There’s a little gourmet brand born in Paris, growing and expanding: Hugo & Victor. After barely 4 years, several shops opening and the beginning of an international expansion, the brand is – already – publishing a book: « Les 5 saisons par Hugo & Victor Paris – 80 créations au fil des saisons » (“The 5 Seasons by Hugo & Victor Paris – 80 Creations through the Seasons”. Is it speed or haste?
I have met Sylvain Blanc for a passion-story-interview so as to understand the Hugo & Victor mechanism: a young and true success story.
The meeting with Sylvain Blanc
It is difficult, during the interview, to guide Sylvain Blanc, the co-founder of Hugo & Victor. His speech is perfectly smooth, passionate, and it leaves no … blanks. A marketing point of view on his brand? Here is something to delight him! And to change him from the usual culinary analyses.
Seasons, Kaffir lime, producers, the originality of their approach … he sets the scene before dealing with the brand adventure he founded with Hugues Pouget and with their book: the climax of the interview.
This book launch has indeed given rise to questions…
Can a new brand be well-grounded?
Can it replay the heritage of a country, of a know-how– without betraying it – and put it back into light in a modern, lively and joyful manner?
Can it finally write its first book, just like “big brands”?
Hugo & Victor answers “yes” to all these questions with appetite and with freshness and candor – though its founders are far from being candid.
How did this brand gain overnight this legitimacy which allows it today to master its codes and to tell its story?
It is rooted in several assets:
Despite its young age, this brand is already enjoying success
– With its shops: 2 appealing Parisian locations, one corner at Le Printemps Haussmann;
– A beginning of foreign expansion, with successful participations in events in Asia, and the opening of a shop in Miami;
– Nice partnerships with other brands, like with Bollinger’s Champagne or with artists, like Mathias Malzieu for his book “Le plus petit baiser jamais recensé”.
A refined image
The brand has been clearly defined.
– The brand name associates the gimmick with the literary reference to one of the greatest French poet and writer. It is easy to remember and it already defines a territory. The two male first names refer to Hugues Pouget and Sylvain Blanc, the two founders. But without personifying them, it can live apart from them, independently. There is even a smart touch of humor in the link between Hugues and Hugo. Never mind Zadig & Voltaire…
– A well-defined territory. The literary reference of the brand name is to be found again in the product conditioning: the chocolate boxes are halfway between the moleskin notebook (with its elastic closure) and the prestigious old book (with its relief patterns and lettering).
– The marketing and speech are mastered. Besides, when mentioning the points of sale, they do not talk about shops (much too common), nor House (far too Couture), nor workshop (too experimental). All these words have become clichés. Here, a shop is a “cabinet de curiosités™ » (a curiosity gallery).
– Visual elements between great modernity and classic style. Hugo & Victor have made theirs the black and white duality of luxury brands. In the style of Dyptique (whose original shop was by the way a “bazar chic”, reminding one of curiosity galleries) which combined former codes in a simple manner.
Why use black in the shops? “this is the best to highlight colors” says Sylvain Blanc. As the products are colorful, black lets them express themselves visually.
– An elaborate display in shops. “For consumers to change of buying habits” reveals Sylvain Blanc. Indeed, you enter the little Hugo & Victor’s shop near to Le Marché Saint Honoré as you would a jewelry store. There, the pastries, subtly and softly lighted in their little recesses in the wall, are masterpieces you first savor with your eyes, further evidence of our nearly being in a museum… By the way, weren’t Curiosity Galleries the ancestors of museums?
What gives this young brand so much stability and maturity is its solid bases:
– Friendship. Hugues and Sylvain have known each other for a very long time; they come from the same region. They share much more than a business adventure. Friendship is not an empty word for them. It certainly is a way of functioning. Proof of this: they build the brand in duo. No real work-sharing that would give one the artist role and the commercial part to the other. Though the pastry chef is admittedly Hugues Pouget, they elaborate their creations together.
– Nature and good products. “Agriculture is very important for both of us”, explains Sylvain Blanc. “Coming from Hyères, we were immersed in it. There is a farmer market, there are farms all around”. This taste for and sensitiveness to nature and to all the healthy products it yields are still deep in them. A true respect for the products springs from Sylvain’s speech and from Hugo & Victor’s book as well as. One example? Frozen products. “They are fine, says Sylvain Blanc, but things never taste as good as when elaborated with a natural product”.
– Education. The two founders did not skip the “learning” step. Hugues Pouget acquired experience at Le Bristol and trained with Guy Savoy. As for Sylvain Blanc, it was at l’Ecole Polytechnique, Le Printemps and Barry Callebaut. Through hard work and alertness, they have been able to attain a complete mastery of their skills. A mastery that grants them independence today.
The French know-how legacy. A cultural, literary, even fashion legacy. Sylvain Blanc could talk for ever about Victor Hugo: “No writer is as timeless as Victor Hugo. He was a public figure too: in terms of politics, no one is more contemporary than he was. He is still inspiring new ideas. And he participated in France’s influence”.
