Byline: Sharon Edelson / With contributions from Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — Rodier, which, according to its new president, Alain Francois, has been losing money in the U.S. for several years, continues to trudge on.
“We decided to do a major restructuring this summer,” said Francois, who was also named chief executive officer of Rodier North America in July.
“For fall, we hired a new designer to create a balance — maintain the knits we are known for and introduce more cutting-edge pieces. Now we have one of the top young designers in France to improve the line and make it more trendy. We needed this edge.”
The designer is Christophe Lebourg, whose resume includes a signature label for GFT Group and a diffusion line for Joseph. He has also worked as a design assistant for Claude Montana and Yojhi Yamamoto.
Rodier — a retailer and manufacturer of bridge fashion — has high hopes for Lebourg. But this is not the first time the company has tried to enhance its fashion or improve its U.S business.
In 1992, Rodier hired a new design team to spruce up the collection. Around the same time, it named Kenneth R. Mizel as president and chief executive officer of the U.S. division. Mizel left the company in July.
Francois, who was president of Rodier’s Canadian division before assuming responsibility over the U.S., moved quickly to close 10 unproductive stores and said he may still close one or two more.
“I still have a lot of work to do on the remaining 18 stores,” he said. “The image comes first. Since last spring, we lost a lot of our customers. We are contacting them by direct mail. We sent a catalog for fall and two postcards.”
Francois was at a loss to explain why customers defected.
“It’s not the fashion because the fashion was successful in Canada,” he said. “In the U.S., it was a disaster. It was the buying. The buyers were buying too much of the same thing. We need to give more choices to the customer.”
Rodier is now appealing to the 35-year-old professional woman, Francois said. The typical Rodier client has been about 40. Lebourg’s trendier designs and the addition of more woven items in the collection will help attract the target customer, he said.
According to Francois, Rodier is expecting to do $12 million in the U.S. in 1996, but is not currently profitable here. The company does $120 million worldwide.
“We will be up to $20 million to $30 million in the U.S. in three years,” Francois predicted.
In March, Rodier opened a new store at 610 Fifth Avenue, at 49th Street. Francois said he expects the 1,400-square-foot store to do $1,200 a square foot.
Two blocks south, on Fifth Avenue and 47th Street, an existing Rodier unit had been turned into a temporary outlet store until the company’s lease ran out. Francois closed it on Oct. 31.
“That is a great relief because it was hurting the business in the new store,” Francois said.
Francois plans to open stores in cities with existing Rodier stores, rather than enter untested markets. Potential sites include North Michigan Avenue, Chicago; downtown San Francisco; South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.
“I don’t think I need more stores in New York,” he said. Rodier also operates a unit on Third Avenue and 75th Street.
He does, however, want to develop a wholesale business next fall with department and specialty stores.
“The department store business will be 30 to 40 percent of our total business,” he said. “We can do in-store shops. The department store business covers a broader area and gives us more exposure.”
Licensing products is another way to provide more exposure.
“We are already working on cosmetics,” he said. “We’d want to sell in department stores because that’s where the cosmetics business is. We could also license handbags and accessories.”
Rodier, however, is best known for its knits, which are the backbone of the collection and account for 70 percent of total sales.
For fall, there is the basic “kasha” knit in a variety of styles and bright colors. A cardigan is $150, and a mock turtleneck is $90.
Rodier has branched into coats. A wool and cashmere blend full-length coat is $625. A black acetate and viscose jacket in the cocktail collection is $210, and a bouclA suit is $350 for the jacket, $170 for the skirt.
Francois knows that despite the company’s past efforts to crack the U.S. market, he still has a long way to go.
“I’m not a name today, but in Canada, Rodier is the French line,” he said. “Can we be the same in the U.S.? I cannot compete with Chanel, that’s for sure. But I want to be the leader in bridge.”