Paul & Joe's Sophie Mechaly says London has welcomed the brand with open arms
The start of the new decade has shaken some of Sophie Mechaly’s certainties. But it has also helped the founder of French label Paul & Joe to clarify her aspirations.
Of course, obsessing about printed fabrics and other materials is a constant with Mechaly, a businesswoman who is as comfortable with the top models starring in Paul & Joe’s catwalk shows as she is with the textile manufacturers she has been working with for nearly three decades. But in the last two years, her label has had to transform, almost reinventing itself. A token of this evolution, Paul & Joe has shown in London and not in Paris this September.
It was first for the label that in October 2020 celebrated its 25th anniversary with a show at iconic Montmartre nightclub Michou, for the Paris women’s fashion week.
“Covid or not, I told myself I wanted a special show, a reminder of the good times I had with my parents,” said Mechaly. “I wanted to celebrate the relationship with my family and especially my mother. She was a bona fide designer, she took me to fabric shows, telling me all there was to know about materials and garment-making. Crucially, it was she who taught me the importance of not cutting corners, of making beautiful products and doing what I love. Michou held family memories. I wanted to enjoy that special atmosphere again. The party was wonderful. But we had the last slot in the calendar, after Louis Vuitton. It wasn’t ideal for attracting international visitors.”
Despite the media presence, it was a blow for Mechaly. And she started wondering. “I asked the [French Fashion and Haute Couture] federation the reasons for this decision, when other French labels and international designers were treated differently,” she said.
“I think they wanted to remove us from the calendar. It was quite surprising, given we are a French label that produces the majority of its clothes in France. So my designer told me, ‘Let’s go to London’. We enquired and they welcomed us with open arms, even gave us a great slot, at 2 p.m. on Monday [September 20].”
A nearly calamitous choice for Mechaly who, after deciding to switch to another fashion capital, was faced with growing Covid-19 complications. “We were very scared because, suddenly, quarantines were in place and we could not even get organised for the castings. But then everything settled down,” she said.
London has strong connection with Paul & Joe
In the end, Mechaly and her staff set up shop for a week at a house in South Kensington to prepare the show, that was held inside a sprawling Victorian mansion. A nod to a country that has accompanied Paul & Joe’s first steps in the fashion world.
“I have always been fascinated by British chic, with its spontaneously extravagant vibe. There’s plenty of stylistic freedom and code-blending, school uniforms and cute trench-coats mixing up with the aesthetic of rock, pop, punk and new wave. It’s something that always inspired me a great deal. [Paul & Joe] has a strong connection with London, and the first clients who went for the label were British. We were in Harrods and Harvey Nichols shop windows before we were in Parisian ones. The first boutique I opened was in Notting Hill in 1998, three years after I set up [Paul & Joe]. And we were lucky enough for Woody Allen to shoot one of his films there. The UK and Japan were really the two countries where [Paul & Joe] took off,” said Mechaly.
For the Spring/Summer 2022 collection, Paul & Joe did not overhaul its style simply because it was crossing the English Channel. However, the collection does reflect the radical shift that the label has undergone over the past few months. “My strategy is to do what I like, to get creative, with a bit of a daredevil feel that should appeal to British consumers. And it works. I lost the plot at some point because I was chasing after too many threads, with too many people involved. I’ve now wiped the slate clean. The show features 50 items. More than enough. Previously, we worked on 250 to 300 items. We ended up developing extra jackets, dresses and trousers simply to stick to a collection plan. But actually, if your heart isn’t in it, you do a shoddy job. In the end, making those collections was horrible. I just couldn’t stomach the fact we had to keep thinking of the next one.”
The Covid-19 crisis forced the label to downsize. The company secured a government-backed loan (which it has not touched) and restructured drastically.
“In 2020, like fire-fighters dealing with a major blaze, we had to react very quickly,” said Mechaly. “[Paul & Joe] used to operate up to 30 stores worldwide. We have now closed down unprofitable franchised shops, and our direct brick-and-mortar business is wholly focused on the Rue des Saint-Pères flagship in Paris, and a concession at Le Bon Marché,” she added.
By [working with] Shopify, Paul & Joe has boosted the visibility of its online business, fuelling the performance of its e-shop, whose sales are up by more than 50% in 2021 compared with 2020. The label also relies on a loyal network of some 100 multi-brand retailers worldwide.
Fewer items, fewer stores, fewer employees
Paul & Joe has halved the number of its employees, now 25, part of its office premises have been sold and its revenue has fallen from approximately €30 million before the crisis to, according to Mechaly, over €20 million now. A good deal of business is generated by licensing, above all by eyewear products but also by the 15 other categories developed with the label’s Japanese partners, available on Paul & Joe’s e-shop
Mechaly does not view Paul & Joe's downsizing as a debacle. “Yes, I have streamlined the organisation, but we are working better. Paul & Joe has downsized in terms of staff and volumes, but not in terms creativity, work satisfaction and speed-of-response. My core team has been with me for 25 years, and has experienced our best moments. There is a willingness to build, challenge and surprise. I’m still very keen on unearthing beautiful fabrics, and designing clothes that cannot be found elsewhere. In recent years, we have been very busy dealing with issues that constrained us. But finally, we are asking ourselves why. Today there are too many brands, too many clothes on the market. And then there’s fast-fashion, that satisfies an instant need and has done us a lot of harm. If I want to save my bacon and survive, I have to set my own trends."
To deal with these challenges, Paul & Joe also wants to take control of discount periods. “I don't want excessive production volumes. We forecast an extra 10% inventory for our signature items to cover direct sales. I believe that what is sold is sold, and there is no need for restocking. Of course, this can generate frustration, but for the customer who owns the items in question, it's proof they have something exclusive. I’m sick of crazy discounts. We will no longer do end-of-season sales. The problem with promotions is that they are coming earlier and earlier. It’s absurd. I don't want to keep up with that pace any more. I follow the rhythm of the season, of my products, which are beautiful and exclusive,” said Mechaly.
Her approach makes all the more sense for a label that sources fabrics and manufactures products in Western Europe, at a time when the globalised manufacturing and shipping model for products made in distant countries has shown its limitations with the Covid-19 crisis.
Chiefly France-based production
Paul & Joe relies on the expertise of French production workshops, working with Italian suppliers for fabrics and wool, so that about 80% of its items can be labelled as made in France. “There are four French workshops that work 80% with us. I give them work throughout the year. What's important is that we have expanded together. We stand shoulder to shoulder. They will not abandon us simply because we have shifted from 500-unit orders per item to 150-unit ones,” said Mechaly.
Mechaly wants Paul & Joe to work shorter cycles, producing just the right volumes, but also forcing suppliers to phase out plastic packaging and making handbags with recycled materials. The approach of a label that is responsive to expectations in a certain sense, by its staff and clients, without Mechaly explicitly referring to a CSR strategy.
“We live at a time when marketing is king,” said Mechaly. "Our production choices could be based on Instagram posts. But it’s an utterly superseded approach. Some of the big luxury groups work this way, but what people expect from a top group or a sophisticated label is actually exclusivity, uniqueness. We have had time to reflect, and now I want to do what I love, what is a pleasure for me to share. My mother could spot a print on an object, take it home, then work on it until she had her own design and could create the product she wanted. There was a lot of spontaneity in it. I think that today we need that.”
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