects more and more mandatory. Most people will carry a smart device of some kind.

Two years ago, a smart watch was about replicating what you had in your phone on your wrist. Today, it’s about giving you the opportunity to be free of your phone while keeping functionalities. Tomorrow, all the technologies around health and security will bring real added value. By reading a few key indicators, it will be possible to go in preventive health. 

My strong belief is that there’s a space for smart luxury within the smart device space, and that, as a luxury maison, we can use technology to make life seamless while keeping this inspiration of heritage, tradition, great design that extend beyond the functionalities of a device. 

Jean-Marie Ancher, former director of Le Taillevent, using a Montblanc pen, photographed by Lottermann Fuentes for Achtung Mode Nr. 33.

AD: What does being inspired mean to you and to Montblanc?

NB: Inspired is a very, very tricky word, because it can be “the source of” or “what influences someone.” It’s already two almost opposite ideas. Playing with words is quite interesting! When I think about this logic of red and inspiration, it was about how can we play with this concept, while remembering that we play for a reason. How do we influence? How do we raise awareness? How do you make sure that people pay attention?

Red was no coincidence: it is a colour that alerts people. When you’re driving, it means danger, attention, something you need to notice. That’s exactly what we want for (RED).

The roots become an instrument to the objective, which is how much we can contribute. That’s what we’re about today. 

AD: What does it mean for a company today, in terms of social responsibility and sustainability, to be bold?

NB: First, it’s a mindset. It’s a question of whether or not you’re prepared to take risks, if you’re willing to go into territories you’re not comfortable with, or creating disruption. That’s definitely not just a mindset of mine but one of Montblanc. 

I do believe that when you’re entering into territories that you might know less, or perhaps more accurately that you are less known for, it’s also a way to create visibility and attention. When we did the collaboration with A Bathing Ape in July, a lot of comments on Instagram that said the collaboration was crazy, asked what is that new CEO doing and so on. I like to read those because they’re coming from our core clients because they are the ones who, if you do something bold, would be the most disrupted. 

It shows that you can still surprise people and at the end, it contributes to not being a routine. Used properly and sparingly, it’s a very powerful, effective way of delivering messages – about sustainability, education, launching a new category, or any other reason. 

Clemens Pflanz, founder of the German “Meisterkreis”, using a Montblanc pen in Achtung Mode Nr. 34.

AD: How does today’s increasingly digital world, where experiences are more important than objects, translated at Montblanc, with its track record for high-end analogue objects? How has this affected the needs and desires of your customers?

NB: I don’t oppose these two notions. You can never fight technology. You only adapt to ensure that you remain relevant in a world that evolves, and that you evolve with. 

Today, we’re in a world that is global, but just because it’s more and more digital doesn’t mean it is less and less analogue. It’s a constant cycle. The beauty of carrying such an object, the craftsmanship, the heritage, the stories are still extremely important even as the way you communicate might be more and more digital. 

The more digital the world becomes, the more I see people go back to real values. That’s why vintage may be so important, why we sell so many fountain pens today. It’s beyond functionality; it’s about the experience of what it means to write. 

I see a lot of younger people going to that category because we give them the opportunity to experience, for example with the ink bar where you can test. Once you test, it’s the wow effect. What a feeling, what an emotion, what a story – at the end, we convert a lot of people. That’s why we now have programs with universities and different markets so we can really talk about the world of writing and why it’s important. Why it’s important to preserve this heritage we share.