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Maria Hebel

With 80 years of fit experience under its belt, trouser brand Gardeur is upping its fashion credentials with the help of womenswear creative director Maria Hebel.

Modernisation, modernisation, modernisation - the message from Maria Hebel, creative director for womenswear at trouser brand Gardeur, is coming through loud and clear. “We’re working hard to move the brand forward with an emphasis on modern styling. We have restructured everything from how the range looks to the quality of the swing tickets, and even where we choose to show,” she explains.

Hebel has been busy carving this niche for Gardeur since joining in January 2005, with the brand’s spring 07 range showcasing her first full input. She’s determined to make all stockists aware that change is afoot. “We’re hoping to target modern customers, but that doesn’t have to mean younger customers,” she explains.

Traditionally seen as a mainstream separates brand that offered only core product, it was obvious that Gardeur had to move into the 21st century. “I was looking for a challenge and had worked at the brand in the early 1990s so I knew the product,” she says. “But I made it clear we had to establish a modern image. Luckily the management had already acknowledged that updating the Gardeur signature was integral to its success. I just had to set the ball rolling.”

Hebel has a strong background in trouser design, with a six-year stint as a designer at Gardeur followed by two and a half years as chief designer at Daniel Hechter. She spent a further six years as product manager at Rosner, leaving in 2005 to rejoin Gardeur. Looking after womenswear with two other designers - one of whom specialises in trousers and one in skirts - Hebel has been reinventing the brand’s three-tier story of classic, comfort and basic styles, creating more youthful complete looks instead of rail upon rail of single pieces.

As well as introducing more casual trouser design, the brand is also reworking its knitwear offer. Now collaborating with one of Germany’s leading knitwear supply specialists, Gardeur is placing a greater emphasis on fit, which it hopes will mirror the fit factor for which its trousers have become known. “In the past, knitwear was the most basic product category. It was time to add a fashion element,” Hebel affirms.

This evolution is starting to garner interest from lapsed buyers. One department store, which dropped the brand a couple of years ago because it no longer met its fashion credentials, has bought into it again for spring 07. “I decided to look at the brand to boost our separates offer, but I ended up buying it as a collection,” says one buyer. “The skirts had modern silhouettes without looking too young and the trousers included trend-driven styles. We even bought into the knitwear, which we hadn’t done previously, because it pulled the range together.

“Consumers may not buy into top-to-toe branded looks any more, but they still like to see how the brand puts these pieces together,” says the buyer. “If all the components are offered, it actually encourages them to buy the product.”

Hebel agrees. “Today’s customers like the option of buying an entire outfit, and it is easier for retailers to merchandise the product. We’ve adapted to meet that requirement,” she says. But the brand does not want to relinquish its stronghold on the trouser market. It’s a tricky balancing act and one that still needs work.

Sarah Millet, owner of womenswear independent N Shelley in Billericay, Essex, has been buying Gardeur for 20 years and although she is encouraged by its efforts to progress, she is continuing to focus on its trousers. “It’s great to see the brand evolving and we’ve bought into the new co-ordinates, but Gardeur’s reputation is built on its trouser fit, which is why customers keep coming back. The knitwear is not as important, although that may change.”

Attempting to update a brand’s signature while retaining core customers can be tough, and Gardeur is being a lot more ruthless than it first appears. Alison Philips, managing director of AP Fashion Marketing - the UK agent for Gardeur - says the number of stockists has been “strategically reduced” since Hebel took control. “We’ve gone from having more than 300 womenswear stockists to 225, by losing a number of the classic independents for which the brand was no longer relevant,” she says, adding that it was a “diplomatic” and “mutually agreed” process.

Philips is keen to point out that the range is being sold in more depth, with Gardeur now targeting new stockists. It took a small space at contemporary womenswear show Pure last August. “It was the perfect platform to showcase the brand’s new handwriting,” says Philips. Nevertheless, it has its work cut out trying to lure the more contemporary retailers on its wish list, especially with names such as Harrods and Selfridges being targeted.

Avril Newcombe, a fashion buyer at independent department store group Hoopers, buys Gardeur for its comfort fit product. “Apart from the basics, I haven’t bought into the collection for spring 07,” she says. “I can see the brand is making progress, but it needs to move forward more for us to consider buying into it as a lifestyle fashion brand.”

As Newcombe notes, Gardeur’s advantage is its established name. Founded in 1920, it started life as a men’s outerwear manufacturer. Trousers only hit the agenda in 1959 and the Gardeur brand name was not created until 1969. Womenswear followed 13 years later in 1982.

In the UK, its womenswear has a stronger presence than menswear, which sells to only 75 stockists. Its menswear product was overhauled two years ago to coincide with a US launch - a move that is in the pipeline for womenswear.

Future plans are adventurous. In February the brand will open a permanent 6,460 sq ft showroom in Dusseldorf’s Halle 29, the Gerry Weber-owned complex that houses Brax, Repeat, Bianca and, of course, Gerry Weber. Despite Dusseldorf show CPD losing its appeal with buyers and the city’s fashion houses lacking lustre, Hebel says it is a wise move. “Buyers will return to Dusseldorf when the best brands are in the same place again,” she says.

The brand’s first standalone store is expected to open in Germany in 2008, to coincide with a new shop-in-shop strategy. Comprehensive flash ranges are also on the cards and, although still in their infancy, about 10% of current stockists bought into the first range for autumn 06, which focused on skinny jeans.

However, the design changes have not been quite as dramatic as Hebel’s gusto may suggest. For autumn 07, high-waisted designs are bang on the money, with wide-leg trousers and skinny fits playing a big role. But with off-trend looks such as belted ponchos and knitted jackets heading up the knitwear offer, there’s still some distance to cover. As one buyer notes: “It’s certainly not yet ready to sit alongside the likes of Weekend by MaxMara.”

Philips says the brand’s repositioning is “about evolution, not revolution.” The coming season will be its first test, but a new course has been set and retailers are starting to take notice.

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