With their first UK menswear store opening next month, the mother and son behind the French retailer are enjoying growing overseas in their own way.
No one does chic better than the French. First it was Isabel Marant and Vanessa Bruno. Now it’s Sandro, Maje and The Kooples that are giving the British high street a certain je ne sais quoi, after building successful strategies at home. “Competition does not worry us, it makes us stronger and makes each [French] brand work harder,” says Sandro founder Evelyne Chétrite, over an espresso at the retailer’s studio on the historic Rue des Tourelles in Paris.
“Having success in the UK is an honour because English women have such a great sense of style.”
Since hopping over the channel in 2008 with its first concession in Selfridges, Sandro has kept up the pace in the UK, with its first standalone store on Sloane Street opening in 2009 and the seventh, a dedicated menswear store (and the first of its kind in the UK), opening next month on Westbourne Grove. Wholesale, on the other hand, is part of “another life”.
“Sandro has two lives, the wholesale life from 1984, and the second post-2004, when the first Paris store opened and we decided to come out of our wholesale business,” Evelyne explains. But given that she, together with her former business partner Didier Chétrite, took Sandro’s international stockist base to 300 in those 20 years, why change the strategy?
“Zara and H&M meant the end of multi-brand shopping [as we knew it] and the rise of the concept store, which continues today,” says Evelyne. “Retailers such as those had completely revolutionised the market and this threatened our business, but at the same time gave us the opportunity to realise we could represent ourselves and our own universe, so to speak.”
After opening the first Paris store in 2004, Sandro took only two seasons to remove itself from all its wholesale accounts. Admitting this exit was “brutal” to the stores stocking Sandro at that time, Evelyne believed it was a necessary tactic to move the brand forward and be in control of its identity.
“We needed to control pricing, stock and answer directly to the demand,” says Evelyne. Surprisingly, turnover didn’t suffer during this transition, and in fact rose thanks to the rapid success of the original and consequent Paris store openings. “I looked from outside the store window when we first opened and couldn’t believe the success, it was really amazing.”
Sandro is financed by the SMCP group which also has stakes in Maje and Claudie Pierlot, both contemporary womenswear brands but they sit in different positions in the market. Maje is not only the sister company in the group but was started in 1998 by Evelyne’s sister, designer Judith Milgrom, and is seen as being slightly edgier than Sandro, while Claudie Pierlot has a more playful aesthetic.
“We have things in common but it’s designed completely independently [to Maje],” says Ilan Chétrite, Evelyne’s son and creative director of Sandro menswear. But there is a palpable rivalry between the two brands, which do not see each other’s collections until they hit the shop floor. “The two brands have their own identity and DNA,” says Ilan. “The only other thing that connects the two brands is love.” Ah.
Sandro is known for its modern and feminine pieces, in particular its dresses. “Dresses are our strength; when a woman wants a dress she goes to Sandro, it’s part of our history,” says Evelyne. For spring 12, the retailer picked up on sport references through casual trousers with drawstring and cutaway panels, in addition to floral and Aztec-inspired prints in highlight colours of tangerine and coral.
In 2011, Sandro’s turnover in the UK was €5m (£4.1m), accounting for 39% of its European turnover and 7% of international turnover. This figure comes from its five concessions in the UK including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods, alongside its six UK standalone stores.
Deryane Tadd, owner of contemporary womenswear indie The Dressing Room in St Albans, which stocks French brands Ba&Sh and American Vintage, says: “I’ve always been a great fan of French collections and they have been a key part of our brand mix since we opened. I find that their laid-back sense of style translates perfectly to the British market. Brands such as Paul & Joe Sister, American Retro and Virginie Castaway have the perfect French laid-back chic style that works so well with all of our denim brands.”
Next month, Sandro is opening its first menswear standalone store in the UK on Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, and there are 40 worldwide. Menswear has represented Ilan’s stamp on the Sandro family business since the men’s collection launch in 2008. “There was a lack of brands in the middle to high-end for men and we wanted the men’s counterpart to be the alter ego of the Sandro women,” he says.
Menswear, which accounts for 25% of total sales, is heavily influenced by music and has a rock ’n’ roll vibe. For spring 12 this is typified by sharp sb suits with leather-trimmed pockets, metal-tipped collar shirts and waistcoats.
Menswear launched in the UK via a concession in Selfridges in November 2011 and has proved a success. “It taps into the same style aesthetic as the women’s offer, which has made it a great success in the men’s department too. For our customer it’s an easy way to buy into Parisian style,” says Judd Crane, director of womenswear at Selfridges.
Together, Evelyne and Ilan are a tour de force, a friendly but guarded duo who like to keep their cards close to their chests. Pressed on what the future holds, Ilan simply says: “We will never stay in one place, we will continue to always ask ourselves, can we do more?” Kidswear perhaps? “Why not,” says Ilan, staying characteristically tight-lipped. Rest assured, the British high street will be watching closely.
May 2012 First UK menswear standalone due to open
2009 First UK standalone opens
2008 Opens first UK concession in Selfridges
2008 Ilan Chétrite joins the company and starts menswear line
2004 First store opens in Paris. Wholesale arm closes
1984 Evelyne Chétrite creates Sandro with Didier Chétrite