EDITOR’S NOTE: In a shifting retail landscape, we ask retailers around the globe to reflect on the art of buying fashion.
PARIS — When it comes to jungle prints, French fashion buyer Elodie Abrial is a true believer. Cropped and flared pants? Not so much.
A business school graduate who started her retail career as a sales manager at Printemps, Abrial has been women’s fashion director of the oldest department store in Paris, Le Bon Marché, since 2014. The retailer is owned by French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, parent of brands including Fendi, Givenchy and Guerlain.
Heading a team of four women’s wear buyers based in offices tucked away on the store’s fourth floor, Abrial frequently joins the sales assistants working the women’s wear floor, seeing for herself how her buys are selling and to whom. Here she shares her approach to a fast-moving science:
My first buying season was men’s in 2010 for spring-summer 2011. First Pitti, then Milan. I had never lived that kind of pace. And this was men’s, not even women’s! I happened to be ill; I happened to be wearing high heels. I’d thought, as most people do, at fashion week you go to shows, but that’s not really true. It was nonstop boutique visits, showrooms, meetings. I was trying to run after my boss on the paving stones of Milan. I thought: “After this, my next fashion week is going to be a breeze.”
The best thing about being a buyer is the satisfaction of seeing the customers wanting your selection. What’s important to realize about Le Bon Marché is [our offices] are above the store. I go down to the shop floor every day. Every buyer works one day a month on the shop floor. For me, it’s two Saturdays a month and one Sunday a month. That means I get to see, I get to hear exactly how the customer is responding. Right now, I’ve been seeing customers magnetized by our new La Double J [pop-up] space — there’s a lot of print. Two women arrived together saying, “Wow, what’s this? It’s sublime.” The women’s wear offer is huge; our role is to develop these exclusive brands within their own unique universe.
The worst thing about being a buyer is the inability to be everywhere at the same time. The first day of Paris collections, on Feb. 28, I did 13,415 steps — that’s 10.5 kilometers [6.5 miles]. I went up 12 floors. The second day, 14,396 steps, 11 kilometers [6.8 miles], and I went up 28 floors. This [normal work day] morning I looked at 10 a.m., and I was already at 4,000 steps.
My buying mantra is if you have conviction, go ahead: Follow your intuition, but stay focused on your customers. Journalists can have a crush, but for us it’s always about business. We’re not a museum. A brand can have buzz for all sorts of reasons. Our job is to find a brand with buzz, sell it exclusively and find a balance between the must-have pieces — the ones customers come in with on their phones saying, “I want that” — and other looks with broader commercial appeal.
The single factor that’s most impacted how I buy since I started is the need to be quick, quicker and quicker. Not only in the pace of collections, but also there’s this need for reactivity, a competition to have the best brands. And in these [instant] times you have to commit quickly. Every department store has exactly the same request for exclusivity, so there’s this aggressiveness. It’s always been competitive, but this notion of exclusivity is everything.
The greatest influence on how I buy today is adapting with agility. We meet as many brands as early as possible, to place our bets and make our decisions quickly. With must-see brands, a first collection under new artistic direction, say, if their showroom is open from the first day to the 10th, we’ll go on the first day. Which calls for gymnastics.
For me to risk an unknown label today it must be a crush in terms of product, the relationship, and unanimously loved by the team. Me, the buyer, the style director, we all must be sure. When we started Off-White, we said, “This brand is energetic, it’s street, it’s cool and there’s a real style identity. It’s fashion we don’t have.” And we developed it exclusively, with great sales.
My worst feeling of buyer’s remorse is when there’s such a buildup to a change in artistic direction and then you see the collection and — Oh, mon dieu — it’s a catastrophe. Or we see an unbelievable first runway collection, we’ve loved the show, loved the collection, but the customer doesn’t bite, and it doesn’t take off. That’s super disappointing.
One trend I believed in that’s flying is this spring-summer jungle trend in all-over prints. Every season we have two or three trend stories. We’ve also got the ballet showcase, which I love, but this vivid jungle print, emerging from winter feeling, will be perfect for April, when it’s 20 degrees centigrade [68 degrees Fahrenheit].
One trend I bought but secretly hated is the cropped flare pants.
The best buying advice I ever received is whatever the trends, whatever your tastes, always listen to and think about your customer first. I think we’re one of the few stores for which that “customer first” message is so instilled by the chief executive officer, Patrice Wagner. He’s a true retailer. Buying for your own enjoyment is not the job of a buyer.
My customer knows I will never offer clothes of low quality. We touch everything to avoid cheapness in fabrics.
My customer is both the highly fashion-informed Parisian local looking for another take on fashion, and the international looking for the real Parisian shopping experience.
Today my customer is looking for crush items like crazy customized denim. A customer at [our denim customization atelier] came in with a photo on her phone of Rihanna wearing ripped jeans. They spent five hours with a crochet hook undoing all the threads. But it’s not just denim — one client even had a mink fur coat customized with embroidery. Another, a Givenchy bag. [At the street art customization atelier, by Mad Lords] one woman came in with a Louis Vuitton monogram trunk and had the Rolling Stones “lips” logo engraved all over. It started in denim and now we have customers who say, “I’ll only buy this bag if I can have it customized.” Next up, we’re starting customized shoes.
The very last order I placed was for Valentino, yesterday. The collection was true to the house’s DNA, but less romantic, more gothic and darker, even into the makeup, than other seasons.
My last (personal) fashion purchase was a pair of silver Gucci shoes with the fringe and the double G and a low heel. I love them, but I wore them all day the second day of fashion week and I had the sorest feet ever. I think it was a bad day to test them out.