PARIS — Will global fascination with French girl style ever let up?
It would seem not. French contemporary brand Ba&sh is steaming ahead with its international push, fueled by the ongoing appeal of feminine looks from France, along with a burgeoning demand for affordable luxury clothing in Asia and North America, according to Pierre-Arnaud Grenade, the firm’s chief executive officer.
Ba&sh belongs to a new generation of digitally savvy labels that have cropped up in the country in recent years and are garnering considerable attention — and financial backing — for their fast pace of growth. General Atlantic recently invested in Sézane, French fund Experience Capital Markets is financing the expansion of Soeur and Sessun, and the Chinese owner of SMCP brands Sandro and Maje listed the company on the Paris stock market last year with an eye to international expansion.
With the support of high-profile fund L Catterton, backed by luxury baron Bernard Arnault, Ba&sh aims to triple sales in three years. The label was founded by a pair of entrepreneurs, Barbara Boccara and Sharon Krief, who sought to offer clothing suited for women like them — young, working and intent on remaining stylish, but without excess effort.
The label has been sold in Neiman Marcus for two years and has plans to launch in Nordstrom this summer, in 10 stores and online, and already has its own stores in Miami, Los Angeles and two in New York. It launched on Tmall in China in June.
Analysts point to a ballooning middle class in China and high spending in the U.S. as fueling the affordable luxury category, but note that global recognition is key to success.
“Brands that are not recognized globally don’t carry the same status and desirability,” HSBC said in an equity research note to clients last month.
Global appeal is what Grenade is shooting for. The executive climbed the corporate ranks in his country by taking French brands to a global stage, including surfwear label Oxbow, accessible fashion brand Morgan and lingerie specialist Princesse Tam Tam.
His career kicked off with a fairly unconventional start for someone deeply involved in the retail industry: flogging the expertise of France’s state-owned lottery games to countries looking for ways to shore up their government coffers. That job took him to far-flung countries, including South Africa, Cambodia and Kazakhstan.
The executive landed his current position after L Catterton called him in to scout out a potential investment in Ba&sh. Grenade hit it off with the Boccara and Krief and the fund jumped on board, buying half the company. The executive became ceo in 2015.
Banking on the designers’ approachable style to take the label to a worldwide audience, Grenade is no snob himself.
“My mission is clear: to develop the company in a truly 360-degree fashion, to make it into a global company — global in terms of product, network, distribution. Also global in terms of channels of organization and processes, and to make it a digital brand,” he said.
Here, Grenade provides insights into how he runs a fast-growing fashion brand with weighty backing and big ambitions.
WWD: Can you explain the wave of contemporary fashion and how it relates to Ba&sh?
Pierre-Arnaud Grenade: The segment we are in is affordable luxury, fitting between luxury and more mass market. It’s a very sizable market that we estimate will grow by around 5 percent per year until 2025 — at least as dynamic as the luxury market.
As I see it, contemporary fashion started with American brands like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, brands I would term as quite status-oriented, and very much based on logos.
Next came a more feminine and fashion-based wave. This was American, but also French, with [SMCP-owned] Claudie Pierlot, Sandro, Maje, and some men’s brands as well.
This wave of brands is no longer part of the “lookalike” current that was inspired by luxury brands. It’s a business model that has exploded in the past few years, as you can see on the streets of cities all over the world.
We think that Ba&sh is part of the third wave — authenticity. The market has considerably expanded, consumers have matured, and they’re looking for something different.
I would say that Ba&sh is a first-comer of this third wave of authenticity — it could even be described as favoring the individual over appearance.
WWD: Does that mean it’s less aspirational?
P.A.G.: No — it’s just as aspirational. You are attracted to the Ba&sh lifestyle, but the approach to a purchase is different. It’s much more personal, in fact, based on the desire to express who you are rather than wanting to look like this or that person. It’s more based on self-achievement.
This is the vision that Barbara and Sharon had in creating the company, to create an accessible range — there wasn’t much on the market, and they wanted to build the ideal wardrobe for today’s modern women, to give them the means for expressing their femininity and who they are.
