If there’s one thing Nicolas Topiol has learned during his tenure as chief executive officer of Christian Lacroix, it’s how to pivot.
When the French brand in May 2009 fell into administration after accumulating an estimated $150 million in losses since its 1987 inception by the namesake designer, Topiol decided to exit the costly ready-to-wear and couture businesses, even though the brand was known for Lacroix’s signature pouf skirts and colorful, decorative gowns, to focus on a few licensed categories.
While many in the fashion industry thought the brand would disappear, Topiol said he was always a believer. “I knew that I had a beautiful brand in my hands,” he said, as Christian Lacroix celebrates its 30th anniversary. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the brand.”
The brand has proven resilient, logging sales of $160 million to $180 million at retail in 2017 , Topiol said.
When Topiol embarked on the company’s next chapter in 2010, he realized that Lacroix had an image problem — it was so closely tied to haute couture that it was seen as unaffordable by the majority of consumers. “We had scarves that cost thousands of euros,” he said. “Part of the strategy was to do gift items and candles, to be sold where gift products are sold.
“We were also missing iconic design elements. We didn’t have any recognizable patterns. We created a butterfly parade print, which was super successful. We put another print on an Evian bottle,” Topiol said, explaining that Lacroix in 2007 created a pattern for Evian, which was reprised a decade later by creative director Sacha Walckhoff, who succeeded the founder. “We’re trying to bring some elements people will recognize. With luck and good design, some of the newer patterns will become associated with the brand.”
Soon after founding his company, Lacroix sold it to LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton. Reportedly tired of waiting for the brand to turn a profit, the French luxury conglomerate in 2005 sold it for a nominal sum to the Falic Group. “The company wasn’t really profitable, but when it launched a contemporary line, it was doing some real numbers. There were definitely areas that were profitable. When we took over, we knew it had never been profitable. We were three years into owning the business, when everything changed,” Topiol said, referring to the recession. “Lacroix had a very wholesale-oriented business model and I saw stores cutting their orders.”
While Lacroix was in administration, two main bidders had emerged, Sheikh Hassan bin Ali Al Nuaimi, and Bernard Krief Consulting. “They seemed quite serious on paper, but the groups never came up with the money,” Topiol said. “In the end, the court had to rule in favor of our plan, which was to pay [creditors] 100 percent and restructure the business model. We had to scale down drastically, so 2010 became a year of physically restructuring, including our offices, and thinking of how to build and develop the business under a new licensing platform.”
The general idea was to refocus the company around fashion accessories, home and men’s wear, which was already under license. “We did a few runway shows and unfortunately, our partners went bankrupt. The men’s wear is still alive and it’s doing fine,” Topiol said, adding that it’s sold specialty stores in France. “We’re actually in the process of expanding our collections for fall 2018, both in terms of product categories and also in terms of distribution to greater Europe.”
Fashion accessories developed by Lacroix include watches, leather handbags, jewelry, eyeglasses, sunglasses and intimates, in addition to scarves, “which are doing really well.” A turning point for the company was the 2011 launch of home furnishings and lifestyle products through a license with Designers Guild. “We started with fabric to bridge the world of couture,” Topiol said. “We then expanded to wallpaper, decorative pillows, rugs and tabletop.”
The category, called the Art of Living, includes china, tabletop and Christian Lacroix Papier, which is sold at Liberty of London. Products feature elaborate designs with tropical flowers, exotic gardens and mythical creatures. Lacroix’s first foray into furniture — a small collection for Roche Bobois — bowed last year, with more styles due in January.
“We had dabbled in some home areas, for example, in the past, we did tabletop,” Topiol said. “That whole world has been really good to us. Sacha and the whole company have been able to adapt. The whole psychology of the company is different. You need to change the way you work and the way you think and the way you create. We’re celebrating our five-year anniversary with lifestyle.”
Topiol seems torn about women’s fashion. “I feel the world has changed in apparel,” he said. “It’s a challenging world, and definitely one where we can’t be doing what we used to do. Luckily, we’re out of it and can look at it with fresh eyes. Women’s ready-to-wear is a matter of finding the right partner. It’s going to take something a little different [to get us back in]. We’ve been out of rtw for a while now. We wanted to let a little time pass. Everybody will compare it to the past.
“We’re not going to go into couture,” he added. “We have an opportunity to stretch a little bit, with the right price and the right product. An evening gown, which we have the credibility to do, could be have a designer price point. We could do a small capsule collection of unique evening designs. It would definitely be lower-priced than what we used to do.”
Lacroix in November will launch global e-commerce. “We’re building a platform with all of our partners to work together. We’ll be able to put their catalogue of products online and ship from their warehouses,” Topiol said. “It’s super exciting. Once it’s online and going, we’ll have access to [customer] data.”
Freestanding stores are also on Topiol’s mind. A Christian Lacroix store on Paris’ Left Bank that had been operating since 1994, closed in August. “The store was becoming a bit too busy,” Topiol said. “We’re ready now to do a concept store just for home products. We’re developing more collections for men next year and will have enough for a store. Paris is a no-brainer. Maybe we’ll start with pop-up stores. The U.S. has always been a very good market. We’re pushing to go more direct to retail. “
Asked why he stayed at Lacroix through the administration proceedings, Topiol said, “I like to see things through. A lot of people would have left a long time ago. I’ve done other investments together with the Falic family. They’ve been very supportive. We’re rebuilding Christian Lacroix together. I want to see it through. It’s loyalty to the brand and the Falic family.”