Assouline: The luxury brand where everything is about style.

Prosper Assouline and his wife Martine have a magnificent office on the 27th floor of a Park Avenue building. From their windows you can see in front of you the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. The view is marvellous. I go into Prosper’s office where he has a very large desk and brass lamps over the desk. The view is still spectacular.

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Assouline’s offices on the 27th Floor of 3 Park Avenue, New York.

We sit down, he is smiling and I ask him:

You work in luxury, style and culture, but are you a book publisher at heart?

Absolutely. We do a lot of other things around the book, but, like the hamburger, without the beef there is nothing. The book is the center.

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Assouline Ultimate Collection: “The Italian Dream: Wine, Heritage, Soul” by Count Gelasio Gaetani d’Aragona Lovatelli with a foreword by Lapo Elkann. The photography is by Aline Coquelle.

Are the books that you prepare and publish works of beauty?

Yes, all made in our kitchen in New York. We have an office in Paris, but everything is made here in New York. We are publishers, but not printers and distributors. Our pleasure is to make the layout and the text.

Does being a publisher of chic books give you enormous pleasure?

We are proud, because it is intense.

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Martine Assouline at her New York office desk.

How many books do you publish?

Fifty to sixty books a year. We have published 1500 books in total until now, and I think that is a lot.

What kind of books?

Everything about style, looking into style. We made a book with the recipes of Jackson Pollock, “Dinner with Jackson Pollock,” in which we talked about art and food. It was a huge bestseller.

What do you consider a bestseller with this kind of book?

For us, when we sell more than 25,000 copies it is really very good. We sell in 22 shops around the world, and in selected bookstores and lifestyle stores. Our books have existed since 22 years.

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Assouline’s first title was “La Colombe d’Or”, the hotel and restaurant in the South of France with an astonishing private collection of modern art.

Where did you start?

We had no idea of business, at the beginning it was just an act of love. My wife Martine and I dearly love the hotel La Colombe d’Or in Saint Paul de Vence. At the time I was the art director and publisher of magazines. We were in love with the place and we did a book on it, not about celebrity but about lifestyle. For us this place is the ultimate luxury, where we can eat simple tomatoes surrounded by a Picasso or a Léger.

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Assouline titles from Alberto Giacometti to Jean Paul Gaultier.

How did you become Assouline?

When we decided to create a small series on couturiers, Mémoire de Mode, from the present and the past. There were no books on couturiers at the time. We felt that fashion was at the right moment, so we created a collection of four books every six months, starting with Azzedine Alaïa, Chanel, Vionnet, and Dior. We were in Paris in Place Vendôme for 20 years, selling high quality for a low price, and we published the books like a magazine, four issues every three months. Then we translated them in 12 languages and went all over the world. We sold millions of them.

Then what happened?

I started to take it seriously. We opened an office in New York because we wanted to be international, and Assouline became a brand.

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The Ground Floor of Maison Assouline on London’s Piccadilly.© Olimpia Castellini.

What kind of a brand?

Exactly what we still do today. All of our books tell a story, like a movie, and we wanted to have the spirit of our brand. Our stores, the first one was in Rue Bonaparte in Paris, are in the same colour that we use today. A sort of Moroccan red, it is warm like leather, and one has the feeling and the smell of a library. You can sit, have tea and you can buy everything. In other words, our stores are the continuity of our private apartment. We mix different styles, we don’t use decorators because we don’t want to have an imposed style.

© Olimpia Castellini: The First Floor of Maison Assouline on London's Piccadilly.

The First Floor of Maison Assouline on London’s Piccadilly.© Olimpia Castellini:

The world of books and of coffee shops has changed, so how do you position yourself today?

What changes is the channel of distribution. Bookstores sadly are closing, country by country, more and more. This is a big change for most publishers because they don’t have the channel of distribution. We had the chance to understand this and we now have a very important website, and it is now our most important store. We have our own stores and we created our own distribution, we have our own sales force.

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“The Sculptures of Picasso” with photographs by Brassai, one of 1500 Assouline titles.

Where do you sell the most?

The US is our number one country, but we find there is a niche for our books in most countries of the world.

We could say yours are luxury books, do you think there will always be a niche for luxury?

If you stay in your field and you protect your brand. For me the most important people in a dinner party are not the people you invite, but the ones you decide not to invite. In other words we want to be coherent about who we are and what we are publishing. We receive hundreds of projects and proposals, and we refuse so many every day. We cannot publish everything, just what is good for the brand.

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Interior of Assouline Librairie at 35 Rue Bonaparte, Paris.

You are very eclectic in your program, how do you decide what to publish?

It is obvious for us, it comes naturally. I decide everything with my wife alone. We have five collections and each one is like a family, and has something to say, and has to grow naturally.

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The Assouline Ultimate Collection: Enrico Bernardo, the world’s best sommelier, imagines “The Impossible Collection of Wine”, the perfect cellar filled with the most exceptional wines of the twentieth century.

What are the books that over the years became your classics and that you feel more proud to have published?

In each collection I will give you one book. First we have The Ultimate Collection, each page is made by hand. We want to give the sensation as if it was a personal album. The latest one in The Ultimate Collection is “The Impossible Collection of Wine”, because we took the most talented sommelier in the world to choose the best bottles of the last century. It is not only beautiful; it is about education. Secondly we have The Icons Collection, the one I am most proud of was the first one, the illustrated biography of Lee Radziwill. Then a collection named Classics Collection, the latest one is “The Italian Dream”. It is one of my favourite books, like a movie, 400 pages in which Gelasio Gaetani d’Aragona Lovatelli tells the grand tour of Italy through wine, and it is not only about wine but also about families and style. Then we have a collection named Legends, and for me the best book in this collection is “Paris in the 1920s with Kiki de Montparnasse”. It is really a pretext to discover that moment of the history of art in Paris with Kiki. We also re-print non-stop. We have books we are still printing after 20 years.

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“Paris in the 1920s” by Xavier Girard. From humble origins, Kiki de Montparnasse became the muse of Man Ray, Kisling, Foujita, Calder, and other important artists living in Paris in the Roaring Twenties.

What is next?

To survive. To grow exactly in the same direction, and to make a few more stores like the Piccadilly one in London, a Concept store on culture. The next one is going to be in Dubai, then New York and then China.

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Martine and Prosper Assouline portrayed outside Maison Assouline on London’s Piccadilly.

Can we ultimately say that you have no doubt about the importance of books?

No, we must never forget that we come from the book. My first memory is a little haggadah that my father gave me when I was five years old, illustrated in only one colour, green. I am very proud to be able to say that we became a family business, because our two children now work with us. One is in charge of marketing and digital, and the other is in charge of development in Europe.

 

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