PARIS — Finding a niche in a market that is bursting at the seams is no easy task. Just ask label Officine Générale.
Pierre Mahéo, the Paris-based brand’s founder and creative director, said he doesn’t fit into the designer category because his price points are too moderate, and he’s not high street either — for the opposite reason.
“The brand is a bridge between designer and mainstream. It’s accessible luxury really,” he said. Trousers start at 150 euros, or $164, for example, while a shirt retails for 170 euros or $186.
Since 2012, the company has developed an impressive following, doubling sales every year to an estimated three million euros, or $3.3 million, in 2015, with its wearable men’s wear comprised of reasonably priced classics in a handpicked selection of materials.
“We insist on quality, but I just don’t think that a pullover or jacket should cost a month’s salary,” Mahéo said.
The trick for him is “not to go the easy way” and produce everything in Italy, where prices are up to 50 percent higher, he said. Although the label’s knitwear is made there and the shoes come from England, the bulk of the brand’s production is done in Portugal, where Mahéo spends a lot of time adjusting shoulders or working on a certain shape of collar. Saving on sewing and patternmaking allows him to invest where his heart is: fabrics.
The 41-year-old designer has a nose for qualities that last. “As kids, we used to fight with rolls of cashmere. My grandfather, who was a tailor, owned four textile shops in Brittany, [France]. Interestingly, what he taught me back then is still valid today,” the designer recalled, citing English fresco wool as “the most fabulous material for summer,” among other lessons learned.
Mahéo continued his education under the aegis of Michel Barnes in Paris — “he’s the dude who invented the bespoke suit at low prices.” He said in the Sixties and Seventies, Barnes dressed everyone from Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo to Johnny Hallyday.
Not surprisingly, Officine Générale’s own tailoring pieces are among the label’s best-selling categories.
The designer tests all prototypes himself — between December and February before the pieces go into production — “because I know there are always things that need a little fixing: a deeper pocket or a more flexible sleeve. I move around on my scooter through Paris — come rain or shine. My clothes need to stand up to the way I treat them, and I treat them badly,” he said with a laugh.
It’s how he came up with a lightweight flannel coat weighing 0.6 pounds per meter with a waterproof membrane in lieu of a traditional lining, effortlessly marrying tech with tailoring.
Seventeen evergreen pieces, including a white oxford shirt, a navy wool coat and raw denim, are all part of a permanent collection. All fabrics are sourced from England, Italy and Japan, where Mahéo recently discovered an indigo seersucker that he used exclusively for a capsule designed for Mr Porter. Both the online retailer and Barneys New York carry exclusive collections from the label.
“We especially love the fact that this brand stands for simple clothes. Pierre Mahéo suggests a sophisticated style that is both chic and timeless,” said Tom Kalenderian, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Barneys. The line is part of the store’s XO Exclusively Ours concept, which is delivered early and is particularly successful, according to the retailer.
“The current sell-through of the Exclusively Ours collection is in the high double digits and higher than the department average,” said Kalenderian, signaling out the gray suede bomber with a thick woolen rib collar and cuff as a bestseller.
Officine Générale counts roughly 100 points of sale around the globe, including Bergdorf Goodman and Harrods, which recently added the line. Paris department store Le Bon Marché, meanwhile, commissioned a capsule for women from the men’s brand for its “Le vestiaire voléaux hommes,” or “The wardrobe stolen from men” concept.
“[It] presents a real novelty in the market and a new way of consumption” for which there is “a lot of demand,” said Jennifer Cuvillier, the store’s style director.
“The men’s market is so strong right now and its development is growing so fast with a lot of novelties, brands and products only available to men but that women would also love to wear,” she added.
Mahéo said he basically left the styles unchanged, just rendering them in smaller sizes, adding that with the rising trend of genderless dressing, male influences on women’s fashion are a welcome twist.
“I don’t see it as much the other way around. It’s by no means a new concept. Think Charlotte Rampling in a man’s blazer in the Seventies or Jane Birkin wearing an oversize shirt from Serge [Gainsbourg]. There has always been something sexy about it.”
For fall, Mahéo is looking to his own past. “I’ve been sifting through old photographs of mine and my buddies from the late Eighties, early Nineties, and somehow what we wore back then feels right again today,” he said, citing a new take on the Santiago ankle boots and lots of coats among the highlights. The pants will be straighter and cropped, the colors rather unusual for the brand, including blush and petrol, but also olive green — a nod to the label’s military influences — and for the first time, black.
“I always regarded black as old-fashioned, very cliché. So I used it on fabrics that give a relief to the color such as velour, corduroy, leather and flannel,” he noted.
Mahéo is keen on growing his retail footprint, too.
The label’s only stand-alone shop on Paris’ Rue du Dragon will soon have a bigger sibling on the city’s Right Bank. The Marais unit is slated to open in April, while the brand is also eyeing expansion across the Atlantic. With the U.S. as the label’s largest market, accounting for 45 percent of total business, Mahéo is planning to set up his first retail outpost in New York City, preferably this winter.
He has a theory as to why the American man fancy his design: “It’s a purchase with a perceptible value. That is clearly what constitutes our success. But also, many men favor a look that doesn’t shout: ‘Hey, look at me.’ It’s just different.”