PARIS — It was an unusual setting for an interview with a successful French fashion entrepreneur.
“My 5-year-old daughter celebrated her birthday this weekend and got this miniature farm,” said Morgane Sézalory, fiddling with a tiny tractor and chicken pen on the table of her children’s playroom, located on the first floor of her elaborately decorated home on the Left Bank of Paris.
Had the interview been with any other brand, it would have felt staged. But Sézalory is the founder of Sézane, a digital fashion firm that has made a niche out of niceness. Its subtly feminine creations — mostly wearable and unchallenging pieces such as vintage-looking knitted sweaters and sensibly heeled leather pumps — are showcased via positivity-fueled branding and communications as well as homey boutiques named L’Appartement, “the apartment” in French, where customers can hang out, read a book, try on a flowery dress and ultimately fall in love with Sézane’s air of accessibility.
Sézalory herself, who is soft-spoken and exudes warmth, posts feel-good mottos, family pictures, holiday snaps and inspiration images on her personal Instagram page, which counts 227,000 followers, and writes a first-person account of her brand’s history on its web site, ending the success story with the sentence “Eyes wide open and heart beating fast.” Chatting with journalists at home in her kids’ playroom sounds just like the kind of thing the 34-year-old businesswoman would do.
“I’m always so happy when I see someone wearing Sézane,” she said of her brand, which is a contraction of her two names. “I always wanted to create clothes for real life — not clothes that people working in fashion or a creative environment would wear, but items that any type of woman can choose in her daily life. I think that’s the magic of this brand, that people from all over incorporate it into their lives. It’s my biggest joy to realize that we are an inclusive brand.”
It’s true that Sézane is the kind of label you run into daily on French public transport. Parisian women fall for its simple leather bucket bags, tuck in its ruffled silk blouses into their high-waisted jeans, bare their red toenails in the brand’s sandals and lug their gym clothes and laptop in Sézane’s limited-edition voluminous tote bags, some of which, created in partnership with artists, have become something of a collector’s item.
Founded in 2013 by Sézalory, her now husband Thibault Lougnon and entrepreneur Corentin Petit, who also founded French men’s wear label Balibaris, Sézane first started online, dropping monthly collections of women’s clothing and accessories in limited edition on its web site, to which customers were alerted via e-mail. The brand now offers a permanent collection, Les Essentiels, as well as four seasonal drops with between 100 and 200 references, plus monthly capsule collections. It launched a men’s line, Octobre, in 2017, and created its own charity, Demain, in 2018.
Sézane currently employs around 150 people, mostly based in the Paris headquarters on the Rue d’Uzès in the 2nd arrondissement. In 2015, American investor Summit Partners took a minority stake in the company, which it sold to General Atlantic in 2018. Support from the new investor, which also has shares in Tory Burch and Zimmermann, enabled Sézane to change its logistics platform.
“I have never wanted to lose my independence, but for major investments like logistics or I.T., if you don’t do them you put your whole company in danger,” said Sézalory, who confessed to receiving buyout offers “daily.” “Both our consecutive investors were chosen because they accompany brands on the long term. It was important to me to have partners who respect the vision and the values of Sézane.”
In order to give her customers the opportunity to touch and try on the garments before purchasing — the Internet’s forever unresolved problem — Sézalory opened her first brick-and-mortar space in Paris in 2015. At the time, you could only order items, not buy on the spot. Faced with her customers’ frustration, the businesswoman decided to turn the showroom into a fully functioning boutique, and opened outposts in London, New York and Aix-en-Provence. Sézane is also carried by Le Bon Marché in Paris, Selfridges in London and Nordstrom in the U.S.
“I didn’t want to open a classic boutique,” said Sézalory, who fell into fashion without any official training by selling vintage clothes on eBay before opening Les Composantes in 2008, an e-shop mixing vintage finds with her own designs. “It didn’t feel natural to me as the business was born online. So I wanted to create a unique and somewhat magical experience: I didn’t want people to feel like they were only coming to buy something, but like they could just take a look. You don’t necessarily want to spend money, but you have still discovered something.”
The U.S. is the brand’s second market after France, generating 20 percent of revenues. Since its arrival in the U.S. — L’Appartement New York, which is located in Nolita, opened in 2017, three years after the brand’s first collaboration with Madewell — Sézane reports an annual growth of 120 percent in the American market. Currently 40 percent of overall revenue is generated outside of France, and Sézane is available to buy online in 20 countries.
