Laure Hériard Dubreuil is the quintessential definition of a globe-trotter. The French-born entrepreneur, a member of the family that makes Remy Martin cognac, grew up in Paris, studied Mandarin in Shanghai, attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and cofounded the trend-setting Webster specialty store in Miami in 2009 with her then-partners Frederic Dechnik and Milan Vukmirovic. Her keen eye and taste for fashion even led Target Corp. and Le Bon Marché to ask her to create capsules for their stores.
But while she has a knack for design, her real skill lies in her ability to zero in on the top fashion trends from some of the industry’s major brands.
Over the last eight years, Hériard-Dubreuil has used her eye to help turn The Webster into a mini-chain of high-end designer stores, adding another unit in Bal Harbour, Fla., an outlet in Florida and full-priced units in Houston and Costa Mesa, Calif. Later this year she will take the format to Manhattan, with a store in a historic building in SoHo.
Here, she talks about how the importance of a point of view, the personal touch — and why not trying to please everyone is the key to success.
WWD: How did you get started in retail?
Laure Hériard Dubreuil: My real background is as a merchandiser and I think of myself more as a curator than a retailer. I studied merchandising and I worked for Balenciaga in the creative studio with Nicolas Ghesquière and then for Saint Laurent with Stefano Pilati.
WWD: When did you move to the States?
L.H.D.: I came in 1999 to go to the Fashion Institute of Technology to study merchandising. Before that, I studied business and Mandarin so that was completely different.
WWD: Did you always want to have your own store?
L.H.D.: I never really thought that I was going to open a store. But recently, my mother reminded me that growing up I always picked the clothes for my brother and sisters. So even though I didn’t know it or even understand it, it came very naturally to me.
WWD: How did you wind up in Miami?
L.H.D.: I went to Miami for Art Basel. I had come from New York and I only had winter clothes. I saw that the crowd was very sophisticated and I had nothing to wear and I tried to shop, but the assortment was very classic, so I thought there was something that needed to be done.
WWD: How did you find the location?
L.H.D.: I fell in love with the unique Art Deco architecture of South Beach and Miami. The Webster is the original name of the hotel from the Thirties, built by Henry Hohauser. I wanted an iconic place like that and it happened to be for sale.
WWD: The retail business is very challenging right now, yet you’re planning to open a six-story, 12,000-square-foot store in New York.
L.H.D.: Yes. I’m very confident. When I opened in Miami, everybody said, “What? Miami?” Even the brands thought Miami was either for old people, tacky or only the beach. They said nobody is going to go shopping in South Beach. People passed by and didn’t understand we were a store. My clients asked me to open in New York. They shop at The Webster and online, but the assortment that I have in Miami is very tied to the weather and the lifestyle. Also, I moved to SoHo a few years ago and it became my home. I feel very comfortable because I’ve built relationships with all these brands that support me. Also, on one floor I’m going to have [hairstylist] David Mallett, so I’m bringing something to the whole lifestyle.
WWD: Where do you find the brands that make The Webster special?
L.H.D.: I do a lot of research, using my eyes and ears — and I have my team around me. I like to continue season after season with designers and build consistency for our clients. Some brands we carry are part of our DNA and it’s good to follow them through the years. The brands need to be very strong on their own. When you’re a multibrand store, whether you’re a contemporary brand or Chanel, it has to look beautiful and work well together. It’s also important to me to recognize the identity of the brands. If it’s diluted, then it gets lost on the racks. I try to concentrate my buy on the zest and the strongest message of the collection so it makes a very strong impact for our customers.
WWD: Who are some of the biggest brands that you carry?
L.H.D.: From the more established brands, we have Chanel, Céline, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Dior, Balenciaga. But I have a strong point of view on these houses. Even some people from creative studios of these brands came to The Webster to buy things because they haven’t seen this specific item anywhere or I represent it with a different point of view. It’s very natural — I go with my instinct and I just pick things I love. Sometimes a piece has been canceled but they’ll produce it for us in a small quantity. Or sometimes, I said we loved this pair of shoes so much from last season, we’d like it in every color and they’ll develop it for The Webster.
WWD: With four stores — soon to be five — how do you still manage to make the experience special when you can’t be in every store all the time?
L.H.D.: I have an amazing team, which we call The Webster Family. We’re growing together and they completely embrace the aesthetic. That’s the key for me. And the message is the same [regardless of location]. The biggest compliment I get is when I have clients tell me: “I bought this dress at The Webster in South Beach, or maybe it was Bal Harbour, or no, I think it was Houston.” I like that because they had the same experience in all the different locations.
WWD: As an independent retailer, what’s your secret to survival?
L.H.D.: It’s just doing it with my heart and my guts, really building relationships and being very consistent. There’s so much noise and it’s so easy to be distracted. “Oh, everybody is getting this brand, or doing this.” We have a very edited assortment and then our clients can go to the bigger stores for a larger assortment if they want. It’s when you lose your DNA and your message that you’re in trouble. It’s difficult, but I think that’s what people are looking for at The Webster.
WWD: Do you do a big e-commerce business?
L.H.D.: Yes, it represents 20 percent of our sales and it’s growing. But we see that it’s our clients — they come, they shop and then they go back home and continue to shop online.
WWD: Do you try to recruit new customers?
L.H.D.: Yes, of course, but not aggressively. There are masters of e-commerce and I’m more a brick-and-mortar person, but it’s necessary to complete the experience for our clients. A lot of time, they look online and then call the store. They like the personal connection and the service and a lot of them prefer to have someone dedicated to them. And I think with the world we live in, people are really overwhelmed with what’s going on with social media and all the information and the images we have everywhere and the quantity of clothes. So being in a residential environment where you can take off your shoes and create your own wardrobe, you’re happy.
WWD: Everybody wants to create experiences at retail today. How do you address that?
L.H.D.: For me, it’s not a created experience, it’s real. In Miami, we created this dream of the Thirties. We have an amazing original terrazzo floor that we reproduced on the other floors and there’s a residential feeling. We have vintage wallpapers that I also have in my house. I also have the same furniture in my house. It’s really an extension of my home. We have this special orange blossom scent. We also have art — I’m very connected to art, my husband [Aaron Young] is an artist. Everything is real. It’s the same experience you’d have in my own house.
WWD: What retailers do you admire personally?
L.H.D.: There are a lot. I love to shop and I shop everywhere. For sure Dover Street Market because I think that it has such a strong point of view that is unique.
WWD: If someone came to you and asked advice about how to open a store, what would you tell them?
L.H.D.: Stick to your guts and your aesthetic. Don’t try to please everyone — that’s a big mistake. If it pleases you, it might please others who have the same aesthetic. But be true to yourself and remain stubborn. It’s important, otherwise everything is diluted and you lose what you can bring to the table and the market.