Over coffees at Nespresso, we sat down with Danish businessman, investor, entrepreneur and restaurateur Michael Lillelund. This year, Lillelund joined forces with Larry Sands, the creative force behind Chrome Hearts and Optical Shop of Aspen, to create SL Luxury Group, a California-based multinational luxury goods conglomerate that focuses on the expansion of international luxury brands. Lillelund is also currently the U.S. COO and brand director of Shamballa Jewels, an ethical jewelry line.
Can you explain how SL Luxury Group came about?
About three years ago, I did a trunk show with Shamballa Jewels in Malibu and one of the guests was Larry Sands, who I’ve only heard stories about from his success at building Chrome Hearts and Optical Shop of Aspen. We got along immediately and at that time, he was about to open a new high-end jewelry store in Miami and thought Shamballa Jewels would be perfect for it. We spent two years as close friends and business associates and always talked up doing something together. With the massive success of Larry’s store in Aspen and Miami, he wanted to expand and at the same time, we had the opportunity to expand Shamballa Jewels and other leading brands into the US and North America, and realized it was finally time to partner up.
What is his involvement?
Larry and I have an interesting relationship – he is my partner, but most importantly he’s my mentor. We have totally different skill sets, which is why we work so well together. Larry heads up all operations and I’m on the ground leading brand strategy and development. With our age difference, we learn a lot from each other as we look at the world through two different lenses.
Who are your current brands?
Right now our main brand and focus is on Shamballa Jewels, which we are both extremely knowledgeable about and have an ingrained passion for the brand. We have been working with the brand from a wholesale and the retail side for years and know the brand better than anyone else, so we thought it would be the ideal candidate to test our strategy.
Right now we are integrating a Shamballa Jewels shop in our luxury boutique in Aspen for this winter to test out all the new products and design.
Do you intend to keep brands across all industries?
Our core business will focus on luxury jewelry and helping brands grow internationally and expand into new markets. Ultimately, we will leverage our earnings and distribution channels to start to open up into other industries, but that is more for the medium term. There is a lot of synergy between what we do for luxury jewelry brands and what we could offer as we enter new sectors.
You have a background in jewelry having worked with Shamballa for years, what’s it like being on the other side of that business now?
It’s always been my goal to be able to build new young brands and watch them grow. I don’t look at it as if I’m on the other side of the business—I’m still sitting there every day with the designers and entrepreneurs behind these brands, helping them build their image and grow their companies just like I did at Shamballa Jewels because that’s what I’m passionate about.
What are the main goals for your brands?
Two words: Branding and Growth. Our goal is to build powerful brands that tell stories and are meaningful to consumers and help them expand into new markets. We are focusing on brand development, strategy, design and digital marketing to provide these brands with the resources they need to grow both operations and sales. We have distribution channels that we plug our brands into and allow them access to our large retail network, which stimulates instant growth.
What does luxury mean to you?
Luxury to me is not something that is seasonal, it is something that remains while trends and fads die off, and not many people understand that. Luxury is a state of being that transcends the need to be flashy or let other people know who you are. I read an interesting article about Ferrari, who decided to cut down production of the 458 because they felt too many people had them. It wasn’t about the money; it was about the brand and what it says to the world.
To me luxury goes deeper than just possession. I believe we all have it inside of us and it’s about how we react to the world around us. It’s telling for me to go out to dinner with someone because I can tell who they are by how they treat the person who takes their coat, the waiter, the taxi driver, etc. You’d be surprised how much you can tell about someone through his or her interactions with others, and it’s the same with brands. You can never sacrifice quality for quantity or short term gains for long term ones. Luxury is about character. Coco Chanel says it best: “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.”
Luxury is also comfort, whether it’s the way the strap feels on your Louis Vuitton bag, the feeling of wearing jeans at Soho House, the schoolteacher buying a Magnolia cupcake. Luxury comes in different forms. But to everyone, it represents true comfort, no matter class, race or religion.
You must travel often – what’s your favorite city to shop in, eat and party?
I have traveled all over the world and it may sound cliché, but my favorite city is Paris. You just can’t beat sitting at the Plaza Athénée with a glass of wine, eating a delicious meal and just staring at the rich history in front of you. It is still a city that is at the forefront of culinary excellence, fashion, and it doesn’t hurt that the French really know how to party.
If your Instagram is any indication, you have a very fashionable social life. How does this influence your work?
We are living in an ever-connected world where it’s now strange to go to a fashion show that isn’t live-streamed. It’s important for me to understand fashion and luxury from all ends of the spectrum – you have to read the magazines, go to the events, talk to the people, be on the forefront of technology and decode all that information to see the trends before other people do. It’s important for me to know gold, for example, will be in fashion this season before it even enters the store, and that allows us to stay ahead of the market.
Where do you see SL Luxury Group in 10 years?
I don’t want to give all of our plans away…but we are focused on building amazing brands and already have a line of them waiting.