How Moleskine Went From Parisian Scribble Pad to Global Icon

Devotees range from Picasso to Hamilton creator

Lin-Manuel Miranda worked for six years to get his Grammy- and Pulitzer-winning musical Hamilton from his head onto a stage. He worked on the songs everywhere—on his honeymoon, on the subway—and, as the lyrics came to him, he committed them to a Moleskine notebook.

Photo: Nick Ferrari; Parts Model: Body by Braha

"Moleskine is an iconic object, with a very contemporary design, with only a slight retro look," said Arrigo Berni, CEO, Moleskine. "It connects the owner to a community of passionate users, past and present. It is a signifier."

He's not kidding. The Moleskine notebook, though around in its present form only since 1997, represents the continuation of a literary and artistic lineage.

This story begins, oddly enough, where the last one ended. In 1986, the legendary British travel writer Bruce Chatwin paid a visit to a small stationer on Paris' Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie where he'd long purchased the black, oilcloth-bound notebooks he'd taken on his far-flung romps. Locals called them les carnets moleskines (fake leather notebooks)—and now the shopkeeper told Chatwin that their manufacturer had gone out of business. "To lose a passport was the least of one's worries," Chatwin would write. "To lose a notebook was a catastrophe."

In this case, the loss was permanent. For generations, the likes of Picasso, van Gogh, Oscar Wilde and Hemingway had depended on these little booklets, and now they were gone.

Well, they were for 11 years, anyway. In 1997, Modo & Modo, a stationery company in Milan, Italy, figured that demand was strong enough to bring the notebooks back. It was a slow build at first, but the 7 percent brand awareness Moleskine had in the U.S. in 2007 surged to 56 percent by 2012. Two years later, it sold 17 million notebooks. Fans of Moleskine (which has no official pronunciation, by the way) came to include Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze. Airbnb started out as an idea scribbled in a Moleskine, as did Star Wars: Episode VIII. It's a bit of a running joke that the CEOs of tech startups—the digital progenitors of our time—cannot do without their Moleskine notebooks.

And why? Berni believes that "creation often occurs offline, out of the studio or in transit"—and even a tablet computer cannot compare to a sturdy, pocket-size notebook. Plus, there's the simple romance of it all. Unwrapping a new Moleskine, says Ana Reinert, keeper of the blog The Well-Appointed Desk, "still creates a sense of possibility. Sure, the same could be said for any notebook, but there is something about a Moleskine that embodies adventure and creative potential."

Even if you don't happen to write as well as Miranda.


This story first appeared in the May 16, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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