A French company has built its financial recovery around well-off shoppers from the Middle East.
Gulf shoppers key to Maison Lejaby's revival
The key to success lies in two simple words for Maison Lejaby, a historic lingerie maker rescued from collapse 10 months ago. Formerly called Lejaby, the brand is newly revived as a purveyor of "Made in France" luxury.
Nestled in a Paris courtyard a stone's throw from the Louvre, the firm this month opened what it dubs a lingerie couture salon in the hope of attracting mega-rich shoppers from the Middle East who populate the neighbourhood's dozen five-star hotels.
"These women know luxury. They come to Paris two or three times a year to shop," said Lejaby's chief executive Alain Prost, who has been promoting his firm's services to luxury hotel concierges across the capital.
"The idea is simple: we want to bring the Parisian couture salons back to life," he said. "It's inspired by the salons of the late 1940s and 1950s, where clients would come to watch a fashion show, then slip into a fitting room and stay for as long as they liked.
"Lingerie is still sold mostly in malls or department stores but lingerie is something highly intimate. You want to be somewhere calm. You want good personal advice."
Thick-carpeted fitting rooms with deep armchairs and scented candles are designed with such VIP shoppers in mind, whether they are rich young shoppers from the Gulf, Russia or China.
Catherine Deliance, the salon's manager, has high hopes for the festive season, when wealthy Middle Eastern families take over hotel floors, sleeping late into the day before heading out on collective shopping sprees.
"These are women who adore lingerie," she said.
While these shoppers are a key target, the salon also offers smaller private rooms for regular Parisian clients.
A former chief executive of the Italian lingerie firm La Perla, Prost is quite clear on what went wrong at Lejaby, a house founded in 1884 and whose turnover divided by four, from €80 million (Dh387m) to €20m (Dh396m), between 2009 and January 2012 when he acquired it in a state of near-bankruptcy.
"Its products had lost their soul," he said. "The strategy was to use a respected name - Lejaby - to sell low-cost goods made in China. The company lost 60 per cent of its retail partners over three years.
"So we now know that was not the right strategy."
Instead, Prost is betting on the appeal of French know-how and craftsmanship to revive the house's image - and fortunes.
"French haute couture holds an unrivalled place in fashion but there is no equivalent in lingerie," he said.
Showcased in the Paris salon, the firm has launched a new line dubbed Lejaby Couture, entirely handmade in France using locally sourced materials - from Calais lace to Lyon silk - usually reserved for designer fashion.
Each garment is numbered and signed with the name of the seamstress who made it.
Off-the-shelf "couture" sets start at €250 while made to measure pieces - including a black slip that doubles as a cocktail dress, in Calais lace with Lyon embroidery and silk - range from €1,000 to €5,000.
Prost kept 200 staff on the books, out of more than 600, and today employs 160 people in the Lyon region. The firm is also partnered with a workshop being set up near Lyon that will employ 25 former Lejaby seamstresses.
No more Chinese outsourcing, although the company will continue to use a Tunisian supplier for its main retail line, to be relaunched in the summer.
"Apart from us, no major lingerie player is doing 'Made in France' anymore," Prost said. "It's not an easy thing to do these days. You have to rebuild the whole production chain."
Maison Lejaby has so far secured retail deals for its couture collection with the Printemps and Galeries Lafayette department stores in Paris, Harrods in London and half a dozen outlets in Russia.