It started as a rugby-pitch prank. Now Franck Mesnel is looking for a London flagship for his sporty French brand.
The story behind Eden Park’s pink bow tie logo is a fitting introduction to the rugby-inspired French brand. Franck Mesnel and his teammates at Racing Club de Paris started their sartorial escapades on the rubgy pitches of their opposing teams in 1987, when they walked out in berets, blazers and bow ties, and even harem pants. Theatrical stunts such as riding bikes on the the pitch and drinking champagne at half-time earned the team the nickname “Le Showbizz”.
However, it was the pink bow tie – inspired by Racing’s mascot, the Pink Panther – that became the club’s signature. And, at the first Rugby World Cup final in 1987, when Mesnel and the French team faced the All Blacks at the New Zealand national team’s Eden Park Stadium in Auckland, he had a pink bow tie in his pocket.
France lost 29-9, but an idea was born that combined the name and sentiment in a brand. Mesnel, who was studying to be an architect at the time, launched a rugby shirt brand later that year.
Today, Eden Park has grown into a men’s and women’s wear brand that produces a wide range of clothing, from T-shirts to shirts, blouses, trousers, jumpers, jackets and dresses, as well as the rugby shirts that inspired its launch.
Its mainline “Sport” collection of rugby and men’s wardrobe classics aimed at 35-to-65-year-olds was joined three years ago by the more fashion-led “Club” line.
In 2016, it added footwear, accessories and perfume to the mix.
The brand now has 600 points of sale in 19 markets, stretching from Taiwan to Tunisia, and Martinique to Madagascar. It has 30 UK stockists and plans to increase its brand awareness here by launching a flagship store in London. It is also eyeing the US market.
“I find it’s easier for us to find our way outside of France,” Mesnel tells Drapers, as he relaxes into an armchair at the Double H Agency offices in Islington, north London, where Eden Park has its showroom. “The people don’t see us as a rugby brand – they see us more like a Parisian brand inspired by rugby. That is exactly what I want.
“You have to tell a story. There are too many brands who had to invent their marketing. We are lucky to have something unusual and the pink bow tie story allows us to explain Eden Park’s French flair.”
People don’t see us as a rugby brand – they see us more like a Parisian brand inspired by rugby
And there are other many other rugby nationals now sporting this “French flair”: Eden Park is the official formalwear brand for England – since 2010 – Wales, Ireland, Italy and, of course, France.
The first Eden Park store opened on rue de Courcelles in Paris in 1988, selling 60 styles of rugby shirts. A second opened in Toulouse not long afterwards. Today, the brand has 46 stores in France – 22 wholly owned and 24 franchises.
The brand began wholesaling in 1990, and this now represents 40% of turnover.
Eden Park’s turnover was £52.4m (€60m) in 2016, of which £1.1m (€1.25m) came from the UK. Sales are still concentrated in the French market – about a 70:30 split with international – but Mesnel is seeking a more even balance.
The brand first entered the UK market in 2004 and its 30 stockists include independents ranging from A Hume in Kelso in the Scottish Borders, to Bone Clothing in Lewes, East Sussex, to Jackie James in Camarthen, as well as House of Fraser and online by The Chapar.
It is now hunting for prime retail space in central London – Mesnel describes this as “the dream” – although a launch date has not been confirmed.
In 2013, it hired London fashion agency Double H to review its strategy, including the possibility of expanding further into the UK and the US, revising marketing communications with the brand’s new “le French flair” slogan, and shop refits.
Marc Querol, brand manager at Double H Agency, says: “Stockists find many things attractive about Eden Park. First, it’s the details and quality of each style: they represent the brand’s signature, as well show the premium range of the brand.
“Stockists also appreciate the history behind the brand. With the Sport collection, Eden Park appeals to rugby fans, and, with the new Club line, it attracts the fashion buyers.”
Paul Bone, managing director of Bone Clothing, has stocked Eden Park for 10 years and says it is his second-bestselling brand, after Gant.
He says the brand’s history gives it an authenticity: “There is a story behind the brand and it’s not some faceless person at the top. Franck is a nice man and very approachable, and, if you want to talk to the man at the top, you can.”
