Renowned Thai silk company Jim Thompson appointed luxury veteran Gérald Mazzalovo as Group Chief Executive Officer in February 2016 to steer the company’s international expansion. Since then, Mazzalovo has put into motion a five-year revitalisation plan with ambitions to position Jim Thompson as Southeast Asia’s first global luxury brand. He recently sat down with The Moodie Davitt Report Managing Editor Kapila Ireland to discuss how travel retail is woven into the fibres of his strategy.
Thai silk company Jim Thompson, with a history both proud and steeped in the mystery of its founder’s disappearance, is a renowned brand that has become synonymous with Thailand and tourist shopping.
Perversely, though, it is a brand that faces serious challenges from the Southeast Asian country’s rising popularity as a tourist destination, and the resultant flood of international brands to its shores.
“Jim Thompson is a company that has grown through tourism,” says Group Chief Executive Officer Gérald Mazzalovo. However, it can no longer rely on its popularity amongst tourists for growth, he says, noting the relatively recent proliferation of competition.
“We do not claim to be a lifestyle brand. We are not promoting a specific Thai way of life. We are simply a brand of culture.” – Gérald Mazzalovo
Hit by an influx of international luxury brands carving out a presence in Thailand and the proliferation of shopping malls, the Jim Thompson business started to stagnate in recent years.
In 2016, the company turned to Mazzalovo, a brand management expert who served as President and CEO of Bally Group between 1999 and 2001 and before that, President and CEO of Loewe (1996-1998) at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH).
“All of the brands of the world are here now compared to 10-15 years ago. Thailand was one of the last countries luxury brands were looking at behind Singapore, Japan, and even China, for example,” he says.
The world of Jim Thompson
Today, the world of Jim Thompson spans three large business units, namely personal goods, home furnishings and restaurants, which are complemented by farming, a museum and an art centre. Silk is the defining element of the company’s heritage and continues to be a central feature of its business.
“One of the main axes of the plan is to grow in luxury and bring Jim Thompson on par with the biggest luxury competitors today. It needs to be integrated upstream – starting from the worm and the leaf up to the finished product.”– Gérald Mazzalovo
The company has long enjoyed prominence in Thai travel retail, operating seven points of sale across Thailand, and is working on expanding internationally (see panel above right).
King Power International Group hosts Jim Thompson boutiques in Bangkok at Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports and downtown at King Power Srivaree and King Power Rangnam. The retailer also lists the brand at Phuket International Airport and downtown at the King Power Phuket complex. Samui Airport also features a Jim Thompson boutique.
Mazzalovo’s appointment marks the third chapter in the evolution of the Jim Thompson company – the first being the creation of the brand by entrepreneur Jim Thompson until his disappearance in 1967 (see panel below feature), which was followed by the nurture and growth to a formidable company by Thompson’s assistant Bill Booth, who became Managing Director.
In 2015, recognising the brand needed to take a new direction to spark its international expansion, Booth approached Mazzalovo. The fashion industry veteran was tasked with reviewing everything from the product and brand identity to distribution, communication and organisation.
“In February 2016, I presented them with a five-year plan, which they asked me to implement as Chief Executive Officer. We are almost two years into a change process that is deep and growing,” he says.
Mazzalovo embarked on a major analysis of the Jim Thompson brand’s identity. “The methodology I have developed over the past 20 years is to analyse the meaning the brand has had in the past, and what it could have in the future. I associate the brand identity in its permanent ethical values and aesthetic element. Dialectics is at the heart of who we are and the way we resolve those dialectics is very specific to our brand,” he explains.
[The video above depicts the new, refreshed brand identity of Jim Thompson]
Mazzalovo’s five-year growth plan focuses on several elements. The first is improving the product in terms of style, consistency and quality. “One of the main axes of the plan is to grow in luxury and bring Jim Thompson on par with the biggest luxury competitors today. It needs to be integrated upstream – starting from the worm and the leaf up to the finished product,” he notes.
