Byline: Robert Murphy

PARIS — Zara, Hennes & Mauritz and now We?
The Utrecht, Holland-based women’s and men’s apparel and accessories retailer is among the latest of Europe’s so-called fast fashion firms to turn its scope on the French market.
Last fall, We inaugurated a 11,000-square-foot store in the Val d’Europe, just outside of Paris in Marne la Vallee, and is scheduled to open about a half dozen units in France this year, including a 10,000-square-foot store on Paris’s Rue de Rivoli in March.
As for H&M, it has opened 24 units in France since 1998, when it staked its claim with a shop on the Rue de Rivoli. Zara has 63 units here, the first of which opened 10 years ago. “We are steadily increasing our presence in France,” said Aad Boon, We marketing and communications director. “The market in France is very attractive and the sales potential is huge, compared to Benelux countries and Switzerland.”
Apart from Holland, where the firm has 140 units, Belgium and Switzerland represent the company’s core markets, with 47 and 26 stores, respectively. We also has one unit in Luxembourg and 28 in Germany.
We is not completely new to France. It inaugurated its first unit here, in the northern city of Lille, in 1995. Over the next five years the firm opened 13 additional units. But this year marks a strategic shift in the company’s approach to France.
Boon said the company has traditionally focused on opening stores in high-traffic shopping centers, while largely ignoring the “High Street” or main thoroughfare locations. For that reason, the Rue de Rivoli store, to be located on one of Paris’s busiest shopping thoroughfares, marks an important next step in the firm’s development.
“Our strategy in France has been to aim at shopping centers, where the investments are less important than the High Street,” he said. “The Rue de Rivoli store moves in another direction.”
Boon explained that the company already opened a similar store in Berlin last spring, a 10,000-square-foot unit on Tauentzien Strasse, one of the German capital’s prime shopping strips.
Owned by Ronald De Wailaal, a descendant of the family that founded the firm in 1917, We had consolidated sales of $254 million in 1999, according to Boon. He declined to provide sales for 2000, but said they were on an upward swing. All figures are in dollars, converted from euros at current exchange.
Meanwhile, We has gone through a radical makeover over the last two years. In 1999, the company rechristened its then-separate men’s and women’s businesses — He and She — with the We banner. Concurrently, the firm also launched a new concept, called the We Store, which grouped both men’s and women’s apparel under one roof. Men’s and women’s was sold separately previously. The Rue de Rivoli store will be a We Store. Previously, the chain sold men’s and women’s separately in We men’s and women’s units.
Traditionally, men’s has been the company’s core business. In 1962, We — then known as De Wailaal — transformed its men’s apparel wholesaling business into a retail distribution concept focused on mid-market clothing. Only in 1987 did it introduce its first women’s collection.
Today, men’s sales still represent more than 50 percent of sales. But Boon said women’s apparel and accessories represents the company’s fastest growth area.
Apart from its We units, the firm also operates a lingerie concept chain with 76 doors in Switzerland and one in Antwerp, Belgium. Called Beldona, it offers its private label Beldona line alongside other brands, including Aubade and La Perla.
Boon describes We apparel “between Zara and H&M in terms of style. While H&M is very trendy, and Zara a bit more fashionable, We is more approachable, a little more traditional, but with a European touch.”
Indeed, the majority of the collection’s focus is basic, including black knee-length skirts, classic trousers and simple shift dresses in colors like red and black. Prices range from $25 for a handbag and $30 for a skirt to $60 for a cocktail dress. With production contracted out to factories around the world, including the Far East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, We produces three principal collections per season. Boon said the company also feeds the stores as it picks up on the season’s trends.
To coincide with its recently opened We Store in Val d’Europe, the company advertised in young women’s fashion magazines here, including DS, Jalouse and Mixt(e). The company’s holiday ads features a man and a woman dressed in cocktail apparel standing knee deep in a swimming pool. The tag line reads: “Play it cool with the We party collection.”
Meanwhile, for the March inauguration of its Rue de Rivoli unit, We plans to do a major promotion with the weekly arts and culture magazine, Zurban, operated by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

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