PARIS — When the news broke last year that Xavier Marie had bought a majority stake in ailing French label Paule Ka, most people in fashion had never heard of the discreet businessman.
Marie made his fortune as founder and former chief executive officer of furniture and home decor company Maisons du Monde. After selling that company, he quietly set about building a small fashion stable with the acquisition of children’s clothing and homewares label Bonton in 2016 and shoe manufacturer Rautureau in 2017.
Since buying Paule Ka, his holding group Marco Polo has added another children’s brand, Le Petit Souk, and cashmere specialist Eric Bompard to its portfolio.
As Paule Ka celebrates its 30th anniversary with the launch of a capsule collection designed by the brand’s founder, Serge Cajfinger, Marie spoke to WWD exclusively about the challenges and opportunities he faces in running his new businesses.
“I never set out to build a group. I approach it more like an investment fund, except that the funds I’m investing are my own,” he said in his first interview since embarking on his second career. Marie, whose iron handshake and weather-beaten face lend him the aura of a round-the-world sailor, had zero experience in fashion.
“For 20 years, I developed a company from scratch, driving it to 1 billion euros in sales. It was in homewares and it was more or less a pure retail model, but with a very strong element of creativity,” he explained. “On top of that, I was based outside of Paris, so I was very ingenuous when I first entered the world of fashion through Bonton. I knew nothing about ready-to-wear, nothing about textiles in general.”
Despite a steady decline in French clothing sales over the last decade, and a retail sector struggling to adapt to the rapid rise of e-commerce, Marie saw potential for Bonton to grow faster. Within two months of his arrival, the kids’ label presented a new collection that drove a 30 percent increase in sales, both retail and wholesale.
“That comforted me and made me want to invest in fashion,” the executive, who works hand-in-hand with his wife Julie, said of the experience. Revenues at the children’s brand have doubled in two years, totaling 16 million euros in 2017.
Righting Paule Ka is proving somewhat more challenging.
“The company was struggling financially when I arrived and it was about to go bankrupt if it didn’t find a buyer. We had to inject a lot of money to keep it afloat and begin to turn it around, and we will have to keep injecting a lot of money if we want to redevelop it going forward,” he said.
Marie didn’t know much about the contemporary brand when he first heard it was for sale. Walking into its store on Boulevard Saint-Germain here, he decided the clothing offer could be improved. When he took a look at the books, he was struck by how quickly the house’s fortunes had turned.
“The collapse of this company was very fast. In the space of three years, it went from being very profitable to making huge losses. Between the two, the discrepancy was really enormous,” Marie said. “It struck me that a label with its history, its DNA, its strong relationship with its customers, could bounce back just as quickly.”
The next step was to meet Cajfinger, who left the company in 2014 after serving as its creative director and chairman since 1987. The Frenchman now lives in the Brazilian seaside resort of Trancoso, where he works on architecture projects.
“I wanted to make sure I had understood the DNA of the house and I had decided I wouldn’t invest in this company if I didn’t find an artistic director,” Marie recalled.
Paule Ka had recently parted ways with Alithia Spuri-Zampetti after a two-year collaboration, during which the designer worked to extend the label’s appeal in daywear and separates.
Cajfinger agreed to return for one year to give Marie time to recruit a permanent replacement. As he reaches the end of that tenure, the house is still without a creative director, a subject that preoccupies Marie.
“For the time being, I haven’t found the artistic director we absolutely need,” he said. “I am definitely ready to take a gamble on a young talent. The dream would be to find an Alber Elbaz who is just starting out.”
Still, the brand is already seeing an improvement.
“My first objective when I bought this company was to bring back its historic customer. Today, the first collection is in stores and we are seeing a 30 percent increase in retail sales at constant exchange rates,” he said, adding that wholesale revenues were up 10 percent.
“The second stage, which is actually the hardest, is to transform and rejuvenate this brand while respecting its original DNA. We have to recruit a new generation of customers while being careful to preserve the existing ones, because this is not a luxury brand. You can’t do a 180-degree turn. This brand does 98 percent of its sales in ready-to-wear,” he emphasized.
He has put in place new management. Alain Quillet joined the company as deputy ceo in June from Sonia Rykiel, where he was chief operating officer. The executive has also held positions at Nina Ricci and Christian Dior Couture.
At the time of the purchase last year, Paule Ka said it had retail sales worth 63 million euros worldwide and was established in 37 countries through 320 points of sale, with 13 stand-alone boutiques and an online store. Marie declined to detail the firm’s losses, but described them as “abyssal.”
“The way things stand today, I have a certain confidence in my capacity to make this company’s retail operations very profitable again,” he said.
“But even if I make the retail operations profitable, that won’t be enough to make the company profitable overall,” he added. “If I want to go fast and be very efficient, I have to also develop wholesale, which is proving more difficult.”
As it continues to search for a designer with the right balance of creative vision and commercial savvy, the brand is releasing a 30th anniversary collection that will hit stores on Feb. 14.
Cajfinger has taken his signature graphic style in a more playful, sexy direction with a capsule line of 30 dresses that were unveiled at the brand’s flagship on Rue Saint-Honoré here at a party on Sunday night.
In a series of images shot by Charlotte Wales, Karolina Kurkova models the creations, including a slinky black jersey column split to the thigh, and a short black leather bustier dress with a removable oversize white satin bow. Accessories include heart-shaped metallic leather handbags with matching shoes.
“We made this collection in the spirit of celebration,” said Cajfinger, noting the exuberant designs, such as a red lamé jumpsuit, hark back to his clubbing days at Studio 54 and Le Palace. “I had never really done sexy before, because it’s not really my thing, and I had a lot of fun with it.”
Marie is banking on the designs to bring in a younger customer, something he hopes to build on with the house’s next creative director.
“Depending on how the spring collection performs, we will have to decide whether to resume expanding our retail network. That will be a real option. If we haven’t managed to revive wholesale revenues, we will have to reinject funds in order to open new stores,” he said.
Paule Ka recently opened a store at the Dubai Mall and is in discussions with a potential partner in Hong Kong.
At Rautureau, which has annual revenues in the region of 42 million euros, the executive’s main task is to turn around loss-making shoe brand Free Lance.
The Bompard case is more straightforward, as the brand is profitable and ripe for overseas development, with 45 points of sale in France and 10 in the rest of Europe. The label recently brought on knitwear designer Emily Harris as creative director, with a remit to beef up its fashion offer as it expands into wholesale.
“Under the current model, we do 70 percent of our sales with classic styles that come in different colors every season, with some 30 shades available, and 30 percent more fashion-driven items. We want to bring the proportion of timeless styles down to 50 percent and bring in more seasonal styles,” Marie said.
Though clearly a born entrepreneur, Marie says he is done with acquisitions for the time being.
“I sometimes wonder what I’ve gotten myself into — to think I could be learning how to sail on the Mediterranean or traveling the world. But when I left Maisons du Monde, I did nothing for three months, and after those three months I was going stir crazy. I had an unbelievable urge to get involved in another business,” he said.
“I’m discovering an absolutely fascinating industry, but one that is also very challenging. There’s lots of work to be done, and it’s not easy, but I will succeed at any cost,” he pledged.