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Marie-France Cohen

An eclectic store that gives its profits to charity may not seem like the most sound of business ventures, but the owner of Merci in Paris is no ordinary retailer

Picture the following: you want to set up a shop that reflects your style across fashion, homewares, food, literature and just generally having a good time. Then you want to give away the profits from it to a fund you are going to establish to help mothers in Madagascar. Oh yes, and you want your shop to have inexpensive and exclusive branded merchandise.

It sounds a little implausible as a modus operandi for a retail business, yet it exists, in Paris, and is the brainchild of French retail power couple Bernard and Marie-France Cohen.

It’s called Merci - which of course means “thank you” in French - and is in the Marais district, a fashionable part of the city known for its directional and quirky fashion boutiques, except that the location selected for this store was a distinctly ungentrified area of the district where selling motorbikes was the principal activity.

Esoteric collections

Yet by March last year, Marie-France and Bernard had set up a 15,000 sq ft shop, arranged over three floors in a former high-end wallpaper factory dating from the 19th century - and the shoppers flooded in. The model for the fashion part of the business was based on providing shoppers with “additionals” as Marie-France terms it, rather than complete wardrobes.

Fashion, in fact, accounts for about 40% of the turnover of this store, which will make close to €11m (£9.2m) during the current year, and the collections -for men, women and children - are somewhat esoteric.

“At the beginning, I was very worried about the fashion side of things,” says Cohen. “The idea of Merci was to buy attractive things. It would be our choice, from the very simple - and simple is a luxury - to the very expensive.”

If therefore, you want a vintage Lanvin scarf for example, there is a good selection to choose from. Cohen started off by buying from the big designer labels such as Yves Saint Laurent and Stella McCartney, but then opted for quirkier brands including Comme des Garçons and Maison Martin Margiela to offer a point of difference to the bigger department stores.

If the world of branded Paris fashion is a little intimidating, there is an entry price own-label fashion range that trades under the name Merci Merci

and represents Cohen’s taste and selection. The menswear and womenswear label, which retails at a blanket price of €35 (£29) for a T-shirt and €69 (£58) for a blouse, pays attention to “shapes that follow the latest trends”, says Cohen, but also bears the hallmarks of her own distinct taste.

A personal view of fashion and how it works is what characterises Cohen’s world, a world in which money no longer seems to matter and in which doing something worthwhile is much more important. The money for setting up Merci stems from Bonpoint, the French premium kidswear retailer that the Cohens established in 1972 and sold their controlling 70% stake in 2003, enabling them to take a somewhat hands-off approach to the matter of generating personal wealth.

“My partner and I knew we wanted to sell Bonpoint and we knew that we had to have another project, to use our creativity, and not to be in it for the money. It’s actually quite depressing standing on your piles of money. It’s great to have money, but it’s not the most important thing,” she says.

Merci then, was set up as a business that would operate like a normal shop, but the Cohens would not take profits from it and, instead, any residues would be diverted to the Madagascar fund. Additionally, according to Merci director Jean-Luc Colonna d’Istria, deals have been struck with suppliers whereby lower than normal margins are applied to merchandise destined for Merci, and the differences between these and normal margins are added to the Madagascar fund. Colonna d’Istria insists that this is effected by agreement rather than any kind of coercion.

Merci’s mascot

As far as fashion is concerned, there are two drops of current season product for spring and two for autumn, mixed with vintage pieces. The idea is to provide sufficient change to ensure “there is a reason for shoppers to keep coming back”, as Cohen puts it, and certainly, a different retail landscape - artfully simple but beautifully executed visual merchandising - is the store’s hallmark.

The main event is the atrium that greets visitors as they enter from the external courtyard where a red vintage Fiat 500, “Merci’s mascot”, dominates. This is the space that effectively sets out what the store is about, consisting of an installation that is changed monthly and could feature anything from fashion to 3D steel letters to decorate your chichi home. All around are touches that set this store out as rather more than a straightforward lifestyle emporium. Whether it’s the cafe-cum-library, where you can buy books more or less by the yard, or the circular portal through which you pass to enter the kidswear section, this space is all about detail.

Strong opinion and a definite view of what works are what sets this store apart and Cohen is equally definite in her views of UK retailers.

“I love the small, traditional English shops,” she says. “There is nothing like them. But when it comes to being English, Ralph Lauren took the English thing and then brought it back better than anybody English could have done.” She is also forthright in her opinion of London department store Liberty.

“I have always been desperate about Liberty. It’s a fantastic building, but I can’t buy anything in there - it’s too expensive.” Merci did a collaboration with Liberty earlier this year, which featured a pop-up shop in the iconic store, but Cohen is somewhat scathing of the process and its success. “We did an event with them and it was almost nothing,” she says.

The right things

So what are the prospects for Merci? Cohen is clear that it has cost a lot of money to set up and it has yet to become profitable. That said, Colonna d’Istria, who is better placed than most to predict what will happen, expects the venture to be in profit by the end of the year and the first projects in Madagascar to be selected.

Meanwhile, for Cohen, it’s business as usual: “I’m very confident and I have a good eye. My daughter-in-law is working with us. She trained as a lawyer and her freshness [when considering fashion] is very interesting. She’s not a [fashion] professional, but it works and it’s something I’ve been doing all my life, using people who can bring something new to our work,” she says. “And it’s not price. You have to have the right things if people are going to trust you.”

Cohen’s idea of giving something back is about to become a reality, at which point, it won’t just be the retailer’s own label that has reason to say merci Merci.


2009 Opens Merci

2003 Sells majority stake in Bonpoint to Paris private equity firm Edmond de Rothschild Capital Partners

1972 Establishes premium kidswear retailer Bonpoint

1969 Opens Bonbon, a small shop selling multi-brand kidswear in Paris

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