One measure of the strength of a brand is by the amount of fervor that it inspires among its devotees. “I love my Moleskines, and you can have them when you pry them from my cold dead hands,” says one anonymous contributor to the blog, moleskinerie.com, which is “dedicated to the proposition that not all notebooks are created equal.”
Armando B. Frasco, a “photo/documentarist” and graphic designer in Chicago, Illinois, started moleskinerie.com on a whim in January 2004, after doing a Google search to see whether there were any other people as “crazy” about the “little black book” as he was (today, searching on “Moleskine” nets 54,900 results, and Frasco’s results were probably no less astounding).
Asked why he thinks people are so fond of Moleskine notebooks, Frasco says, “I believe it has something to do with the provenance of Moleskine. Using the same notebook that Chatwin, Matisse, Hemingway, et al., supposedly used somehow lends cachet to one's notebook.”
Modo & Modo’s marketing is working its magic: What Frasco says reflects the advertising copy of the pamphlet that the company encloses with each notebook. “Van Gogh to Henri Matisse, from the exponents of the historical avant-garde movements to Ernest Hemingway,” used Moleskine notebooks, the copy reads. Bruce Chatwin and Luis Sepulveda are also cited as having used Moleskine notebooks in their time, but the clincher of the story is this line: “Many are the sketches and notes… that have been jotted down… in this trustworthy pocket-size travel companion before being turned into famous pictures or the pages of beloved books.” After reading this breathless statement, you might be forgiven for believing that every notable artist throughout history had a Moleskine notebook at his or her side while working.
But what’s the story behind this story? Over the past hundred years or so, several versions of Moleskine notebooks have been available on the market. (Moleskine refers to the leather-like coverings of the journals, made of oilcloth.) The notebooks were often viewed as a cheaper alternative to leather-bound journals, until the 1950s when the advent of mass-produced, dirt-cheap plastic-bound notebooks relegated even Moleskine notebooks to luxury status.
By 1986, the last manufacturer of Moleskine notebooks, a small stationer based in Tours, France, went out of business after the owner passed away. A group of Italian artists chanced upon references to the Moleskine notebooks in the mid-1990s, and investigated the history. They formed Modo & Modo, trademarked the “Moleskine” brand, and reintroduced the notebooks to the market, first focusing on success in Italy and Europe. In 2002, Modo & Modo began a worldwide push. Today, the notebooks are available in gift shops, stationers, and booksellers around the world.
It’s possible that all of the artists that Modo & Modo makes reference to in its marketing copy did use a variation of the Moleskine notebook. But the version that Modo & Modo sells today is probably not the same thing. Requests to the company to verify the origin of the Modo & Modo design for the Moleskine notebook went unanswered, though some people think the design is derived from the aforementioned stationer in Tours.
Nevertheless, it’s the story that first attracts people to the notebooks. “People love a story and when you have to [choose among] several products, people will, if possible, pay a dollar more for a good story,” says Laura Kellner of Kikkerland Design, which distributes Moleskine notebooks in the US. “Especially as of late, when the meanings of things seem more important than a willy-nilly outlook on life (and consumer products).”
It also doesn’t hurt that Modo & Modo’s Moleskine notebooks have a distinctive form, which makes them stand out from the twelve million blank journals sold at stationary and specialty stores across the country. Combining the best of modern design, they are functional, durable, and give the impression of luxury. The covers are still made of oilcloth, and therefore waterproof, while the stitched acid-free paper is a heavy stock that resists bleeding. Three design features, though, set Moleskine far apart from competitors: an elastic band that keeps the notebooks securely closed; an attached bookmark, allowing you to mark your place at all times within the pages; and a pocket in the back, providing a cubby for diarists to place receipts or loose miscellany.
In fact, to some, the story of the Moleskine notebook is secondary to its form. “Heck, it’s only a journal,” says Lisa Sutherland-Fraser, of Melbourne, Australia, who is segueing into a new career as a holistic life coach. She cites the notebooks' quality, feel and style as reasons she chose to buy them. “I think if I hadn't read the blurb about its history I would still love it,” she says.
“I like to use something that is so practical, portable and durable that I don’t have to worry about it, but can, instead, concentrate on that paper idea I thought of on a short hike or at a red light,” says John G., a 25-year-old PhD student in philosophy, (who asked to remain anonymous because, as he says, “the faculty in my department gets a little...persnickety about what Google tells perspective scholars about the members of our department”—as if talking about his Moleskine addiction is akin to talking about his little black book). “You can’t find anything more pragmatic,” he continues, “They are understated, durable and well-designed. They open flat and hold a lot of text for their size.”
Given that the style, look and feel of the Moleskine notebook is what people seem to love, Modo & Modo is wasting no time innovating on the original form. Already available in both notebook and pocket sizes—and in varieties such as the Japanese pocket album (30 pleated sheets), sketch book, ruled notebook, address book, and pocket-diary, among others—the company recently introduced versions for musicians and for those who use storyboards to tell visual stories, such as screenwriters. The company has also introduced lines that riff on the Moleskine history, such as the “Van Gogh Colours,” based on the artist’s works. This autumn, the company will begin what it calls a “Writing Campaign,” including one set of stamps, labels or a postcard with each notebook that it sells, in order to encourage people to write each other using their Moleskines. These innovations ensure that Moleskine notebooks remain the distinctive choice for so many journal-keepers, distinct from offering by competitors.
With such variety of options, it’s no wonder that some people hoard them like junkie stamp collectors. Frasco, who purchases two Moleskine notebooks (one large and one pocket-sized) every month, describes one techie he knows who has a case of 80. Others are somewhat more restrained in how many they have. John G. uses three: one as a day planner, another as sketchbook, and the third as a scrapbook. He used the Japanese album as a guestbook at his wedding. Sutherland-Fraser also has three large-sized grid journals, two for use as diaries and one as a success journal. Given how many Moleskine notebooks people buy, you would think they were cheap. They’re not. On average, they cost between US$ 7.00 to 16.00 (€5,50 to 13,00).
But that’s where the magic of Modo & Modo’s marketing works—making people feel as if their purchase of Moleskine notebooks is an act deeper than a consumer impulse. When you buy them, you begin to believe you are buying into a larger intellectual and artistic history, something larger than the notebooks themselves.
Or, maybe it’s simpler than that. As Kellner of Kikkerland puts it, “They’re addictive.”