Over the last 20 years, Isabel Marant has built a successful global brand that, last year, generated €150 million in revenue. How did she do it?
When Isabel Marant was studying fashion design at Studio Berçot, the school’s director, Marie Rucki, gave her an invaluable nugget of wisdom. “She told me to never design anything that I wouldn’t wear myself. That influenced my work from the start and gave me a realistic approach that continues to inform what I do,” the designer told BoF.
Indeed, influenced by Rucki’s practical piece of advice, Marant has built a business that, over 20 years, has seen consistent annual growth rates of between 20 and 30 percent and, in 2013, generated €150 million in revenue according to Marant’s chief executive, Sophie Durufle. The same year, a major collaboration with H&M confirmed the label’s heavyweight status, an achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that Marant retains full ownership of the company.
Often described as chic in a way that manages to be both bohemian and a little rock ‘n’ roll, Marant’s clothes are essentially American-style sportswear filtered through a uniquely French sensibility, which gives them an insouciant edge that is equally irresistible to women in Los Angeles, London and Seoul. The mainstays of this look exemplify Marant’s magic mix of ease and attitude: slim jeans and t-shirts, peasant blouses and lace mini-dresses, fringed boots and bags.
The recipe to her success? A well-defined, consistent aesthetic rooted in boho-chic, Parisian cool; clothes that blend fashion-forward design with wearability, advanced contemporary pricing, and, last but not least, Marant’s own relentless drive. “Isabel is the first one to arrive [at work] and the last one to leave,” says Durufle.
Part of the reason why Marant’s collections were so well-received from the start was the fact that her aesthetic stood out from what was prevalent in fashion at the time. “What I was doing was different from the kind of super-clean minimalism, very influenced by Helmut Lang, that you saw everywhere,” she says. “My stuff had a strong ethnic element. I think that resonated, along with the comfortable fabrics and special colours that are still close to what I am doing today, even though my collections have evolved as I have evolved.”
Only after laying the commercial foundations of her business did Marant feel it was time to develop her brand. “Before getting too big too quickly, we wanted to build stone by stone, being very reasonable and taking our time to set up things, so that the base was strong,” says Marant. “Only once the company was operational and we had a clientele were we ready to work on image.”
Though the label had traction from the beginning, things really took off in the mid-aughts, a turning point Marant credits to making two critical hires in styling and PR.The shift began when Marant asked the French Vogue editor Emmanuelle Alt to style her shows.
Since the company’s inception, Marant had been working with the same press officer, out of loyalty and because she had taken Marant on for free when the company was just starting up. But as her label began rising in profile, the front row of her shows remained curiously devoid of key international editors. After styling two shows for Marant, Alt told the designer she needed to reconsider her press representation if she wanted to continue working with her. “She said, ‘Style.com is not at your show, nor any of the important press people from around the world. That’s not acceptable at the level you have reached.’”
Fearful of losing Alt, Marant engaged the press agency she still works with today. “I had no idea at the time how important the press office you work with could be. In just one season the audience at my show totally changed.” Durufle adds: “[The change] was more in terms of visibility than numbers, because the numbers were strong already. But just as important as this was Alt’s styling, which added a vital injection of sex to Marant’s work. “Emmanuelle put Isabel’s woman on heels. That changed everything,” says Durufle. Marant concurs, “The clothes didn’t change. But Emmanuelle came with a pair of tight suede cuissards (thigh-high boots). That small decision totally changed the way the clothes appeared and how my label was perceived. It made it much more glamorous and sexy.”
Today, accessories account for 30 percent of Marant’s business. Her biggest markets, besides the Unites States, are Europe and Asia, where the label has a particularly strong presence in Korea. In recent years, online sales have driven significant growth for the brand, especially in the United Kingdom and Germany. In fact, Isabel Marant currently generates 40 percent of its revenues online, though the company still lacks its own e-commerce store. As for the future, the US market remains a key focus, where Marant plans to expand its retail network, opening a new store in San Francisco in the coming months.
Her advise to up and coming fashion designers?
- Build a strong base and stay focused and true to yourself.
- Find out who you are and stick to it, because you need to have a specific and understandable message that is uniquely you.
- And never design anything you wouldn’t want to wear yourself.”
Credits: Suleman Anaya | BoF | Google
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