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PARIS — Trust Colette to celebrate its 20th anniversary with a giant ball pit.

The concept store famous for its blue dot logo has teamed with Brooklyn-based design firm Snarkitecture to bring its “The Beach” installation, featuring an enclosure filled with 300,000 recyclable plastic balls, to Les Arts Décoratifs.

The Paris museum will host a party tonight, after which the exhibition will open to the public for free until Saturday. The gesture is as generous as the store’s founder, Colette Roussaux, is discreet.

Her daughter Sarah Andelman, creative director and purchasing manager of Colette, is the public face of the retailer — albeit a somewhat self-effacing one. Now 41, she has spent her entire career at Colette, but prefers talking about its latest product collaborations than about herself.

To celebrate its two decades in business, the store has teamed up on 20 limited-edition items, including sneakers by Nike, a polka dot top by Maud Heline and a CD compiled by Pedro Winter.

In a wide-ranging interview, Andelman — dressed in a Courrèges T-shirt, a photo print skirt from Very Plane Clothes and Adidas sneakers — provided a glimpse into the inner workings of the store, which posted revenues of 28 million euros, or $31 million, in 2016, with online accounting for roughly 20 percent.

Her remarks have been edited and condensed.

WWD: How was Colette born?

Sarah Andelman: It really started with the location. We moved into an apartment in this building at a time when the area was a bit of a no man’s land. We would walk past this empty space every day and wonder what would become of it. At the time, we felt frustrated because there were so many products you couldn’t find in Paris. It might be a bottle of Kiehl’s shampoo from New York or a pair of sneakers we saw in Tokyo. So we wanted to bring all these products to Paris. The day we visited the space, we immediately started picturing what we could do with it. We wanted a restaurant that stayed open all day, because in those days, if you were hungry at 3 p.m., there was nowhere you could eat. We wanted to have beauty, design, fashion and art all under one roof.

WWD: Were you inspired by any stores you had seen in other cities?

S.A.: There was no single role model. We really liked the New York design store Moss in SoHo. I know Joseph in London had a restaurant. But the concept was based essentially on our taste and vision — the idea of showing a Casio G-Shock watch alongside a Comme des Garçons dress.

WWD: Do you still live above the store?

S.A.: My mother does, yes.

WWD: When you were starting out, did you have a lot of contacts in fashion?

S.A.: We didn’t know anyone.

WWD: How did you do it?

S.A.: The same way I do it today when I want to reach someone. I call around, which is what I did back when Apple launched its first iPod, and I just knew we had to have it. I still reach out all the time to people who haven’t reached out to me. For the fashion brands, it wasn’t that hard. There were quite a few that needed a point of sale in Paris, because there wasn’t much around. The department stores were doing things the way they always had, and a lot of brands wanted nothing more than to have a new outlet in Paris.

WWD: You seem reserved, but to do what you just described, you need a good dose of chutzpah.

S.A.: At the time, there were three of us, with Milan [Vukmirovic], who has since left. My mother wouldn’t even come to these meetings. Milan and I had this sort of ring binder with a preview of what we were going to do and a list of brands. I don’t think it was a question of chutzpah. We placed orders, we bought their collections. It was in their interest. Our concept was very new to them at the time. We had to explain that they wouldn’t have a corner with their logo. We were going to mix products, so that took a little convincing. My memory is not that great, because we’ve done so much, but I recall that they were more curious than wary.

WWD: When did you understand that exclusives would be one of the keys to your success?

S.A.: We set out from the start to offer things you couldn’t find elsewhere. It was not about having a store full of exclusives, because that would be impossible. But the idea was to showcase products we loved, so you could have a lamp that was available at [department store] BHV next to a Japanese bike that was exclusive to us. I think the way we mix and match products is really what makes us different from other stores. The exclusives were a natural progression.

Ceizer’s T-shirt for Colette’s 20th anniversary.

Ceizer’s T-shirt for Colette’s 20th anniversary.  Courtesy

WWD: How did you snag the exclusive on the Apple Watch?

S.A.: It made sense, because we were really the first store to offer Apple outside of specialized retailers. It was their decision. They were launching a product that was more of an accessory and they chose to distribute it via fashion retailers. We partnered with them on the launch, but I did not expect it to have such a big impact worldwide. We sold more than 2,000 watches in the span of three days. I think it introduced Colette to a much wider audience of people outside our fashion sphere. With launches like the Apple Watch, or [soccer player] Zlatan [Ibrahimović]’s fragrance, we aim to reach different communities. We have always wanted Colette to be open to everyone, whether they just want to drink a coffee, buy a gadget at the cash register or acquire a work of art at the gallery.

