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The Drapers Interview: Joseph Ettedgui

Joseph Ettedgui was the founder of the eponymous womenswear label. He passed away in London yesterday. In Drapers’ last in depth interview with him in August 2008, the humble Ettedgui described his passion for the industry he helped to shape.

As Joseph Ettedgui enters the atrium of The Landmark hotel in London, a fresh scent fills the room. The source is a ‘water of oranges’ cologne from Tangiers. “I’ve obviously put too much on,” Ettedgui jokes, slightly embarrassed.

“I’m a shy man,” admits the Joseph founder and Connolly owner, which is surprising for someone who has achieved so much – Drapers caught up with Ettedgui on the day he won the UK Fashion Export Award’s Export Personality of the Year prize – but he bears none of the egotism sometimes associated with people at the top.

In fact, despite Joseph’s global success as a premium womenswear retailer and brand for more than 35 years (Ettedgui sold the business in 2005) and Ettedgui’s reinvention of luxury leather goods retailer Connolly, he remains humble, preferring to perfect one turn-up than to sell a thousand shirts.

With an innate intuition for what his customers need and want, and a passion for an industry he has helped to shape, Ettedgui succeeds commercially in today’s highly corporate and competitive industry but does not overstate his achievements. He describes Joseph’s growth as “natural” and “gentle”, attributes that perfectly describe his own nature.

“I started the retail business 35 years ago and it was something that grew very naturally,” he explains. “Today, young designers have a lot more support – which is good – but when I was starting out, people did it on their own. They didn’t have to answer to anyone, there were no rules or regulations, so creativity was more intuitive.

“Now designers are hired by big fashion houses as soon as they leave college. On the one hand it’s easier for them, especially at the beginning, but then they need to commercialise their work so quickly. There’s not as much time to develop naturally.”

Ettedgui, who was born in Casablanca in Morocco, came to London in the late 1950s to set up a hairdressing salon on the King’s Road. His love for fashion led to a meeting with Japanese designer Kenzo Takada in Paris, after which Ettedgui began selling Kenzo knitwear in his salon, eventually turning the basement into a shop in the early 1970s.

He opened his first Joseph store in 1972 in Chelsea, and in doing so offered women iconic wardrobe staples in the form of simple yet stylish and impeccably cut trousers and shirts, as well as an unfaltering brand mix. In the late 1970s, Ettedgui took on the rest of the world, opening stores in Paris, New York and Japan.

“Having a hair salon on the King’s Road in the 1960s was great because people like Mary Quant were there, so it was a great school for me. Everything was happening on the King’s Road, from fashion to music,” he remembers. “After a few years I started to put some clothes in the reception of the salon, and then customers would tell me they couldn’t find a good fitting pair of trousers or white shirt.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Ettedgui admits that the luxury fashion industry has evolved dramatically since the start of his career, but he still believes it is possible to build a brand from scratch.

“I think it would be more difficult to do so today because heritage is important, but sometimes it is easier to build something new that hasn’t gone stale,” says Ettedgui. “We were lucky when we started, even though we had little money, because we had a lot of love for what we were doing. Everything grew naturally, whereas now there is much more pressure and competition. When I started, we would wander the streets of Paris with a map and look for good store locations.”

As well as developing the Joseph brand, Ettedgui has been credited with nurturing designers including Margaret Howell, Katharine Hamnett “and John Galliano”, he adds, proud to have ‘discovered’ the now creative director for Christian Dior.

“The number one thing you need as a designer is a lot of discipline,” says Ettedgui. “Talent is important, but you need to work hard, have a good attitude and be enthusiastic. I admire a lot of people, including Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani, who have existed for so long with the same vision and attitude, while young people like Christopher Bailey, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano have revolutionised fashion.”
The respect is mutual, with Howell having said of Ettedgui: “I feel a great indebtedness to Joseph. Sometimes I wonder how my career would have developed had I not met him.”

Ettedgui’s success came from not following fashion too closely. “I like to dress people, not to make them fashionable. People are sexy on their own,” he says. “Customers would say to me that they bought a pair of trousers from a particular designer which they loved, but then the following season the collection changed completely and they couldn’t find the same pair again.

“When I was running Joseph, our collection was designed to support the wardrobes of customers who also bought designer clothes. An entire wardrobe can’t be made up of only designer clothes. People need good trousers and good shirts that they wear all the time. Therefore, our collection wasn’t meant to go in competition with any designer – it complemented the wardrobe of someone who had a lot of Gucci, for example. That’s how we grew and got established.”

Ettedgui admits that he misses Joseph – “it was like a child,” he says. In fact, he sold it because the business became “very, very big” and his own children did not want to go into retail. “The minute we put Joseph up for sale we had the top firms in the world interested in it,” he says proudly. “It shows the extent of our achievement. Even after September 11, we still managed to grow sales by 20%.” In 2005 Ettedgui sold the entire business to Japanese firm Onward Kashiyama for £140 million.

But Ettedgui has found a new love in Connolly. In 1999 he and his wife Isabel bought the family-owned luxury leather goods brand and opened its first flagship store in 2000 in Conduit Street in central London. Since then, Ettedgui has introduced ready-to-wear, an area which he is planning to grow. In fact, menswear and luggage are the two best-selling categories at Connolly. Total sales for the year to March 31 2007 were up 25% to £1.5m.

