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Maria Luisa Poumaillou

The shutters may have come down on iconic designer indie Maria Luisa in Paris, but its founder has no time for sentiment as she gets stuck into her new role at department store group Printemps

It’s the end of an era. One of fashion’s most iconic designer independents, Maria Luisa, shut up shop this week after 22 years in business, but its owner, Maria Luisa Poumaillou, is simply relieved.

“This is a positive thing,” insists Poumaillou, who has inspired the global fashion industry with her ability to spot new design talent to sell in her Parisian store on Rue Rouget de L’Isle. “I don’t feel sad about it. I want to get pleasure from fashion again.”

Poumaillou dismisses the hype around the shop’s closure as “nostalgia”, and insists her new ventures - an online Maria Luisa store in partnership with Yoox-owned designer etail portal Thecorner.com and a licensing deal with French department store chain Printemps, where she has also taken on a consultancy role - are a “simple, retail solution” to a not-so-simple problem.

Changing times

Poumaillou, whose store ranked alongside the likes of Browns of London and Milan’s 10 Corso Como in terms of iconic indie status, believes the designer, bricks-and-mortar independent format that was Maria Luisa was “totally logical” during the 1990s until the early 2000s, but that it is no longer relevant to today’s retail landscape.

“Brands were loyal [to indies] then and labels like Comme des Garçons and Maison Martin Margiela needed us to show that their collections were cool,” she explains. “Some 10 years ago, when Nicolas Ghesquière joined Balenciaga, we were the only store to stock the brand for a few seasons because no one else dared buy it. But now it even has a [company-owned] store in Athens.”

Designer brands opening their own stores is only part of the reason why Poumaillou had to close Maria Luisa. Pressure from brands on retailers to order large quantities and make early payments, the growing dominance of luxury etailer Net-a-Porter, and the rise of more sophisticated high streets and a drop in tourist numbers all led to a drop in footfall and sales at Maria Luisa. “It was too much of a fight,” says Poumaillou.

She is the first to admit she could not do what the likes of French indies Colette and Merci are doing - selling fashion within a lifestyle concept. Her talent lies purely in buying clothing and spotting new fashion designers, she explains, though she recognises the lifestyle concept is one way for indies to survive.

Tellingly, Poumaillou’s store lacked the retail theatre that innovative indies now offer. While 20 years ago product alone may have been enough to get customers to part with their money, today’s shoppers expect a complete shopping experience. The store on Rue Rouget de L’Isle could best be described as an outdated white box and, when Drapers visited just before it closed, staff were unpacking stock in the middle of the shopfloor until lunchtime. Not the slickest of experiences.

But Poumaillou decided to stick to what she does best - fashion buying. “[Colette and Merci] do lifestyle brilliantly,” she says. “But it has nothing to do with discovering new talent, which we’ve been faithful to for 20 years. Then, when I saw Printemps’ windows last year showing off Charles Anastase’s and Meadham Kirchhoff’s collections, I knew I could work with them.”

It was Printemps which approached Poumaillou with the idea for its store on Rue de Provence in Paris and the offer to make her fashion editor of the group, a role which includes buying and coming up with marketing concepts, such as ‘An Evening with Manolo Blahnik’.

The Printemps arrangement also allows Poumaillou to showcase her skills as a nurturer of young talent. At Maria Luisa, the most commercial brands were Balenciaga, Rick Owens and Jil Sander, but at the Printemps franchise in Paris, which mirrors the Maria Luisa store in design, Poumaillou can champion the likes of Christopher Kane and Marios Schwab, as the bigger designer brands already have their own space within the core Printemps store.

The 1,615 sq ft department, which sits in the middle of Printemps’ high-end designer floor at its Paris flagship, opened last year and is one of the floor’s top five best-performing departments, while her franchise store run by Sidefame at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, which opened in 2004, is seeing a 30% year-on-year increase in sales.

International ambitions

Her venture with Thecorner.com, due to launch soon, will give Maria Luisa the opportunity to be an international retailer. And unlike a bricks-and-mortar store, it will not suffer from factors such as low tourist figures (tourists made up 60% of sales at the Maria Luisa store).

Her advice to indies wishing to stick to bricks-and-mortar is to get their location right: “I don’t believe in ‘destination stores’, so location is key.”

So which emerging designers will Poumaillou be backing in her new ventures? “Christopher Kane and Alexander Wang,” she says, lamenting the fact that the media no longer sees Kane as an up-and-coming name. “He’s only been designing for three years,” she cries. “It’s difficult for young designers to be very good today because they are so desperate to get hired by a big design house [that they don’t have time to develop], but it’s the only way they can make money.

“Christopher is very, very focused and always delivers something new. He is head and shoulders above the rest.”

Q&A

Which designers do you admire?

Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang - they made me stay in this business. With every message and image they convey, they are so ahead of their time. But they do it politely; they’re not loud. I also admire Nicolas Ghesquière - he has such an intelligent approach to fashion.

Which are your favourite stores?

I love Uniqlo for basics. I also shop at Liberty in London and 10 Corso Como, and have great admiration for Mrs B [Joan Burstein, founder of London designer indie Browns]. She’s like a role model for me and was clever to start the online business sooner than many of her competitors.

Will you be coming to London Fashion Week in September?

Yes. It’s very important and definitely the place where you find the most creative designers. There is a feeling of freedom there. It’s free of the marketing of New York Fashion Week. Paris Fashion Week is very important too. The collections are of the highest quality and the shows are spectacles.

Who are your designers to watch?

As well as Christopher Kane, Meadham Kirchhoff and Alexander Wang, I like Michael Van Der Ham, Holly Fulton and Proenza Schouler. Riccardo Tisci is doing a great job at Givenchy and Balenciaga is still doing well. I’m not sure about Hakaan [one of last season’s most talked-about new designers at LFW] - it looked like something I’d seen before. But I will see his show this season - if I’m wrong, I’m wrong.

CV

2009 Opens Maria Luisa franchise with NBK in Doha, Qatar, and opens Maria Luisa department under licence at Printemps Haussmann in Paris. Appointed fashion editor of Printemps

2008 Relocates to Rue Rouget de L’Isle

2004 Opens Hong Kong franchise with Sidefame

1988 Opens Maria Luisa in Rue Cambon

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