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A Gallic flair for spotting new talent

Drapers and the British Fashion Council hosted a question and answer seminar with Robin Schulie, buyer at Paris designer boutique Maria Luisa, at 180 The Strand, part of the static exhibition at London Fashion Week.

Maria Luisa was founded in 1988 in Paris by its eponymous owner, who opened the designer boutique in the district of Saint Honoré, the traditional Parisian neighbourhood for luxury, to showcase emerging labels. The store was a reaction to the dominance of the major fashion houses and big brands, which were ruling the market at the time.

Here are some of Maria Luisa buyer Robin Schulie’s thoughts on the forthcoming spring 10 season and the store’s buying strategy.

How is business at the top end of the market? Have you felt the effects of the global recession?

It’s actually not as bad as we expected. We had to reduce our budgets. That’s what most have done, even though they don’t say it. But we expected that sales would be much worse. French customers don’t actually consume that much. Compared to London and New York there’s not that much of a social scene, so you don’t really have to dress up to go to social events – French consumers are quite tight anyway, so we haven’t felt much of a difference.

How do you approach your buy?

There is no formula. It’s always like a mix of creativity, elegance and novelty – something that’s really new. You have the likes of Colette and us in Paris and we have totally different brands and different ways of buying and different identities. We really just pick what
we like.

How important is price in the current climate?

What’s important is that the price has to be justified. I could buy a jacket from Givenchy that would sell for ¤4,000 (£3,625) in the shop but the price has to be worth it, then I know I have a customer for it. I won’t name the brands but some would try to sell me an ¤8,000 (£7,250) dress but I won’t buy it because it’s not justified, because I’d expect more work on the embroideries and I know the dress is worth ¤800 (£725) maximum.

So customers will still buy expensive things if the price is justified. But people are looking for stuff that is slightly cheaper, so designers are trying to do the best they can with prices and not marking up as much as they did before. Designers are proposing second lines or cheaper options – Balenciaga is doing it and Givenchy is doing it as well. They are making their bestsellers in slightly cheaper fabrics but you have to buy more pieces so they have bigger production. It is really clever from the big brands but younger designers are doing it too.

How is the market evolving?

Some of the main competition and one of the biggest changes is the rise of the high street, with chains like H&M and Zara. They have really interesting and fun products. Everyone wants to buy the fun products and we’re stuck between those big brands that are advertising, that everyone in the world knows, and the really strong high street chains. We really have to find new ways of seducing the customers and discover a new approach.

We are trying to offer a choice that you can’t find in any other shops. Of course, the service and distribution has to be impeccable but definitely what is most important is the mix.

What’s driving sales at Maria Luisa this season?

We have the classics like Balenciaga, Givenchy and Rick Owens, but among the younger brands we really liked Meadham Kirchhoff’s collection. The delivery wasn’t very early but already we’ve almost sold out. No one really knows the name in France but the product is so convincing that people just went for it.

We are really open to those brands because our customers trust us, so when our customers come into the shop, even if they don’t know the brand they know it is something interesting.

You’ve supported London Fashion Week designers for years. What is it about UK talent that works for you?

British designers have freedom. London Fashion Week is pretty much the only place in the world where the designers are free to show what they want almost as soon as they leave school. They don’t have the pressure of commercial sales or people saying ‘you have to do this, you have to do that.’ No one is saying you have to make this many bags or shoes. London is like a different time and place. You don’t have the big fashion groups squeezing the [catwalk] schedule.

How important are these smaller, lesser-known labels to your overall mix?

It’s a bit like the salt and pepper in the mix. Everyone can have brands like Jil Sander and Maison Martin Margiela; they are amazing brands, but in terms of distribution they are everywhere. What’s going to make the difference is the smaller labels like you find in London. A customer might come into the shop to buy Azzedine Alaia or Alexander McQueen and then she might buy a dress from Christopher Kane. It’s important to have a full look around the shop.

Maria Luisa is working with Paris department store Printemps. What’s the nature of the relationship and how do you retain your identity?

We’d had the shop for 20 years and we were really interested in working on other projects. We were put in touch with Printemps, which in the past two years has been changing its image and redesigning its interior and the way it buys and shows fashion. But the store was still missing something and the team realised they needed something else. They needed the ‘salt and pepper’. So we opened our own department in the Paris store in August and it has worked extremely well. 

We are in the middle of the designer floor. We’re opposite the likes of Dolce & Gabbana, so Maria Luisa is like a big brand now too. We are also consulting with Printemps and advising them on brands, and we’re learning lots of things too.

We didn’t want to do that whole young designers in department stores thing, which is just awful. We didn’t want to do a rail with just three dresses and not be able to service it. The thing about department store buyers is they don’t know how to do the mix [of those types of labels]. They are able to buy Marc Jacobs or Alexander McQueen but they don’t know how to mix brands. That’s why they came to us. It’s a new thing. It’s a lot of work but it’s working very well.

You launched a website last year. Has that helped to take Maria Luisa to a new global audience?

It’s started working really well in the past two to three months. We’ve had very interesting sales. We have customers from all over the world. But you have to buy specifically for the internet and at the moment we haven’t really started to do that.

We’re still learning about our online customer because we can sell everything from the big brands to the smaller labels. We know who our customer is in Paris but on the internet you have no idea who it is.

You also have franchise stores in Hong Kong and Qatar which you buy for…

It took us a couple of seasons to understand how to do a specific mix for those markets, and last year it was really tough in Hong Kong because of the credit crunch. But now China is picking up and the stores are doing even better than before. We’d like to do more of these projects.

Which stores in London do you admire?

I’ve always felt really close to Browns [London indie]. It developed the same way as we did and they do the same thing as we do and it’s family run. I really like Mrs B’s [Joan Burstein, founder of Browns] way of seeing fashion. At the moment, I also really like Liberty. It’s doing something interesting like a cross between a department store and a multi-brand store. I really like what Yasmin [Sewell, Liberty creative consultant] has created.


Maria Luisa

7 rue Rouget de L’Isle, 75001


Brands stocked:
Azzedine Alaïa
Alexander McQueen
Ann Demeulemeester
Anne-Sofie Back
Christopher Kane
Isabel Marant
Jil Sander
Louise Goldin
L’Wren Scott
Manish Arora
Marios Schwab
Maison Martin Margiela
Meadham Kirchhoff
Nina Ricci
Richard Nicoll
Rick Owens
RM by Roland Mouret
Rue du Mail by Martine Sitbon
The Row
Victoria Beckham

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