“I’ve achieved what I want in menswear,” says Ettedgui, who thinks the UK export market for menswear is “very professional” today. “Menswear looks so much better today than it used to, particularly with the likes of Burberry and Ozwald Boateng – it looks like the French and Italian markets of 20 years ago.”

But now his focus is on womenswear. “I love retail and I’m doing something else I love now,” he smiles. “With Connolly moving more into ready-to-wear, it reminds me of the way we started Joseph. I missed clothing too much.”

But Ettedgui’s nostalgia hides a deeper rationale for focusing on womenswear – the category gives him another route to market in an industry where even the premium end is feeling the economic strains. Walpole, the trade body which represents 100 British luxury firms, has warned that the premium market will soon be hit by a slowdown in consumer spending, despite its resistance until now.

“I’m quite financially disciplined in what I do and it’s tough for everyone at the moment,” says Ettedgui. “There are periods when something won’t sell too well. For example, before Christmas we sell a lot of luggage – more than I ever thought we could – but then it quietens down at other times. You need to know what type of product is right for a particular period. Also, for me, running a shop is like being a chef. You need different ingredients to give your shop flavour.”

He predicts – and probably hopes – that fashion will head in a new direction. He refers to the recent death of Yves Saint Laurent as being a turning point for the fashion industry and womenswear in particular.

“After Saint Laurent’s death, I feel fashion will head more towards elegance, quality and design,” he says. “During the past few years, fashion has been led by celebrities, with the media driving this trend. The kind of people who have spent money on fashion have been people who want to be ‘seen’, who want to look like people in magazines, which has encouraged copycat products.

“And people as young as 16 are now interested in high-end fashion and have played a role in driving the market. But I think we’ll see a shift away from celebrity culture, with the industry focusing on ‘normal’ people – those who just like nice clothes.”

This, coupled with a trend for designers to go down a more conservative route when times are tough – just look at the high-collared dresses and high-neck blouses on the autumn 08 catwalks at Dolce & Gabbana, YSL and Prada – could well prove Ettedgui right.

He has little time for celebrities and instead admires his peers, from whom he also finds inspiration. “I remember when we opened on Fulham Road and everyone would come to Joseph before London Fashion Week,” he says. “I remember people like Tom Ford visiting the store and I was always surprised to see that calibre of person. But that was what I wanted: to sell to the people I admired.”

Today, among Connolly’s blazers and jackets, women’s trench coats and knits, customers also find some of Ettedgui’s favourite designers, including Balenciaga and Azzedine Alaia. “I choose brands that I’ve had a love affair with, like Azzedine Alaia, which is fantastic,” he says. “My tastes have changed as I’ve got older. Connolly is more grown-up than Joseph. Watching old movies and seeing the way people used to dress inspires me. At the moment I’m preparing a prototype for Connolly – I’m still working on the quality and design – and I’m in always in contact with customers to see what they like.

“We try very gently to give an attitude to our clients with the clothes they buy. When a customer tries on a pair of trousers, we’ll look at it and think that it may need a turn-up, for example. I’m in no great rush to make Connolly bigger. With the climate being difficult at the moment, it’s better to run one good store than three average ones. Plus, I love having the one store right now – it’s a bit like how it started with Joseph.”
With retirement not on Ettedgui’s horizon – the 72-year-old is musing over opening a hotel in London – the potential for Connolly is huge. But however successful the business continues to be, Ettedgui will make sure that the journey is a gentle one.

CV
2005 Joseph sold to Onward Kashiyama
2000 Opens Connolly flagship in London
1999 Sells 54% stake in Joseph to Belgian financier Albert Fr貥 and buys Connolly
1997 Joseph introduces menswear
1992 First Joseph concession in UK
1987 Joseph flagship store on London’s Fulham Road opens
1983 First New York store opens
1978 First Paris store opens
1972 First Joseph store opens in London


Q&A

Who is your fashion mentor?
There are two people I admire for different reasons. From a design point of view, I have to say Azzedine Alaia, whose designs are beautiful. From a retail perspective, I really admire Ralph Lauren.

Which is your favourite retailer?
Corso Como in Milan (the 13,000sq ft boutique also houses a bookshop and a photography and design gallery). I admire it because it is so eclectic. It’s not something I could recreate myself. I also love Dean & DeLuca (US food shop). I love the way it displays the tomatoes and cakes – I wish I could make my shirts look like that. From a fashion-only perspective, I love Herm賮 In fact, it’s an example I’d like to follow. You don’t need to go into a Herm賠store with an exact idea of what you want to buy, but you know you’ll find something you like. The store environment itself is great too.

What has been the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
Joseph’s trousers and knitwear. They consistently sold well.

What has been your proudest achievement?
Working with architect Norman Foster on the design of the Joseph stores and working with Kenzo at the beginning, when it was all so exciting.

What would be your dream job?
To own a hotel in London. I love hotels and I love London because it’s been my lucky spot. But it might not always be a dream. It’s something I may still do.

Do you prefer design or retail?
I love design, but retail is my passion.

What do you like doing in your spare time?
Smoking cigars and watching TV.

Which countries inspire you?
Italy and Morocco in particular.

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