Next on the timeline is to open stores and restaurants in London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere. “This involves establishing the necessary point of sales with what I call a cluster approach – placing points of sale across all our categories in the same urban area: the fabric showroom, the flagship for personal goods and the restaurant.
“I feel this is one of our extraordinary strengths – Jim Thompson is legitimately present across these three activities. We have been doing this for a long time and they have grown organically,” he points out.
A brand of culture
Its diversity across these areas has led Mazzalovo to define Jim Thompson not as a lifestyle brand, but as a ‘brand of culture’. He comments: “It’s my mission to present the Southeast Asian culture to the world. Being present in food, homeware, fabric and in personal goods – that qualifies you more so than others as a brand of culture.”
The final step in the strategy is to improve the organisation. Mazzalovo has strengthened the team with over 15 new designers and a creative director. The team has developed areas including ready-to-wear, handbags, finished home products and products at higher price points such as leather handbags at €800 to €1,200.
“It’s a price point we didn’t have before,” he notes. “We are also introducing scarves with more content, such as Jacquard. These require a lot of technical know-how and are more expensive. All that is part of growing in luxury.”
Mazzalovo explains Jim Thompson is a national brand, one that the Thai people are very proud of. “Many of our customers who were buying the scarves and smaller items such as purses are buying the luxury leathergoods today. There were a lot of expectations for the brand. We introduced a seasonal logic, which it didn’t have in the past, but has resulted in higher turnover.”
The company revamped and fine-tuned its store in the Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok to great success. It reopened in July 2017. “We decreased the floor space by -10% – from 550sq m to 500sq m – and we decreased the number of pieces by -20%. But over August and September, sales grew +30% – it’s proving that the strategy will eventually work,” Mazzalovo enthuses.The brand is also beginning to branch out into other areas of business such as packaged food including dried fruit and teas. “We have started developing an embryo of a business. We have already secured several points of sales including with [America premium grocery chain] Dean & DeLuca.
“The packaging was created by a French designer to bring it up a luxury level and I have great expectations for it. It’s the natural course for the brand.”
The company also retained its founder’s passion for the arts via its museum and art centre. It has also established a permanent art pop-up within its Bombyx restaurant located next door to its store at the Siam Paragon mall. Each year a new artist is invited to showcase artworks at the restaurant which are available to purchase. Most recently, Jim Thompson collaborated with Ithipol Thangchalok, a contemporary Thai abstract artist whose career spans 50 years.“We draw inspiration exclusively from Southeast Asia, therefore it is part of the mission of the brand, and one of our main differentiating elements, to promote local artists.”
“We do not claim to be a lifestyle brand. We are not promoting a specific Thai way of life. We are simply a brand of culture,” he maintains.
Taking its rich heritage, the premiumisation of its products and services and a renewed identity as a brand of culture, Jim Thompson is poised for the next stage in its evolution – to become Southeast Asia’s first global luxury brand. For a brand that has grown through tourism, travel retail will be key to Jim Thompson’s ambitions.
“Visionary, art collector and aesthete”
The story of Jim Thompson is well-known throughout Thailand. A visionary American entrepreneur, art collector and aesthete, Thompson was hailed as having revitalised the Thai silk industry in the 1950s and 1960s.
He first discovered the Thai silks created by the Ban Krua community of muslim weavers living in the heart of Bangkok in the 1940s. Armed with the sumptuous fabrics, he travelled to New York to showcase the products, receiving an excellent response. The fabrics were even used in the 1951 Broadway production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I.
Thompson’s business prospered and in 1967 he opened his 9 Surawong Road store, which to this day remains the Jim Thompson company’s flagship. Two weeks after its opening, Thompson disappeared. Some say he embarked on a secret mission for the CIA, others that he was kidnapped, assassinated or the victim of a hit-and-run accident.
His disappearance remains a mystery, but his legacy shines brightly. The American entrepreneur’s house in Bangkok has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.