PARIS — Paule Ka has tapped Maxime Simoëns as artistic director as part of entrepreneur Xavier Marie’s plan to turn around the ailing French label.
The French designer joins the contemporary brand, which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, from Loris Azzaro, where he spent two years as artistic director, overseeing the relaunch of its premium women’s and men’s ready-to-wear lines.
At Paule Ka, another challenge awaits him: to rejuvenate the brand, which was flirting with bankruptcy when Marie snapped it up in 2017, parting ways with its chief executive officer Catherine Vautrin and creative director Alithia Spuri-Zampetti, who had worked to extend the label’s appeal in daywear and separates.
Marie, who made his fortune as founder and former ceo of furniture and home decor company Maisons du Monde, initially brought back the label’s founder Serge Cajfinger on a one-year contract to right the ship.
Simoëns noted he has one thing in common with Cajfinger, who left the company in 2014 after serving as its creative director and chairman since 1987: they both come from the northern French city of Lille.
“I have long been familiar with the universe of the brand. To me, it’s always the cocktail and occasion dresses, a little sophisticated but not too much. It’s the right compromise,” Simoëns told WWD. “Its DNA is not too heavy, not too dated. It’s a little timeless, which means you have quite a lot of latitude.”
Celebrity fans of Simoëns’ sexy and graphic dresses include Mélanie Laurent, Rachel McAdams, Beyoncé, Léa Seydoux and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy.
A graduate of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Simoëns in the early stages of his career was hailed as a wunderkind after making the shortlist for the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography in 2008, at age 25, with Bernard Arnault making an investment in his fledgling business in 2012.
Since joining the calendar in 2011, his presence has been patchy, however. Having experimented with showing in the couture and rtw schedules, Simoëns in January 2015 said he was taking a pause with his signature collection, and parted ways with his high-profile backer.
In 2016, he reemerged with the launch of his urban men’s sportswear label, M.X. Maxime Simoëns. That experience has made him keen to develop a more commercial approach to women’s wear, too, he said.
“It’s really about having a customer and selling, rather than just being in a sort of fantasy fashion world, or a slightly elitist projection. It’s having a broader vision: that’s what motivates me for my men’s wear, and my previous experiences have really made me keen to give my clothes more visibility on the street,” he explained.
That involves developing daywear and evening clothes, Simoëns said. “It’s important to have a full range. Having said that, the most important thing is that the DNA of the brand comes through both in the daywear and the eveningwear — that’s going to be the challenge,” he added.
In an exclusive interview with WWD last October, Marie said he was struck by how quickly Ka’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.”
He said the brand was already seeing an improvement, with an increase in retail sales and wholesale revenues. The second stage was to transform and refresh the brand while respecting its heritage.
“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 said.
Simoëns said going forward, the brand would emphasize its French roots.
“It’s quite difficult, as a Frenchman, to define the essence of French style. That’s its complexity: it’s a sort of nonchalance, but a little elegant, a little chic. We want to channel that through our communications and, obviously, the DNA of the clothes, and through our collection themes explore the French heritage,” he said.
“It could be a painter, an artist, a singer, a movie — anything that provides a platform for exploring French culture. I like to feed off a theme, otherwise it’s difficult to stand out from season to season,” he said, adding that he looks forward to the challenge of adapting that message to a global audience.
“It’s important to satisfy the Asian customer, who won’t have the same needs as the American or the French one. That involves working in a team with the merchandising and sales side, a part of the business I also find very interesting,” Simoëns said.
“There are a lot of designers who want to focus just on the creative side, but this is something I’ve missed and that I want to explore: understanding the needs of different markets and finding the right balance between creative and commercial,” he added.
Simoëns is expected to show his first collection during Paris Fashion Week in September. Azzaro, meanwhile, said it would present a collection during Paris Couture Week in July, without providing additional details.