PARIS — Ann Demeulemeester started preparing her exit from fashion almost eight years ago — and leaving behind an anonymous team was never in the cards.
This story first appeared in the February 27, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
A trio of talents — Mirjam van den Akker, Sébastien Meunier and Patrick van Ommeslaeghe — designed the fall women’s and men’s collections to be paraded in Paris today, and they elected Meunier to take the bow.
Anne Chapelle, the managing director and controlling shareholder of Ann Demeulemeester, revealed the names in a rare interview on Wednesday, three months after the founding designer revealed her retirement.
“I think it’s important that they are rewarded for it,” she told WWD. “These are three people who have been in fashion for a long time.”
An alumna of Maison Martin Margiela, Meunier has worked on Demeulemeester’s men’s wear since 2010. Van den Akker accompanied the founding designer on the women’s wear side for two decades while van Ommeslaeghe is a new addition, joining the company last September from Jil Sander.
“It was a very smooth transition,” Chapelle said, sipping coffee in the lobby of her Paris hotel off the picturesque Place des Vosges. “They’re confident, and full of love for what they do.”
A nurse, medical researcher and pharmaceutical executive earlier in her career, Chapelle learned the ropes of the fashion industry by studying the racks at stores like Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys New York after partnering with Demeulemeester in the Nineties to build her fashion house, always charting slow, sustainable growth.
She said she’s confident that her 480 wholesale customers will accompany the brand in its next chapter, citing a 2 percent bump in orders for the men’s fall collection, which was sold here last January.
“We have very loyal customers, and they have a lot of faith in us,” she said. “I think we have a lot of potential still.”
The company has typically logged seasonal growth of about 3 to 8 percent, said Chapelle, stressing a high sell-through is her key benchmark.
She said she would continue to concentrate on the American market, “which is getting its confidence back,” and Asia, where the firm’s wholesale partner, I.T Ltd., recently opened freestanding stores in Shanghai and Beijing, and where business in Seoul is humming.
Chapelle said she’s keeping an eye on BRIC countries and other emerging markets, but warily. “We are in such a niche market; we have to be very careful not to introduce ourselves too early,” she explained.
She said the company is profitable, and generates wholesale revenues of 22 million euros, or $30.2 million at current exchange.
An earnest executive who stands beaming through fashion shows, Chapelle also backs Haider Ackermann’s business, and is incubating another protégé, Jean-Paul Lespagnard, the subject of an exhibition at Galeries Lafayette’s art space.
Up front about her business strength — the wholesale channel — Chapelle said she would be open to taking on a partner that could bring retail expertise, while cautioning, “I don’t want to become corporate.”
Emblematic of the company’s familial legacy, she noted that Demeulemeester’s husband, Patrick Robyn, continues to work on the brand’s stores and shops-in-shop, and that their 27-year-old son does graphic design for the company, including prints for clothes. In fact, Demeulemeester and Robyn are to travel to Shanghai in April for the official opening of the I.T store.
“It’s family, we go together,” Chapelle said, beaming once more. “She’s a living person, she’s my friend. That’s a moment we have to share together.”