Without making a proclamation — that’s not their style — with Barbara and Sharon there is a real desire to value women, value their spirits, value their figures.
WWD: How did they meet?
P.A.G.: They were friends in high school. After each had their first child and were heading back to work, one as a lawyer, the other in public relations, they said, “We have to do something together.”
They were quite visionary on several levels. They understood that it was necessary to come up with a relationship with fashion that was new and different. They were forward-looking with the idea of creating something together, in the same way that young people are creating start-ups — often the first question is not, “What are we going to do?” but rather, “Who are we going to work with?” The idea was to create a wardrobe made up of iconic pieces that aren’t necessarily on the front line of fashion, but are in the spirit of the times for women carrying out their modern lives. This is what L Catterton teams saw as real potential for development. It has a broad clientele in terms of age, and addresses a varied clientele. The Ba&sh style is a feminine, free, spontaneous, joyous, Parisian — an effortless, “je ne sais quoi” style. The pieces fit different body sizes, which we also consider key to appealing to a number of women around the world.
WWD: How is the Ba&sh style different from other brands like Sandro and Maje?
P.A.G.: We are a bit on the opposite side of luxury — the illusion of luxury — and our style is more joyful. When you go into stores these days, there is marble, metal, black — but when you go to Ba&sh, it is like being welcomed to Sharon and Barbara’s place. It will be a mix of raw and chic materials that give you a cozy, home feel. We are taking elements from the showroom on the Rue des Tournelles that has old Parisian glass skylights — the more industrial Parisian side, not the luxurious and sophisticated side that can feel distant.
WWD: Are you refurbishing the stores?
P.A.G.: The concept will evolve as we develop internationally. The challenge for Ba&sh is to relay the right message to a client in Shanghai and as well as New York. Little by little, we will add more elements to better express the brand, its femininity, French origins, warm and smiley feel. While there are added elements of décor and photos, we keep the same basic idea that you are being welcomed to Barbara and Sharon’s place.
WWD: You referred to a warm and smiling image, but couldn’t you say that is not always a quality associated with French women?
P.A.G.: True. There are two sides that are not so positive when it comes to the image of French women, and I’d say French men as well. There’s a bit of distance, but also a lack of service and interest in others. This is where we distinguish ourselves from other French brands. We think that by creating ties in a store, welcoming people and enjoying providing service, that this is a something extra we bring to a French label.
WWD: Can you talk about the brand’s international expansion?
P.A.G.: In 2015, Ba&sh had four stores in Belgium and one in London, so one could say the brand was essentially French. In France, there were 65 stores.
WWD: How important was the role of department stores for the brand’s expansion?
P.A.G.: Department stores are important because they provide a considerable amount of exposure. For Ba&sh in particular, I think at the time it was a way to develop with limited means. Then L Catterton came in with financial support for development, as well as expertise and informal assistance. We can lean on L Catterton in areas like human resources and for legal, digital and geographic expertise. This makes it possible to go quickly. Speed, along with authenticity, are key factors of success. You have to move fast today because the clientele for affordable luxury is global. Why is it growing so fast? For three very simple reasons. As clients see luxury becoming more and more sophisticated, and more and more expensive, they consider simpler purchases attractive, too.
The second type of clientele is more mass market, but looking for a different kind of purchase, that subscribes to a brand with inspiring values and founders. The third type of clientele is upper middle class, which is growing demographically. As of 2016, there were 1.4 billion people in this classification, a number expected to grow by 500 million in the next 10 years, including 100 million in China. The segment will be lifted demographically. This clientele is global, travels, has access to information, and knows trends.
To be a brand today is to be global — you can’t disassociate the two. This is why, in 2015, we moved to the countries surrounding France and the U.K., to Spain. In 2017, we said “good — but not enough.” We needed to tackle two essential markets, the U.S. and Asia, Greater China in particular, for two different reasons. We were persuaded that the notoriety of the brand would be lifted by the U.S., while the impact of global business would come from China for a simple reason: an enormous amount of Chinese tourists travel. Our U.S. presence helps increase our visibility — local business and visibility — with a nicely situated store in New York, on Madison Avenue. We already have eight stores in China, three stores in Hong Kong, and at the end of the year we’ll have around 20 stores across China, Macau and Hong Kong.
