JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — “I was goofing off in the office one day, as bosses sometimes do,” said Franck Mesnel, who cofounded the rugby-inspired upmarket leisurewear label Eden Park in 1987, “and I noticed all these remnants of fabric in the wastebasket. We’re talking about fabric from Italy, from India, beautiful cottons….So I went through the office trash, literally, for two days, then packed up all the fabric remainders in a box and sent them to Madagascar.”
Though based in Paris, the 52-year-old Mesnel fell in love with Madagascar while on a visit a few years ago and built a holiday home there. While he is considering manufacturing some of his line in Madagascar, for the moment he has three seamstresses busy in an atelier fashioning miniature bow ties out of the fabric remainders. The pink bow tie is a signature motif in Eden Park’s designs, and often appears as a detail on a polo shirt, for example, or underneath the collar of a blazer.
“We began wearing these pink bow ties when I was playing rugby in Paris,” explained the former French international rugby player, who became architect then fashion entrepreneur. “It was a kind of statement. My teammates and I, we would pull all these stunts, like wear tutus while playing. We got a lot of attention for that.”
Mesnel, together with Éric Blanc and Philippe Guillard, became known as “Les Show-bizz” for the high-profile sartorial stunts they would pull on the pitch.
When he and his teammates decided to establish their own fashion line with the rugby jersey as the starting point — the name Eden Park comes from the stadium in New Zealand where France lost the first rugby union World Cup Final in 1987 — they felt that the bow tie was a dapper touch. The pink color, Mesnel added, was a way of injecting a lightness to what could sometimes be a brutal sport.
Though he has long retired from rugby, Mesnel, who serves as Eden Park’s chief executive officer, still displays the athletic physique that landed him a place in the French national team. Instead of a rugby jersey, however, his “uniform” these days tends to consist of a blazer and a cravat and slacks, all from Eden Park.
The miniature bow ties are both marketing accessory and livelihood project. “I can produce 3,800 of these bow ties every two months,” he said. Every bow tie becomes a brooch when a pin is added to the back.
“And for every bow tie sold — they cost less than a dollar to make — I provide a school-age child in Madagascar with three square meals.”
He acknowledged that the factories he has visited in Madagascar could probably eventually manufacture some of his line, but for the moment, “a third of our production is done in Peru, because of the pima cotton we use for our polo shirts; another third is done in Asia, in China, the New Territories in Hong Kong, and a third is made in Europe — Portugal and the Eastern European countries like Lithuania, Slovenia, a bit in Poland. We get our fabrics from Italy and India, and they are fabrics exclusive to Eden Park. Our artistic director, in fact, holds two posts — he oversees the collection, and he also designs the fabrics we use in collaboration with an Italian mill called Albini.”
In France, Eden Park is a well-known brand, positioned in the market above Tommy Hilfiger and on the same level as Hackett, Polo Ralph Lauren and Lacoste. Its two main stores in Paris are the flagship near the Opera, and another on the Left Bank, near Le Bon Marché. Eden Park is in more than 35 other countries, with several stores throughout Europe, not to mention Asia, including China and Japan. Eden Park recently opened in Amman, and is set to open a store in Tehran.
“In Europe we are considered ‘une marque des mecs’ — a men’s brand,” Mesnel said. “Yet women’s wear represents 40 percent of our sales in Asia, particularly in China and Taiwan, which is quite significant. We currently have 10 stores in Taiwan and 10 in China. There’s something about going into a new market where rugby doesn’t mean much, but the design proposition is appealing, more neutral. Plus, the pink bow tie in the logo can be perceived as a feminine element, or something ambiguous.”