French lingerie brand Etam unveils first U.S. store, American expansion plans
Few U.S. apparel brands have had such a cultural and style impact as Victoria's Secret, which virtually cornered the market on lingerie. However, ever since L Brands closed over 300 stores (including the Pink brand locations) across the country beginning in 2020, its 'Angel'-centric business model had already started to wane.
On the other hand, Europe boasts several strong lingerie retailers who are now looking stateside in light of the open playing field and other reasons. FashionNetwork.com spoke to Etam CEO Laurent Milchior on the French intimates brand's first U.S. store location.
"I was always puzzled why Victoria's Secret was such a strong consumer goods brand, but it was the only player in the space in a competitive market like the U.S. where other categories have multiple players," said Etam CEO Laurent Milchior via Zoom, adding, "It would be pretentious to say we are going to upset this big company, but we just created a bit of space for our product which is easier to understand."
Even with American brands such as Aerie and Adore Me—the digital-first, DTC lingerie brand with 77 size ranges that L Brands just purchased—edging in on the market share, Milchior saw room for Etam in this changing landscape. The wider playing field also helped boost another European intimate brand, Intimissimi, to ramp up its U.S. presence this year, which began slowly five years.
The CEO found that space at Dadeland, where the Parisian-based bra and panty chain store opened its premiere store in the States in the popular Miami mall. According to the CEO, the south Miami mall offered a great location between a Zara and one of the remaining Victoria's Secret stores.
He plans to open two more stores on the east coast by early 2024. While he can't confirm where he has some proposals on the table, another Miami mall is a strong contender. Both cater to a South American-inclined mindset of the tropical city. Having had successful partnerships in Mexico with over 70 stores there gave Milchior an added boost of confidence to open in the U.S. So has a mainly successful launch at retail powerhouse Nordstrom.
"Our product is pretty likeable for the American customer," he noted.
For many European brands, a Manhattan location brings serious bragging rights. Though Milchior feels it isn't the end all be all if the location isn't prime.
"It's cool to have a New York City flagship, but in today's world, it isn't always the best way to create buzz around your brand. Etam would probably grab it if we found an opportunity with a good position," he said, noting they have looked at several spots on lower Broadway.
The CEO says it's currently feasible to open in Soho due to the plethora of empty stores that, in some cases, remain vacant for three or four years, still retain their value.
"We aren't in a rush to open in Manhattan. To be honest, the volatility of the tourists, depending on which country they are from, makes the opening more difficult. When you test a market, you need a minimum of variables, and prime location is key to eliminating that as an issue of the store's performance," he continued.
Whatever the location, the CEO knows he is in for the long game, with profitability not expected for at least two years in the U.S. market, partially due to the high setup and operating costs here. Other markets such as China, Germany, and the UK are also of interest despite their unique opening and operating challenges.
So far, the Southern Florida location is paying off.
"Miami is a hot place to live right now, so is Texas," he observed, adding, "July is the slowest month for retail in Florida, and we didn't offer any promotions even though everyone else is on sale and we still made our projected budget. We also sell swimwear; it's a good market for that, too," Milchior said.
The executive is calling Miami a soft launch as, thus far, the store's only advertising has been through social media via medium-sized targeted local influencers.
"We know that society and life are different here, so we will take our time to learn who the customer is and what the business is here. We will push e-commerce to help grow our brand and the product assortment here, with an exact marketing angle to be determined. Still, it's always about the 'Frenchness,'" he explained, noting that the French e-commerce customer lags behind the U.S., where the balance is usually 50 percent in-store and 50 percent online sales.
Early indications show the Miami customer buying sizing in line with the European customers, but Etam has also offered a larger size range since 2019, which ostensibly suits the U.S. customer. It also showed the south Florida customer has a penchant for the "upmarket side of the line such as silk sets, private label, and its most expensive swimwear options."
To dissect the market and convey the Etam message to the U.S. customer, the brand will have a separate U.S.-based team for marketing and distribution. Store staff is a mixed bag, with Milchior acknowledging the challenges of retail staffing here and in Europe.
"The Miami store has a manager from the Etam store in Cannes, France. She is one of our best; she is used to dealing with international clients and speaks English. Initially, we recruited a U.S.-based candidate and brought her to France for training, but in the end, she took a position elsewhere," he said, adding, "If sales staff stay two to three years, we can grow them elsewhere in the business."
"Etam is authentically French and Parisian with great prices and French design. The quality is more than competitive against the American leader but more affordable, so we propose something very viable," Milchior pointed out, but acknowledged the different perspectives.
"Lingerie brands in the U.S. are marketed by usage, and in France, we broadcast our products by seasonal trends and storytelling," he said. This is evidenced by the brand's 15-year strong Paris Fashion Week entertainment-filled fashion show, which contextualizes the brand in the bigger scheme of fashion, an event the CEO said that he would one day hope to stage in the U.S. after opening a bevy of stores.
"The underwear marketing is interesting and challenging. It's a long journey, and we need to listen to the needs of the American market and adapt the storytelling. They are very demanding," he added.
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