In less than three years, premium French retailer The Kooples has notched up 180 stores, €100m worth of sales and is now poised to enter the US market. Just what is its secret?
Johnny and Corinna have been a couple for one year. “I remember the first time I saw her. I was standing on the steps of a really tacky hotel when she pulled up in a car. She stepped out and was dressed really cool, like out of Annie Hall. It was the hardest seducing I’ve ever had to do,” laughs the impossibly cool Johnny about his impossibly beautiful, silky-skinned girlfriend.
But the short film depicting their relationship is a true story. In fact, it appears that the world is full of gorgeous, impeccably dressed couples. It just took three brothers to track them all down for the purpose of creating a new brand, which brazenly launched just months before the recession hit.
“The recession actually helped us,” says Alexandre Elicha, creative director and one of the founders of premium French retailer The Kooples (imagine the last word being pronounced in a sexy French accent like Elicha’s; it’s supposed to sound like a Frenchman saying “couples”). “Everyone was scared. No-one wanted to open shops, everyone cut their marketing budgets, but we came in with something different, with this idea of using real couples with a Parisian and English spirit. And everyone was asking: ‘What is The Kooples?’”
Two months before The Kooples launched in the UK in November 2010, an advertising campaign began appearing in magazines and on the sides of buses and taxis. It featured a couple with a single sentence giving us their first names and the number of years they had been together. Only the most clued-up fashion connoisseurs knew what it referred to; The Kooples followed the same strategy when it launched in Paris in September 2008.
For Elicha and his two brothers, Laurent and Raphael, the “spirit” of The Kooples is as important as the product. “Today, a brand isn’t just about the product. Of course, the product has to have an esprit,” he tells me in French, “but then it’s the message, the store, Raphael’s films [featuring the likes of Johnny and Corinna, which are shown in cinemas and on The Kooples’ website]. It all goes together.”
Elicha insists the idea for the couples concept came from all three brothers and, sitting opposite them in their plush new offices (a replica of their stores) off the Place Vendôme in Paris, I’m tempted to believe them. Dressed in black and wearing black-rimmed glasses, the Elichas look almost identical – perhaps they do share the same thoughts. Or maybe they were influenced by their parents’ former brand Comptoir de Cotonniers (it was bought by Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing in 2005), whose advertising campaigns feature mothers and daughters.
“I love their confidence,” says Andy Rogers, brand director of premium high street retailer Reiss. “What’s refreshing is their absolute belief in what they do.”
Rogers is not surprised by their success. Sales for 2010 stood at €100m (£87m) with net profits of €25m (£21.7m). The total number of stores and concessions stands at 180 and the business plans to open a further 25 points of sale in France and the UK next year. The UK makes up 20% of total sales, with 20 stores and concessions, which are all in Selfridges stores. “It all feels so well-planned,” says Rogers. “There’s no point in opening with just one store in Paris; they needed to blast their way in. I think All Saints should be worried. The Kooples is smarter [in terms of the product], cooler, more trend-driven.”
Rogers could be right. With its sombre colour palette and androgynous aesthetic, The Kooples won’t appeal to everyone. Like All Saints, it has that Marmite flavour – you either love it or hate it – and thus a strong identity. But All Saints still beats it on price. A silk blouse at The Kooples is about £135 compared with All Saints’ £120.
As I rifle through the rails in the Elichas’ office, I notice burgundy and burnt orange, autumn 11’s on-trend colours, suggesting that broadening their appeal is not off the cards. The brothers admit the decision to add more colour was partly commercial.
“It’s important to follow trends, to have feelings of trends, but you need your own take too,” says creative director Laurent, as he breaks older brother Alexandre’s near-monologue.
That take is a combination of an English and French aesthetic. “Sometimes an English customer says, ‘Oh that’s very French’, and a French customer says, ‘Oh that’s very English’,” says Alexandre. “When we look at sales figures, we find that the best-sellers are the same in both countries.”
Now it’s the younger brother’s turn to pipe up. “But the English are less scared. They go for stronger pieces,” says image director Raphael, who is more softly spoken than his brothers. The brothers have grown up with strong French and English influences.
“We were born into fashion. Our parents talked fashion at home and Comptoir des Cotonniers was a good ‘school’,” says Alexandre of his and Laurent’s days spent working in the family business. “We’ve known Patrick [Grant, creative director of Savile Row tailor Norton & Sons] for a long time. Our personal suits were made there.”
The formal pieces in The Kooples’ collection are designed in collaboration with Norton & Sons and Alexandre and Laurent, while Raphael manages the website and all visual communication.
When I ask who runs the business, Alexandre insists it’s all three (a couple of weeks later, I’m told that Alexandre is also chief executive). “But we have a good team where everyone has a role,” he says, just as a handful of men in grey suits walk in from what appears to be the end of a business meeting. When I ask who they are, the brothers look at each other, giggle and don’t reply.
Perhaps they’re linked to French private equity firm LBO, which took a 20% stake in The Kooples in June. The brothers own the company with the help of some bank loans. The investment allows The Kooples to open stores in other territories, with a US launch set for next September and a TK by The Kooples retail concept for casualwear opening in France and the UK next year.
But that’s not enough, according to Rogers. “The challenge now is to keep it fresh. How long can they keep finding good-looking couples?” he asks. “But they have such a strong place in the market, that they’ll surprise us again.”
Raphael is working on a music-led initiative where couples send in recordings of their own songs, and the successful “kooples” appear on a CD given away free in-store. The music link is important to the “spirit” of the brand – Alexandre says the name The Kooples sounds a bit like a band – as they’re upcoming collaboration with singer Pete Doherty in February demonstrates.
As we near the end of the interview, Alexandre takes a call, then turns to Laurent and starts whispering. You sense they’re cooking something up already.
2011 Announces plans to launch retail concept TK by the Kooples for casualwear; announces collaboration with Pete Doherty for next February
2010 Launches UK advertising campaign; two months later opens three stores and a Selfridges concession
2008 Launches in France in September with five stores in Paris; a further 20 stores are planned before the end of the year