WWD: Why is it important to you to touch people outside the fashion sphere?

S.A.: We never set out to appeal just to fashion victims, because we see the store as a meeting place and a crossroads. The products do the talking. We are like the party cone bag, and the magic is in the mix. We had the “Style Design Art Food” logo from the start. We didn’t include music and beauty, but we couldn’t just restrict it to fashion, even if we love it, and economically, it’s where we make our biggest margins. It would have been too restrictive and besides, Paris already had some great multibrand stores, such as L’Eclaireur and Maria Luisa.

WWD: It always seems super busy in here. Does it ever get quiet?

S.A.: Touch wood — I want it to stay that way. We have the odd week when it’s quieter, but it’s always pretty busy. There is a line for the water bar every day at lunchtime. There are just so many products. Today, we are launching The Weeknd’s Starboy collection. Yesterday, it was a Nike reissue. The day before, it was the launch of Grlfrnd jeans customized by the tattoo artist Jonboy. So on top of the products themselves, which all have potential, we organize a lot of events.

WWD: Has retail theater always been central to your concept?

S.A.: It happened gradually, and then it became more and more frequent. We started with monthly art openings at the gallery, and then we launched the Colette Dance Class events at clubs such as the Baron and Le Paris Paris, which helped to spread the Colette name.

WWD: A lot of celebrities make personal appearances at the store. Has it ever spun out of control?  

S.A.: When Drake came, we ended up having to shut the store. We really didn’t see it coming. We hadn’t taken into account that it was a school holiday. We didn’t realize how famous he was, and all of a sudden, the street next to the store was totally blocked. That was in 2014, for the launch of his OVO collection. We have since held events with very famous people, and I think we are now well-organized.

WWD: Why have you decided to celebrate your 20th anniversary with a public event at Les Arts Décoratifs?

S.A.: As soon as I saw Snarkitecture’s installation “The Beach,” which has already gone on show in Washington, D.C.; Tampa, Fla., and Sydney, I knew it was perfect for our anniversary. We want to celebrate our anniversaries with our customers, because it’s thanks to them that we are still here today. I like the fact that “The Beach” can appeal to anyone from a man in a business suit to a little child, and everyone leaves with a big smile on their face. In this day and age, people want to have a little fun. Consider this our gift to the city of Paris.

Snarkitecture’s installation “The Beach"

Snarkitecture’s installation “The Beach.” 

WWD: Which collaboration has given you the greatest personal satisfaction?

S.A.: I was thrilled that the Nike shoes we created for our 20th anniversary sold out in 24 hours. We made 213 pairs, to match our address, 213 Rue Saint-Honoré. It was great to work with Hermès on an updated version of its Brides de Gala silk scarf. We were lucky to be able to revisit such a classic design, and it sold very well, too. Another highlight was creating macaroons with Ladurée. They do collaborations all the time now, but at the time, that felt pretty special. We also did a collaboration with Cartier, which was very prestigious, but I find it equally satisfying to introduce people to a new artist through a fanzine. Obviously, the pop-up store we did with Chanel was memorable. And it was amazing to launch a pair of Adidas Stan Smith sneakers with our signature blue polka dots in the presence of Stan Smith himself.

WWD: Who have you most enjoyed meeting at the store?

S.A.: Pharrell [Williams] is probably the person that I have most enjoyed meeting through the store. I also have some great memories of book signings with Jean-Paul Goude, Jean-Baptiste Mondino or Martin Parr.

WWD: Who is your best customer?

S.A.: That would be Mr. Lagerfeld. We don’t usually talk about it, and I would never want him to think I am using him for publicity purposes. But in this era of Instagram, it’s hard to keep secrets. I think he comes roughly once a week.

WWD: Does he have a special loyalty card?

S.A.: No, we care for all our customers equally.

WWD: Have you kept an archive of your collaborations?

S.A.: Unfortunately, we are really bad at keeping archives. I have a little drawer with a couple of iPhone cases and other small collaborations, but we didn’t do this very methodically. A lot of things are missing.

Nike’s sneakers for Colette’s 20th anniversary.

Nike’s sneakers for Colette’s 20th anniversary. 

WWD: Do you know of any collectors that have all your branded products?

