English cool seen through Gallic eyes
The brothers behind The Kooples are selling their take on UK indie back to British shoppers. Laura Chesters reports from Paris
Sunday 14 August 2011
Impossibly tiny, skinny-jeans-clad men and women waft in and out of rooms at a small but ultra-modern office on rue Richelieu, close to the Louvre in Paris. The office is occupied by a fashion business that is distinctly French but which has a dollop of English rock'n'roll cool spread all over it.
The Kooples is a fashion chain that has quickly taken over France, with 111 outlets, and is now heading to a city near you. It already has nine shops in London and Manchester as well as concessions in Selfridges in Manchester, London and Birmingham. The plan is to create a chain in the UK – like that in France – which could eventually contain more than 50 shops. Stores in some major cities in the US are also on the hit list.
The Kooples is run by three brothers who are planning to sell their French version of English cool back to us Brits. The Elicha brothers – Alexandre, 35, Laurent, 34, and Raphaël, 24 – started their fashion business just as Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world financial markets were in turmoil. That decision now seems lacking in business sense; since 2008 consumers have cut back on spending and many fashion businesses have either shut or put themselves up for sale. AllSaints, for one, was rescued by US private equity, while Jane Norman went into administration.
But these three Parisian brothers aren't as fresh faced and inexperienced in the retail business as they may look. They have been working in the fashion business since they could walk. Alexandre says: "My brothers and I learnt everything from our parents. We have been in fashion business since we were children – seeing it and being there."
The brothers' parents founded French womenswear chain Comptoir de Cotonniers, building a huge business across France. Their father, Tony, had worked in fashion all his life, including stints distributing Gaultier jeans. When their parents decided to take early retirement the business was sold to the Japanese retail group Fast Retailing, making the family millions. Fast Retailing, which also owns Uniqlo and the US brand Theory, has been rolling the brand out in the UK and overseas ever since.
Comptoir's selling point was its marketing strategy of selling fashion to mothers and daughters, with clothes aimed at 25- to 40-year-olds. Advertising used real mother-and-daughter models. And just as Comptoir had a catchy strategy, The Kooples sells clothes for couples – the name is a play on the word couple. The advertising all over London buses and tube stations earlier this summer depicted photos of slim and pretty couples, with strap lines such as "Adam and Karolina have been together for three years" – again using real-life people in the campaigns, albeit very slim and pretty real-life partners.
Despite their parents making a hefty profit after selling Comptoir in 2006, the brothers decided to sell a 20 per cent stake in The Kooples to French private-equity business LBO France in June. The deal is rumoured to value the business at well over ¤150m. The sale supplies the brothers with capital to open more stores and grow the business in the UK, and also look at expansion in the US where New York, Miami and Los Angeles have caught their eye. Property agent Cushman & Wakefield has been hired to search for new locations; the next town to get a glimpse of the brand will be Bristol.
The equity injection comes just as the business expands into larger offices at 19 Place Vendôme, not far from their current location. But how will a very French fashion house get on with selling its version of British rock'n'roll style back to the UK shopper?
Alexandre says: "In London people say, 'oh, you are very Parisian', and in Paris they comment how English the brand is. But we are not just the clothes and just fashion for fashion's sake. We wanted to build a story around the brand. We have a record label and gigs and events. We have even launched a competition for couples who play together in bands. This is more than just fashion. We want this to be more classic."
The brothers work with designer Patrick Grant, and enlisted Britain's indie bad boy Pete Doherty to model and design for the company to up its Brit credentials. Alexandre says: "Pete is very involved with his collection. He wore our clothes before so we decided to team up. He has a great style."
The tie-up is not meant to be a celebrity publicity stunt. "We are interested in underground music and fashion scenes and we may use celebrities from these areas. But we are not like H&M – changing the designer or celebrity we team up with every season."
The Kooples is one of a clutch of Parisian fashion brands embarking on a Gallic invasion of the UK high street. Sandro, Les Petites and Maje are all expanding into London. The obvious question is – will the small sizes and cuts of these typical French brands cater for the somewhat larger average British shopper.
But for The Kooples, styling is all about chic indie types, and most of the British people that are part of this genre appear to be on the slim side – so the sizing might just work. And Alexandre enthuses that sales at his UK stores and in Selfridges outlets are flying ahead. Reports in France estimate that the business turns over about ¤100m and makes a profit of ¤25m, but the brothers would not be drawn on the details.
The price tag of the beautifully made garments is fitting for a fashion chain with aspirations. It sits at the higher end of high-street retailers with most items selling for more than £100 and men's T-shirts starting at £65.
But, pricey as it seems, The Kooples, the Elicha brothers say, fills a gap in the market. Alexandre adds: "We felt there was something missing in the market. Men were looking for clothes to fit their lifestyle, but often men go shopping with women so we thought it perfect to bring the two together."
Each brother has a speciality – Raphaël takes the photos and is interested in movies and imagery, and Laurent and Alexandre design the men's and women's collections. The brothers travel together across the fashion globe and scour vintage stores and gigs looking for inspiration.
The brothers are a living embodiment of their brand – they dress in tight leather and cotton twill trousers, shiny patent winkle-picker shoes and scarves and jackets. And they hope their skinny indie-band style mixed with a formal preppy look will stay "in", enabling The Kooples to stay in favour with shoppers on both sides of the Channel for some time to come.
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