With her elegant handwriting in sync with current trends, the French womenswear designer is enjoying international success and has opened her first UK store in London’s Mayfair.
Would you like more coffee?” the waiter asks Vanessa Bruno in the cosy, dimly lit bar at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair, London. “I think I want a drink,” she replies, enviously scanning the room filled with a champagne-sipping clientele, before turning to Drapers conspiratorially, a glint in her baby blue eyes. “Shall we have some champagne?”
Though irrepressibly chic, the French designer draws you into her company so you can’t help but warm to her. Interestingly, it’s a combination that translates - in a more abstract way - to the Vanessa Bruno label itself. Her draped dresses in luxurious wool and silk, which she shows during Paris Fashion Week, place the label firmly within the designer womenswear market, but her democratic prices, not to mention her diffusion range Athé, draws in shoppers that can’t afford the likes of fellow French brand Céline, for example.
A classic, sleeveless black dress in a wool, lace and cotton mix in the mainline retails for £295, prompting The Times fashion editor Lisa Armstrong to refer to Vanessa Bruno as the designer label “fashion editors actually wear”.
What women want
Much like Phoebe Philo, the creative director of Céline who has been credited with making fashion wearable again since debuting her pared-down collections of crisp white shirts, camel coats and well-cut trousers, Bruno’s own elegant yet easy tailoring demonstrates her innate understanding of how women over 25 want to dress.
“I like [my clothes] to look effortless, with the right cut in a beautiful, relaxed way,” Bruno says in her thick French accent. “The customer doesn’t want to be a caricature - they want real clothes for real women.”
So successful was Athé for etailer My-Wardrobe (stockists of the mainline include Matches, Net-a-Porter and Harvey Nichols) for autumn 10, buying and merchandising director Luisa de Paula has doubled her order for spring 11 and is pleased with the sell-through on autumn 10. “The brand has great price points - the average retail price is £189 and the mark-up is 2.7 - and great, cool French styling,” says de Paula.
Bruno is all too conscious of pricing. “[Shoppers] are also very conscious of affordable luxury. The girls [her customers] know the price of a silk dress - they are savvy and it’s important to be fair. You can see what Zara, for example, is capable of doing.” Although she won’t mention any names, Bruno suggests the more well-known luxury businesses hike up their prices because they are “a name”.
Having said that, it’s not as if Bruno can’t shift expensive pieces - far from it. At her London store on Grafton Street in Mayfair, which opened in October last year, one of the best-selling - and most expensive - pieces is a leather coat with mohair trim retailing at just over £1,000.
“We’ve actually introduced higher price points,” says Bruno, which has helped to offset increases in manufacturing costs. Bruno refuses to pass on price increases to the consumer or to allow her margins to take a hit, so by broadening the pricing architecture to include higher-ticket items, Bruno says she can keep the bottom line healthy.
She says the UK is “quite important” to the brand and that stockists are buying deeper into the collection each season, but - and although she won’t quite admit it - there is a sense Bruno is sometimes disappointed by her stockists’ lack of bravery when it comes to buying. The Vanessa Bruno mainline has 10 UK stockists, while Athé has 22 stockists.
“They are looking for pieces that will fly [out of their stores] like this,” she says, snapping her fingers. “Sometimes I push them [to try] something new, which is why it’s important to keep a unity and have a [standalone] store where you can see the whole range.”
Each season’s collection comprises some 300 pieces across both the Vanessa Bruno mainline and Athé, although the latter is not available in the London store.
The store’s priority does, indeed, seem to be about the best way to display product. Fitted out like an art gallery, it’s an unfussy space with white walls and high ceilings on the ground floor, with a cosier feel in the basement. It lets the clothes speak for themselves.
“Every time I open a shop, it always has to be in the right spot. I have plans to open more stores [in the UK] but I work by… [she pauses to find the right word]… by the feeling,” says Bruno, who with characteristic French nonchalance is unwilling to commit to numbers and timescales. She says service is of the utmost importance and that “everything’s about the internet these days.”
Bruno is equally hazy on her plans to expand online. Currently, consumers can only buy accessories online. She says clothing will eventually be available online “but you have to do it right. We were one of the first brands to go on [designer etailer] Net-a-Porter, but again, it’s about service. Every step is a big step.”
No need for speed
In fact, the speed at which the fashion industry is evolving as a result of modern technology is not always to Bruno’s taste. “The system today is perverse. By the time a collection gets to the stores, we’ve already burned the dream,” she says, referring to the seemingly countless channels through which consumers can see collections months before they appear in stores.
So, how does she feel about Burberry’s decision to live stream its spring 11 collection and allow shoppers to buy directly from it, with a seven-week delivery window? “If they can do it, bravo. I’m not capable of doing it, of taking these risks [on delivery]. Burberry has factories working all the time for them - they are very powerful but are shortening the system even more,” says Bruno.
“I don’t feel in concurrence [competition] with these people. The young generation need that [immediacy], there will always be a hysterical customer, but I’m not trying to please everybody. My customers need a certain elegance, so personally I don’t want to go there. It’s about treating women in an intelligent way - voilá.”
2010 Opens first UK standalone store for Vanessa Bruno on Grafton Street, London
1998 Opens first Paris store in Saint-Germain-des-Prés
1997 Launches diffusion line Athé
1996 Launches Vanessa Bruno
Vanessa Bruno on…
My brand is a ‘univers’ [universe]. I have clothing, accessories, bags, lingerie - it’s about a lifestyle, which is why a [standalone] store is important - it’s like going into someone’s home.
I have a lot of respect for Isabel [the French designer to whom Bruno is often compared]. The press wants us to be competitors but Isabel is more about casual, city wear, whereas I do Parisian chic.
People she admires…
Phoebe [Philo] has done a fantastic job at Céline. She has an urban chic, with layering and transparency. My mother’s [a Danish-born former model] good taste inspires me.
Retail versus wholesale…
The more you develop the wholesale business, the better it is for retail [and vice versa]. You can only show elements of your collection at wholesale, but [the success of the brand] at Harvey Nichols and Matches in London gives me the legitimacy to open a store here.
The Vanessa Bruno handwriting…
My last show [at Paris Fashion Week in October] was all about tropical prints - I had never done that before. I take a little glimpse [of trends] like the 1970s [into my collection] and I do it in a way that surprises. I try every season to tell a story but the look is always atemporelle [transcends trends].
She is a customer who relates to natural beauty, who is sophisticated and has an effortless interest in fashion. She wears [heavy] boots with shorts, but wants to look delicate too.