The brand has seen exponential growth across the board: Sézane does not communicate its yearly sales, but sources pegged its 2018 revenue at roughly 100 million euros, with EBITDA margins north of 20 percent. It is understood the company is projecting double-digit growth this year, fueled by store openings and its recent expansion into men’s wear. It is for this reason that Sézane is the recipient of the 2019 WWD Honor for Best-Performing Fashion Company – Small Cap.
Its main focus still seems to be wooing the notoriously picky French customer. Taking its global lifestyle concept a step further, Sézane opened Le Libre Service Sézane on Oct. 18, a 4,300-square-foot store in the 17th arrondissement of Paris. The spacious boutique houses a selection of vintage silhouettes curated by upcyling brands Les Récupérables and Hotel Vêtements, carries beauty names like Ouai and Cut by Fred’s vegan haircare line as well as a Sézane notebooks and office supplies.
Despite its cult-like status, Sézane stands for anti-hype. The overall vibe of the Libre Service is like a warmer version of Colette, if all the salespeople were dressed the same and preferred dried flowers and dangly earrings to limited edition sneakers. Sézane stores in Paris are located in low-key, untrendy areas — the mostly familial 17th arrondissement or the 2nd, an quiet area known for its wholesale stores that has seen considerable gentrification in the last five years.
Everything Sézane presents feels familiar, from the creaky floorboards of L’Appartement, modeled on a Parisian home, to the Toile-de-Jouy-printed blouses reminiscent of linens in French country houses. Coupled with accessible prices — blouses cost $120, knitwear $130, outerwear $380 — the formula hits home with customers yearning for a mid-market brand that’s more chic than the high street.
Special care is taken to look after these loyal customers. Each Sézane boutique has its own Conciergerie, a space to facilitate online returns and customer services, as 80 percent of sales are still driven by the digital side of the business. Customers can collect or return online orders, learn how to repair and look after garments, and attend ateliers and events organized for the Sézane community.
“It’s our way to make sure garments last longer but also to reduce their impact, allowing us to regroup orders that are sent in and out,” said Sézalory.
The brand is on an ongoing quest to bring more sustainability to its business model — something Sézalory is refreshingly candid about.
“When I started out in fashion 15 years ago, at no given moment did I think about the fact that producing a garment could actually be bad for the environment,” she recalled. “Today, being more sustainable in my daily life is something that worries me a lot and pushes me to question our practices. You suddenly realize that there are a lot of things to change, but you didn’t necessarily have the right tools.”
Two thirds of Sézane pieces are produced in Europe — leather items in Italy, Portugal and Spain; tailoring, outerwear and blouses in Eastern Europe — with 15 percent of clothing, mostly knitwear and silks, manufactured in China. The brand now has a team of five people devoted to corporate social responsibility, headed by Elléore Bomstein, a former sustainability program officer at Saint Laurent.
“As we’re an independent brand, things go a lot faster,” said Sézalory. “The positive side of running your own brand is that you can control where the brand is going yourself. The minute we realized there were certain things we needed to work on, we acted fast.”
Currently 40 percent of fabrics used in Sézane’s latest collection, the fall drop, are either recycled or sustainably manufactured, including linen, Lyocell, recycled polyester and organic cotton. These fabrics only represented 10 percent of the fall 2018 collection. In 2018, 33 percent of the brand’s leather goods were crafted out of vegetable tanned leather; the brand is aiming to get that number up to 75 percent before the end of 2019.
Future projects include launching the brand’s first activewear line, which will also be completely sustainable, and pivoting toward clean denim, which is Sézane’s bestselling category. A bridal line is also in the works.
“It’s not just about creating a sustainable product, but also making it durable,” said Sézalory. “Our whole logic is to offer good quality pieces at a fair price — the more we go on, the lower our margins are. My career started with vintage clothing: I want people to still wear their Sézane pieces 15 or 20 years after buying them. It took us two years to develop this first activewear line, because the pieces had to be sustainable, comfortable and durable. Especially with activewear, it needs to stay exactly the same even after washing it 100 or 200 times.”
Set to launch at the end of November, the activewear line will span 20 to 30 pieces made of Tencel, recycled polyamide and GOTS-certified organic cotton. Starting January 2020, Sézane jeans from the permanent collection will all be made of GOTS-certified cotton and bleached either using ozone or laser technology, which consume considerably less water.
“There are so many questions that I ask myself now that never crossed my mind 10 years ago,” said Sézalory. “I’m still learning constantly, which really helps you stay humble. Ultimately, all I want is that 20 years from now, my daughters feel like what their parents spent their time doing had real meaning. When you put things that way, I think that’s the right question to ask yourself.”