WWD: Do you travel a lot?
P.A.G.: I’m lucky to have shareholders and founders who understand that to tackle these markets, you have to physically set up locally, with competent people. You can’t do business remotely from Paris. We hired a chief operating officer in Asia, Isolde Andouard, who comes from [Maje and Sandro owner] SMCP’s China operations, and for North America, Sarah Benady. These are my closest colleagues for developing international markets. In the U.S., we sell directly in two stores as well as through wholesale and multibrand channels and online.
We have direct operations in China, but with help for part of the back-office and other operations from a local partner — the investments, staff, stores, stock and image, are ours. It is very important to maintain control over your image abroad. We have employed significant means for conquering these markets because we believe in them. Initial results show we are right — we’re very happy with our first results.
WWD: Being a young brand, has it been easier to develop the digital side?
P.A.G.: Digitizing the brand is part of my mission. This means digitizing sales — today online business is about 9 percent, and we have around 10 Internet sites, with the French, Spanish, Dutch and English sites. We have a truly omnichannel vision in the U.S. We worked a lot on the user experience on our site, on services and better merchandising. We changed our platform and went to Salesforce.
We have completely revisited our methods for marketing — the brand has evolved considerably, and we are focusing a lot on producing content to use digitally. We plan to do more and reorganized with a Paris-based team charged with a global marketing plan, content production and managing the p.r. strategy. We also created a direct-to-consumer team based in New York, because the more advanced cases are in the U.S., with brands like Glossier that have revolutionized customer relations and experience.
We established the global direct-to-consumer division in January, managed by Geraldine Cohen. We are retailers. So we can take the opposite path and become more direct-to-consumer in our way of communicating while at the same time develop our retail network. We know how to manage stores since we have 170 of them now! And we will have around 200 at the end of the year.
WWD: How many to you expect to have in the longer term?
P.A.G.: We envision up to 300 stores.
WWD: How much will store openings account for growth?
P.A.G.: Barbara and Sharon invented a way to stage their offer, highlight the products. In the retail business these days, there are very few times of the year when brands can sell with full margins, and normal prices. There are around four or five months, depending on the market, when brands can show customers what the real price is. Ba&sh has always sought to maintain the integrity of its pricing. Products have a price and I don’t want to get into a system where I am constantly discounting, it confuses our clients.
WWD: Any changes in the delivery cadence?
P.A.G.: One of the things we have changed is increasing the rhythm of the offer. Today we have 10 drops per season. We used to have two per year. Actually, we did not increase the number of models by much. We rebalanced the collections, as well as the price, respecting the entry price for Ba&sh but also stretching it into a higher range with more spectacular, maxi-length dresses that are more expensive and use more fabric to make — red-carpet style, for special events. Entry prices are between 120 euros and 170 euros for a dress and 65 euros for a T-shirt. The average price, and what we sell the most of, are items around 200 euros. On the high end we might have a leather jacket, for example, at around nearly 800 euros. We only sell expensive products if we think the product justifies the price.
WWD: How would you describe the corporate culture?
P.A.G.: One of the characteristics of the management of Ba&sh, also one of the ways the brand has a personality — the management is based on very close relations. Our values, to give you an idea, are consideration, optimism, energy, creativity, rigor and a global mind-set.
We put words to something that existed. At Ba&sh, we say growth with pleasure. It’s very important, the pleasure of working. In a creative company, there are a lot of projects, and often you have to have the capacity to react and move quickly, so enjoyment is important — it’s a driver. We have to remain agile for the mission I’ve been granted. When I arrived, the company generated 47 million euros [in annual sales]. In 2017, we had 115 million euros in sales, I think next year we’ll surpass the 150 million mark.
WWD: You previously worked for Oxbow, Morgan and Princesse Tam Tam?
P.A.G.: The link between all of these brands is that, sincerely, I have always been attracted to brands that have real personality. Because what interests me is to work on developing and sharing the sense of the brands to make them iconic.