By  on December 5, 2011

NEW YORK — Sandro and Maje are taking the U.S. by storm.

The French sister brands, which happen to be designed by sisters, are being groomed for aggressive U.S. expansion. Three storefronts were unveiled recently on Bleecker Street, including Sandro’s first freestanding men’s and women’s stores in the U.S., and Maje’s second unit here. Maje last month opened a 935-square-foot space at 145 Spring Street in SoHo.

Frédéric Biousse, chief executive officer of Groupe SMCP in France and ceo of SMCP USA, is leading the charge in the U.S. and fast-tracking the brands’ store growth. “We’re negotiating for spaces in SoHo for Sandro, looking on Fifth Avenue in the [Flatiron District], and searching for space on Columbus Avenue, upper Madison Avenue and NoLIta. We want to open four stores as soon as possible — by March or April. The brands will reach 20 freestanding stores each within the next 18 months, with a potential of 40 to 50 stand-alone units each.”

Biousse is opening Sandro men’s and women’s units on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles. Next, he’ll target San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, with tests in Chevy Chase, Md., and Boston in February.

Both brands have a leg up on international competition focused on building retail networks. Sandro and Maje have had exposure at Bloomingdale’s, where they command large in-store shops. Now in three Bloomingdale’s locations, including the 59th Street flagship, Sandro and Maje will be rolling out to an additional 11 Bloomingdale’s stores. Biousse said Sandro’s men’s collection will launch at Bloomingdale’s in the spring.

Frank Doroff, vice chairman and general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear and bloomingdales.com, said the brands are performing well and providing the newness consumers crave. “I really wanted newness, and brands from outside the U.S. is where I found it,” he said.

Biousse expects the Maje and Sandro women’s businesses to do $2.5 million in the first year in 700 square feet at Bloomingdale’s flagship, and projected $1.5 million in sales for Sandro men’s. “Each concept will have a shop-in-shop in 14 department stores by February, with the potential of more than 100 per brand,” Biousse said. “We’re among the top three women’s brands at Bloomingdale’s in SoHo.”

The success of the shops-in-shop owes something to the fact that they’re operated as concessions, Biousse said. “We like to assume the risk of the merchandise and inventory,” he said. “We replenish our sales. We hire our own staff and spend a lot of money on training. We always do better when it’s our own staff. We generally overachieve targets. A lot of French brands are opening in the U.S. and managing the brands from Paris. We’ve hired American managers in New York and have our own offices here and a central warehouse in New Jersey.”

Both Sandro and Maje are “designer brands with very high sales densities and a cash-generating business model,” Biousse said. “For department stores, it’s an easy catch with the guarantee of high sales, high traffic and great image.”

The expansion of some foreign brands seems stunted when compared to Sandro and Maje. Since Reiss’ first store bowed in 2005 on West Broadway in SoHo, the retailer has opened seven units. Korean brand Eryn Brinie closed its store on West Broadway after only two years. Kira Plastinina, a Russian import, closed all 12 of her stores in 2008. Meanwhile, Shanghai Tang has gone through various incarnations, including, in 1999, a 12,500-square-foot flagship on Madison Avenue and 61st Street that closed after 19 months. Its 3,200-square-foot space at 600 Madison Avenue, between 57th and 58th Streets, is still operating.

Sandro and Maje have deep pockets. Parent Groupe SMCP last year sold a 51 percent stake to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton’s private equity arm, L Capital. Biousse, who took charge of the company in 2007, said Sandro did $10 million in sales in 2006. Sales will reach $200 million by the end of the year. Maje, meanwhile, had sales of $35 million in 2008 and will reach $175 million in 2011.

Sandro and Maje aren’t publicly referred to as sister brands. Rather, each has its own p.r. strategy and advertising campaign and “makes independent choices,” Biousse said. “They are friendly competitors, sharing a base of common customers and cross-fertilizing each other. Instead of being in competition, Sandro’s customers go to Maje and vice versa.”

Sandro stores are organized by theme. At the Bleecker Street unit, there was a modern British story as well as rocker/CBGB-inspired looks and preppie styles. “The strength of Sandro is putting things together that you wouldn’t think of,” said Amandine Lacoste, head merchandiser. A lamb’s wool coat is $2,600; a wool and leather car coat, $775; a black sweater with a feather collar, $320, and a red dress with zippers on the shoulders, $320. Sandro’s 25- to 45-year-old customers are interested in trends they see in magazines, while Maje’s younger consumer likes more of a rock ’n’ roll sensibility.

“We’ve been happily surprised that customers understand our brand,” Biousse said. “They understand that we are a French brand. It’s a culture and a definite taste. People understand that we are bringing a high level of service, image, communication, store design and product. We are a little expensive but not too expensive.”

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