S.A.: There are a couple. I don’t know if they have every single product, but some people are pretty devoted. I think one person has all our limited-edition shopping bags.

WWD: Were you affected by the fallout of the terrorist attacks in Paris?

S.A.: Yes, like everyone else. We had planned a concert at the water bar a week after the [Nov. 13, 2015] attacks as part of our Catskills Week festival, and I didn’t know whether I should cancel it or not, but there was this feeling that we should stand strong and not be scared. So we decided to go ahead with this little concert. It was a folk band, and their message was all about peace and love. People were really moved and happy to be there together. We work at it, but we’re lucky in the sense that we get a steady amount of foot traffic, unlike some luxury stores on streets like Avenue Montaigne. So even if there is a drop in the number of foreign visitors, or people cut back their spending, the store keeps going at times like these. We really felt the impact last summer. Fortunately, we also sell online and our e-commerce site is growing.

WWD: What were your revenues last year?

S.A.: I never know, I don’t remember figures like that.

WWD: It’s odd that you don’t know your revenues.

S.A.: Our accountant does, but luckily, I function more by instinct. I never have a budget when I’m ordering. That doesn’t mean I spend money as if it didn’t belong to me. I’m careful. My orders are reasonable.

WWD: Are you and your mother the sole owners of Colette?

S.A.: Yes. It’s mainly my mother. I know I own a percentage, but likewise, I don’t know what my percentage is.

WWD: Have you ever considered bringing in an outside investor?

S.A.: No.

WWD: How do you respond to speculation about the future of the store?

S.A.: Every year, people ask us how long we plan to go on. We are always searching for newness, discovering new designers and launching new talents, so there is no reason to give up. If suddenly there were nothing interesting left anywhere, we would reconsider, but fortunately something cool comes along every day. We are planning a special Colombia Week curated by Esteban Cortázar. And from March 20, in parallel with our anniversary, we are introducing a collaboration with Ikea. Our water bar will be transformed with Ikea furniture and tableware, and we have done a special Colette version of the famous Ikea bag in white with blue dots. It all started with the gallery. They created a series of posters with illustrators, including several with whom we have often worked: Kevin Lyons, Steven Harrington and Jean Jullien, who is doing our new packaging and who created the Peace for Paris illustration after the terrorist attacks. We asked Ikea if we could sell the posters, which we’re going to show in the gallery, and we have asked each artist to come and paint the walls and Ikea furniture.

WWD: Why Ikea?

S.A.: It comes back to the idea of having no limits, in the same way that we sold the Kate Moss collection for Topshop or the Proenza Schouler line for Target. That has really helped to widen our audience. When we started out, a lot of people were afraid to set foot in the store because they thought it would be too expensive. Some people thought Colette was just about Fendi Baguette handbags and there was nothing in it for them, even though we have carried lower-priced items from Day One. It took time and effort to convince people to step inside Colette. A collaboration with Ikea shows that this is the kind of place where you can find the new Gucci collection and items from Ikea, all under one roof.

WWD: There have been highs and lows, such as the armed robbery in 2014. Is that the only time you have been targeted by thieves?

S.A.: That was the only armed robbery, but unfortunately, there have been other burglaries. The store was empty when the other incidents occurred.

WWD: What is the most expensive thing you have ever sold?

S.A.: I think it was a watch. Right now, we have a Jacob & Co. watch that is worth close to 80,000 euros [or around $86,000]. We have sold cars, but they cost less. We collaborated with Aston Martin on a Cygnet. We produced a Smart car for our 18th anniversary in a limited edition of 18, including one that we gifted to someone born in 1997. You still see them around Paris on a regular basis.

WWD: Where does the tradition of the Colette dog come from?

S.A.: It started with Oscar, who was our labrador and our mascot. We collaborated with the artists Kuntzel + Deygas, who created the dogs’ characters Caperino and Peperone. It has continued with Darcel, and the next one will be a character by Jean Jullien. We like to have these little characters to represent us.

WWD: Have you noticed anyone copying your concept?

S.A.: Even if someone wants to copy us, the problem is that they base it on the store as it is today, and they open something similar in six months. In the meantime, we’ll have gone through around six changes. That’s why we’re hard to imitate, because we are constantly trying to renew ourselves. We never rest on our laurels. We are always searching for new artists, new designers, new stories to tell.

Editor’s note: Experience Matters is a recurring feature dedicated to innovative stores and strategies that enrich the store experience.

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