The French Contemporary Wave That’s Reshaping Ready-to-Wear

Couples from The Kooples ad campaigns | Source: The Kooples

PARIS, France — Last April, a journalist from French daily newspaper Le Figaro asked Frederic Lefebvre, French Secretary of State for Trade, to name his favourite book. His answer: “Without doubt Zadig and Voltaire, it is a lesson in life, I dip into it often.”

Mr. Lefebvre was, of course, mixing up Zadig ou la Destinée written by Voltaire in 1748 with Zadig & Voltaire, the fifteen-year-old mid-market French fashion brand. And while there are many conclusions one can draw from this, the slip is clear testament to the power of fast-growing brands like Zadig & Voltaire, which alongside Comptoir des Cotonniers, Sandro, Maje, Claudie Pierlot and The Kooples, form a highly successful contemporary French wave that is reshaping ready-to-wear fashion as we know it.

To gauge just how successful these brands have been, consider that Comptoir des Cotonniers, the oldest of the six brands, was valued at close to €300 million last year, while Sandro’s turnover grew from €15 million in 2007 to €110 million in 2010 and is expected to approach €200 million this year, according to a series of reports in French newspapers L’ExpressLa Tribune and Stratégies.

This kind of success was enough to convince the Arnault and Dreyfus families, in September 2010, to acquire 51 percent of SMCP Group — which owns Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot, operates over 330 stores, corners and affiliates in France, the UK, Italy, Spain and Germany, and is enjoying annual growth of 30 percent — through their respective investment funds, L Capital and Floran.

But this kind of success doesn’t fall from trees. Sandro, Maje and Claudie Pierlot, along with Comptoir des Cotonniers, Zadig & Voltaire and The Kooples share carefully thought out common strategies that have fueled their rise.

Best-in-Class Operations

You won’t see “Made in Italy” or “Made in France” on Zadig & Voltaire tops or Maje dresses — not even “Made in Portugal.” These brandZa manufacture mainly in countries with low labour costs like Romania, Turkey, Thailand and China. Indeed, a recent television reportage on French news programme “Capital” revealed documents showing that the factory price of Zadig & Voltaire’s popular Tunisian shirt was €4.70. It’s retail price is €80.

But low-cost production is only part of the slick back-end operations. Like fast fashion brands H&M and Zara, these brands leverage data collected at point of sale to monitor and quickly respond to consumer demand, ensuring that nothing is over- or underproduced. If a specific product is out of stock, factories can deliver to points of sale within 24 hours, according to an article on the French business website Le Journal du Net. “We control what we do,” Frederic Biousse, chief executive of SMCP Group, told WWD. “We immediately understand what works, so we’re efficient and reactive.”

The ability to respond quickly to what works and what doesn’t also enables brands like Sandro, Maje and Zadig & Voltaire to take greater risks in terms of capital investment, opening as many stores as they can. In 2007, when Mr. Biousse and Elie Kouby, former Comptoir des Cotonniers managers, joined the company as minority shareholders, Sandro had only seven points of sale. In 2008, taking advantage of low interest rates, the brand opened dozens of stores throughout France, drowning out competitors. Today, Sandro has more than 160 stores and corners around the world, while Comptoir des Cotonniers — which was bought in 2006 by Fast Retailing, the Japanese group that owns Uniqlo and Theory — operates over 390 points of sale, including 45 in Japan, 40 in Spain, 18 in the UK and 5 in New York City. In Paris alone, Sandro, Maje, Comptoir des Cotonniers, Zadig & Voltaire and The Kooples have over thirty points of sale each.

Luxury-Like Image and Customer Experience

But although they share similarities with mass market brands, companies like Sandro, Maje and The Kooples wrap these operations in an image more akin to luxury fashion brands. Their stores are often located in trendy neighborhoods or on the same streets as established high-end brands. Zadig & Voltaire has a store in the rue Francois 1er, near Fendi and Nina Ricci, while The Kooples operates a store in the rue Royale, close to brands like Chanel, Gucci, Dior.