There is a story behind the brand and it’s not some faceless person at the top. Franck is a nice man and very approachable
Paul Bone, managing director of Bone Clothing
The sporting heritage, unique logo and touches such as rugby ball-shaped buttons give it a point of difference based around the “English gentleman” look cultivated by Mesnel, he adds, despite the brand’s French origins.
Menswear styling service and etailer The Chapar has stocked Eden Park for three years and reports that it is one of its strongest brands.
Head of marketing Chris Seddon says: “The brand covers a range of styles, which means we can service the many different personal needs of our customers.”
He adds: “The Frenchness and rugby heritage will always be at the heart of the brand. However, Eden Park has grown product lines outside that rugby heritage to offer something for all consumers. The logo keeps the history in all its new products.”
Wholesale prices range from £24 for a polo shirt to £50 for a jacket.
Photographer Dean Mullings, who has previously shot for the brand, says: “Eden Park offers a preppy yet classic approach to rugby-inspired fashion, while also ensuring to represent an authentic sense of French high life. The great range offered in their collections, in addition to their attention to storytelling, really takes you on a visual journey and helps to embody what it is that Eden Park reflects.”
There are some challenges to the brand’s growth, including Brexit and political changes in France. However, Mesnel is keeping his focus on finding a balance between quality and price: “There’s no way for me to let people pay too much,” he insists. “It’s not my policy, and it’s not possible if you want to have a long-term business. It’s been our strategy since the beginning to make something affordable and premium.”
Eight years ago, the brand launched womenswear.
“My brief for the two women designing womenswear was not to follow the menswear line but to find influence from the details and create something feminine,” explains Mensel. In France, the “macho” reputation of a rugby brand makes it challenging to promote Eden Park’s womenswear, he adds. However, in Taiwan womenswear makes up 40% of the brand’s sales. “We have an opportunity to launch the brand in a different way in different countries. Adaptation is key.”
Breaking into the Asian market in 2011 was a huge feat for Mesnel. Eden Park now has concessions in Singapore in Japanese department store Takashimaya and in will open in Ho Chi Min City next year. It is also currently testing a shop in Tokyo.
“Japan is a milestone for us,” says Mesnel. “They are crazy about fashion.”
Shop refits are also playing a part in the brand’s rejuvenation. The stores are becoming brighter and whiter, injected with original memorabilia from the brand’s story. First up was the shop in La Rochelle, on the south-west coast of France, and next, in August, is the 3,230 sq ft flagship in Paris near Boulevard St Germain.
“It takes time,” Mesnel explains. “We can’t do everything at the same time but we felt like we had to move. And when we talk to bloggers, they see now that this is the new Eden Park.”
The appointment of Spanish footballer Marc Muniesa, who plays for Stoke City, as digital brand ambassador will help to promote the brand and reach a younger demographic. Collaborations are important: while continuing to work and develop its iconic product such as the double-collared shirts and jerseys, Eden Park also has a tie-up with French watch brand Poiray, and in the near future will partner with Parisian beauty brand Sothys on a cosmetic line. A hotly anticipated collaboration with Adidas will follow in November.
Teamwork is intrinsic to Eden Park. Mensel says running a business is similar to playing team sports, especially rugby: “Rugby is known for its team spirit and that is something that is helping me now: knowing that alone you are nobody and on the rugby pitch, it’s the same thing.” He keeps expectations high and works regularly with consultants who analyse how Eden Park is operating.
Mensel, who is an amateur pilot, says he is always open to change: “There’s nothing worse thing than being sure of yourself. When you are flying, accidents come when you feel too comfortable.” It is no surprise, then, to learn that the sportsman-turned-entrepreneur played in position number 10 during his time at Racing Club de France. Number 10s are the pivot player – the link between the workhorse and creative players. And they are also the positions who bring imagination to the game – the flair.
His challenge now is to keep up Eden Park’s momentum 30 years on. But if he maintains a strong team and capitalises on the current appetite for sports-inspired clothing, the opportunities for international expansion are huge.