Also, this French legacy is mostly to be found in pastry. “Pastry remains one of the last truly French know-how.” explains Sylvain Blanc. Indeed, Hughes Pouget, the Executive Pastry Chef at Guy Savoy’s – (shortly after he was awarded his third star) in 2002, then France Champion of Desserts in 2003 – largely stands for this tradition. The two founders have cherished, shown respect for and worked at these French references. Today, they can also play with them and reinvent them. “For us, it was meaningful to keep up with this French style refinement and to make it contemporary. Not to be backward-looking”.
These values are the guiding principles of Hugo & Victor’s work.
– Time: The brand’s book does reflect the importance of this value: the time needed to peel apples, to arrange pomegranate seeds one by one on a pie… is quite difficult to grasp. The gourmet only perceives the result. Here also lies all the magic of a masterpiece’s beauty: its complexity should not be sensed.
– Respect: conceding there are seasons, to start with! Even if the notion of seasons resurfaces through organic shops and Haute Gastronomy, pastry chefs are still rarely concerned with it. So many strawberries are to be seen on market stands on Valentine’s Day, so many raspberry cakes for Christmas… For Hugo & Victor, the respect for ingredients starts with respecting their seasonal growth and so respecting taste!
Besides, their relations with their partners and suppliers are based on the value of respect as well.
Then, was it really too early for this brand to dare publishing a book? To dare the remembrance work?
“The remembrance work? I am very sensitive to it. It is important to try to find things in us that will build up a legacy and that we will develop” says Sylvain Blanc. Having worked at Le Printemps, he could see what kind of treasures company archives could hold: taboos, of course, but also fantastic things to be put forward to guide the marketing and communication work.
Beyond his sensitiveness to this subject and his experience, Sylvain Blanc has also been driven by Hugo & Victor’s international development to this early concern about memory. “Getting ready for international expansion is getting ready to passing on a know-how. I would say that, in the last couple of years, the greatest part of our work was to create and collect the documentary elements to be passed on. That is to say bible papers, pictures, recipes and spec sheets in every field: operational but also in architecture”.
Finally, the book came out because “we had real stuff to tell”. It actually paints a rather full portrait of the brand and overflows with these little stories that make history. But, as it is about a pastry brand, it discloses recipes of course -by the way, you’d rather be prepared because the recipes haven’t apparently been made easier for the readers – With great openness, the Chef unveils some of his cooking secrets for the preparation of 80 of his – already classic – creations, we discovered in his shops.
The brand with paradoxes
This maturity and youth paradox is far from being the only one. It actually becomes quite obvious while reading the book. The brand is full of paradoxes but is very comfortable with it:
– Simplicity/extreme refinement
From the start, fruits are always simple. Hugo & Victor picked up unpretentious fruits: figs, pears, Mirabelle plums… Orchard fruits, grand-ma fruits are actually rather difficult to work with. With great skill, Hugo & Victor give them great refinement through the product work and the recipe and also from a highly advanced aesthetic research (playing with colors, forms balance, as in architecture).
– Authenticity / trendy Parisianism
In their book, Sylvain Blanc and Hugues Pouget clearly assume their common references: the home-made apple pie, the grapes, the chestnuts roasted in the fireplace. Their childhood echoes with a Southern French accent. They are as genuine as they used to be. One example? Kaffir lime, their icon, is neither known, nor sexy.
And yet, the duo has often been regarded as the “trends product”. Sylvain Blanc disagrees: “Take the fashion for mono-products, for example. We don’t do this at all. We are at the opposite of it. We make ice creams, financiers, croissants, tea and cakes. We make all the products that can be made by a pastry Chef. On the other hand, we explore the whole territory of a fruit”. So, what does this prejudice come from? From Guy Savoy’s image? From Sylvain Blanc’s experience at Le Printemps? From the ultra meticulous merchandising?
Or maybe from the actions linked to fashion brands: Chloé (Hugo & Victor had created a new series for its 60th anniversary), Berluti, Dior, Jo Malone… Recently, Hugo & Victor signed the Vogue Café at Le Printemps, an ephemeral corner conceived for the Fashion weeks (March 2014).
They willingly develop the Pastry and French traditions. Fruits, caramel, chocolate… their ingredients are absolutely traditional. Millefeuille, fruit pie, Saint-Honoré, macaron, vacherin: they propose all the classics of pastry too.
At Hugo & Victor’s, innovation surrounds these traditions and reinvents them. A pie? Yes, but “façon part”.
Seasonality? Yes, but in five beats. And actually, expressing one’s creations only 3 weeks a year (as with the cherry), is more than innovating, it is cheeky!
Cheek? Hugo & Victor has surely got a cheek! Developing this brand so quickly and arousing such keen interest is not only a matter of calculation. Business is like a good dessert: ingredients and a recipe are not enough. Dexterity and spirit are also required! On top of having solid bases and true values, Hugues and Sylvain have above all driving forces boosting them: curiosity, exploration and adventure. Hugues’s journeys have been true culinary discoveries. Their encounters with other brands and suppliers gave birth to strong partnerships. Their first verbena plantation: a rather instinctive decision as well. Their duo is sparkling. But the magic part of it is that it spreads and that other people come and surprisingly offer them to invent new harmonies together. This is what happened for example with Bollinger Champagne and the strawberry accords.
Finally, their originality may lie in their acting instinctively and impulsively, but without going out of their mind.
Photos : Hugo & Victor