This luxury-like image is continued inside the stores, with high-end interior aesthetics and customer service. Unlike fast fashion retailers like Zara, the sales staff at brands like Sandro and Comptoir des Cotonniers are experienced and able to offer genuine advice. They pamper customers in a way that’s closer to what one would expect from a luxury boutique, offering customers coffee, water and prosecco, for example.

And, like luxury brands, the French contemporary brands also engage truly creative designers who make genuinely advanced clothing — inspired by catwalk trends, but never copies — and communicate a unique story or concept.

Comptoir des Cotonniers, founded by Tony Elicha, is rooted in the concept of mothers and daughters trading clothes. To activate this idea, the pieces are sober and timeless, appealing to women from fifteen to seventy years old (all the while making it that much easier for a mother to buy her daughter a dress if she likes it as well and pictures herself wearing it too). Recently, Comptoir des Cotonniers also introduced a new line for young girls from 11 to 15 years old called “College,” adding “the little sister” to the family picture and expanding age range of their customers.

“We learned a lot working with our parents,” said Alexandre Elicha, son of Tony Elicha and co-founder of The Kooples, which is valued at approximately €250 million. “Today it’s a different story,” he continued, explaining the concept behind the brand he founded with his brothers. “It’s more rock, dandy, in both British and Parisian style. We found very interesting the idea to make straight or homosexual couples want to shop together.” As such, the pieces are made both for men and women, each with gender specific shapes and cuts.

To play up their high-end image, since 2007, The Kooples has also collaborated with Patrick Grant, director of the Savile Row tailors Norton & Sons, on the brand’s line of suits. “Both Alex and Laurent Elicha, as well as their father, were bespoke customers at Norton & Sons,” said Mr. Grant, explaining how the collaboration came about. “[In terms of the process] they come to us with sketches. We discuss them, then our cutters cut patterns and our tailors make samples. We work with the brothers on fittings at their studio. We hand over finished patterns that they put into production,” he explained.

From an image perspective, a key strength of these brands is also their Frenchness. They sell Paris, the capital of luxury and fashion, beyond the borders of France and have found tremendous success elsewhere in Europe. “[They] balance sophisticated Left-Bank inspired designs with great price points,” said Holli Rogers, buying director at online retailer Net-a-Porter, which stocks Sandro, Maje and Zadig & Voltaire. “They appeal to our customers who are in search of a chic Parisian cool aesthetic.”

US Expansion

Now, with a new wave of store openings, Sandro and Maje are poised to follow Comptoir des Cotonniers and Zadig & Voltaire into the sizable US market. While Sandro makes only 13 percent of sales outside its home country and Maje’s non-France sales currently represent only 6 percent of its total, SMCP Group aims to raise these numbers to 33 percent by 2013.

Their immediate target is New York City. SMCP now has a logistics center in New Jersey, and both Sandro and Maje have recently launched corners at Bloomingdales and have stores under construction on Bleecker Street in the city’s trendy West Village. Market reports indicate that these store openings have been unexpectedly delayed, with unclear impact on the group’s stated plans to launch fifty stores in the US within the next eighteen months. SMCP declined to comment for this article.

The Kooples is currently focusing its efforts on the UK. Indeed, when they first opened in London, the brand practically carpet bombed the city with eye-catching advertising — in hip fashion magazines, on billboards, in the tube, inside and outside taxi cabs, even on eurostar boarding passes — making up with significant marketing budgets for what they lacked in brand heritage and awareness. But a spokesperson for the brand revealed that US expansion isn’t far behind. “In one or two seasons, we would like to open in the US.” Referring to New York, he said: “the energy, the fashion market of this city is quite similar to London or Paris, so for us it’s logical to open there.”

But questions remain. Will these brands have lasting power in the marketplace? Will they still resonate with consumers fifty years into the future? Or are they shooting stars who have exploded on the scene only to vanish in a matter of years?

Impact on the Wider Fashion Industry

One thing’s for certain. As brands like Sandro, Maje and The Kooples continue their rise, the fashion industry is taking notice. As a result of continuing innovation at lower price points, as well as growing competition within the designer category itself, ready-to-wear is increasingly being crowded into a smaller, unprofitable corner at the top of the product pyramid. In fact, industry analysts suggest that ready-to-wear will follow a similar trajectory to haute couture, becoming a loss making endeavour (if it isn’t already) that functions as a vehicle for generating image, while disappearing as a viable business in its own right.

Responding to this mounting pressure and the buoyancy of French contemporary labels like Comptoir des Cotonniers and Zadig & Voltaire, high-end brands are launching accessible experiments of their own — some with early success. Carven, a Paris couture house founded in 1945, has grown rapidly since the label relaunched at a contemporary price point in Spring 2010.

Meanwhile, last week in Paris, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim of Opening Ceremony unveiled their debut collection as creative directors of the new Kenzo, a brand that’s in the process of being repositioned (and returned to its roots) at the top of the contemporary price range, with an offering that promises the undiluted creative vision of a true designer collection (not a watered-down diffusion line) at better value for money.

“I thought of it with the experience of going to New York and seeing Marc by Marc Jacobs,” said Pierre Yves Roussel, chief executive of LVMH’s Fashion Division, following the Kenzo show. “We’ve been trying to find that equation in Europe, where the second line is usually just a poor version of the first line. But [what] you want is the energy and creativity of a first line directly in the second line.”

To wit, Dolce & Gabbana bewildered many when it came to light last April that they were shutting down their highly profitable diffusion line, D&G. But rather than simply doing away with their more accessibly-priced products, recent moves confirm that the company plans to expand and strengthen the signature line with significantly lower opening price points.

Is contemporary pricing the future of a failing ready-to-wear model that’s increasingly out of sync with consumer expectations and budgets? Watch this space.

Julien Neuville is a writer based in Paris and founder of Handsomemade.com

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8 comments

  1. I’m not sure I see any of these retailers making a big splash in the American market. They are a bit too niche.

    Also, if fashion designers can’t make money with RTW… then they’re not doing it right!

    St.Valentine from United States
  2. Reshaping or eliminating RTW? Unfortunately this article transmits the idea that these brands are nothing more than fast fashion superficially covered with the fantasy of luxury. With this story of success based on numbers, expansion and how to make the most profit I wouldn’t be able to see them any differently than H&M. I’d hope that, even if it’s not what most of their customers care for, these new brands that seem to be ousting “old-fashioned” RTW lines see the value in making accessible but also conscientious fashion. If not then I don’t see how they are any different than what we already see in the market…

    Susana A. from Lima, Lima, Peru
  3. ..so whilst the French invest and buy into their indie designer brands and make them global (scandavians are doing it too) ,UK high street are busy copying their own indie designers designs and branding and going upmarket, taking a share of that market in the process..nice.

    …100s of UK buyers all going to Paris super early next season as all French brands have moved their selling season forward – result? Less budget leftover and less support for British indie buyers…the French know what they are doing.

    BFC completely ignoring viable, commercial British indie designers and lavishing LDA money at the the headline grabbers (for more funding)..and they don’t even have the clout to get the fashion week dates they want!

    UK is all High Street power!

    Prof Henry from London, London, United Kingdom
  4. I think this is perhaps the only option new start-ups have: good price points, high brand image, contemporary trendy designs and retail distribution (if possible). Once can’t really comete with Zara or Chanel…not at the beginning at least :)

  5. Of course the mass market cares about buying “cheap,” but let’s not kid ourselves; there will always be a nice profit/margin in RTW at the upper end — clothes made of the highest quality cloth, linings, beautifully cut and tailored. Nothing wrong with being in a niche if you can still make millions :)

    David Royce from Fairford, Gloucestershire, United Kingdom
  6. These brands have powerful backers. They have sprung up in rows all over London in a major campaign. It’ll be interesting to see if they generate enough sales to pay off the mass investment.
    I personally think they expanded too soon too quick but may be proved wrong. They have brilliant ad campaigns but having a great stylist doesn’t mean great designs. I actually don’t rate the Kooples in terms of design but love the concept.

    MarlaDrake from London, London, United Kingdom