“Dance is the roots of Repetto, and always will be.”

After a remarkable renaissance choreographed by visionary CEO Jean-Marc Gaucher (pictured), French fashion house Repetto – acclaimed worldwide for its expertise in dance shoes – is turning its attention to the travel retail channel. The brand exhibited at this year’s TFWA World Exhibition in Cannes, where Gaucher told The Moodie Report exactly how he transformed the company; why freedom is more important than money; and why we all have a responsibility to give back to society.

The rebirth of Repetto began 12 years ago, when Gaucher bade farewell to Reebok France to fill new shoes – literally – at one of the most famous brands in ballet. It was, as they say, a big ask. The company, founded in 1947 by Rose Repetto, when she created a new type of ballet slipper for her son Roland Petit, was down-at-heel in every sense. After her death in 1984, the brand withered too, accumulating debts and falling out of favour with dancers and fashionistas alike. In the 1950s, Repetto’s famous ballerina flats adorned the feet of sex siren Brigitte Bardot; by the late 1990s, its street shoes were being bought mostly by senior citizens.

Today Repetto is once again the go-to flat for fashion icons such as Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Moss, and its hand-made pointe shoes are back in favour among professional ballerinas. So how did Gaucher help it pirouette back to profitability?

“I had a very clear vision, which I wrote down,” he replies. “It was four lines; it took me six months. That mission was to become a worldwide brand; making exclusive products that are different from anything else on the market; that represent and connect to the best of the world of dance; positioned in a luxury environment. Everything we have done – and everything we plan to do – incorporates those four key objectives.”

But everything is built on the foundation of dance. “That is the roots of Repetto, and always will be,” underlines Gaucher. “Why? We have to be different. Anyone can try to be fashionable, but it’s not something we chase. Yes, we work with designers, but all of them come regularly into the dance world for inspiration.

“We are an authentic dance brand, so we are on-trend all the time, but because we are dance, not because we are fashion. Everything we do, even the way we manufacture shoes, is developed from dance. If there is no connection with that, then I am not interested. For example we have not joined this season’s trend for big heels because there is no valid link with us.”

The extensive Repetto portfolio – and retail environment – is strongly connected to dance codes and attitudes

Within fashion, Repetto is best known for its ballerina flats, made famous by French actress Brigitte Bardot (above)

Luckily, in general terms, dance and fashion have proved to be a canny combination. Repetto’s renaissance began in earnest when designer Issey Miyake was invited to collaborate, at a time when co-branding was virtually unheard of.

“When I took over, the company was in a total mess, and its image in France was really not good,” explains Gaucher frankly. “So I contacted Issey Miyake, who is very inspired by dance, and invited him to design a shoe. We called the shoes Issey Miyake by Repetto, and they were sold only in his stores.”

Gaucher continues: “Then we did the same with Yohji Yamamoto and also Comme des Garçons. I wanted Repetto to be seen in a different format, and in a different environment. And it worked. Many French buyers re-discovered Repetto in Tokyo. And that showed them straightaway that something interesting was happening.”

In addition to these designer collaborations, Repetto offers its own “22 Rue de la Paix” collections. Within flats, at least six collections are designed every year, which allows devotees to enjoy new colours and styles on a regular basis.

Repetto is expanding its stand-alone network, which it sees as an excellent complement to travel retail expansion

“When you come into our stores, there is always something new,” Gaucher explains. “And that is necessary, because of the way women shop. We regularly change what is on offer, which is an incentive for customers to visit often. If we only change things once a season, they will only come once or twice at most.”

He continues: “Also, your best friend might love the fabulous pair of shoes you’ve just bought, but she won’t buy the same pair. She needs to see something different; perhaps a similar design in a different colour. Therefore we change all the time, because it would be a pity to lose the custom of both you and your friend for six months. And it keeps the factory busy too.”

Of course, the Repetto product portfolio extends beyond shoes. It offers dance wear and has also expanded into leathergoods, offering a wide variety of bags.

I will do things only if there is a legitimate link with the dance world. If it’s just to do business, just to make more money, then I am not interested. I have no shareholders and no investment companies [to please]. I want to be able do what like, when I like, all the time.”
Repetto CEO, Jean-Marc Gaucher

“All dancers have a bag,” notes Gaucher, “so this [diversification idea] came from that. It started when we made some bags, in nylon, for dancers to test. Everything they liked, we included when we made them in leather. And we made sure the leather was soft,” he adds. “When they travel, dancers use their bags as pillows. So there is a link to comfort and practicality too.”

Might there be plans long-term to explore yet more categories? Make-up and even fragrance have a strong connection with dance, and Gaucher has appointed former L’Oréal veteran Jean-Michel Bostroem to oversee the brand’s expansion in travel retail.

“There are many possibilities,” replies Gaucher, grinning broadly. “But I will do things only if there is a legitimate link with the dance world. If it’s just to do business, just to make more money, then I am not interested.”

He pauses, suddenly serious: “I am lucky, no? I have no shareholders and no investment companies [to please]. I have total control. Yes, we all have to make [a certain amount of money] to survive. But I have enough. Life doesn’t cost so much. And I need my freedom more than I need lots and lots of money. I want to be able do what like, when I like, all the time.”

Which shouldn’t imply in any way that Gaucher is afraid of hard graft. “I started work at the age of 15,” he reveals. “And I’ve done many things. For some time, I lived in England. I worked on a farm. And then I worked in a pub. But the same principle is behind everything. The first obligation is to be profitable. After that, to grow, for people to see and need and want you, you have to be different from everything else.”

So what is it, in the eyes of consumers, that makes Repetto so unique? “If you love dance, and all it evokes: elegance, femininity, freedom, movement and also, I think, luxury, you love Repetto,” asserts Gaucher.

The brand has adapted its distinctive merchandising and offer to satisfy the requirements of the travel retail channel

“We target the values of consumers aged 22-28, although that is not the age of our core consumer. I understand that when you are 17, you want to look older; and when you are older, you want to look 17. So it’s not about age, it’s about attitude and aspiration. And we select our distribution channels accordingly: even if older women do buy our product, in their head they are not old, so you won’t find us in stores that specifically target older women.”

But Repetto is not just a women’s brand. It offers shoes for men also, the most famous of which is the Zizi model so beloved and made famous by Serge Gainsbourg.

“We have many men’s skus and it’s a growing segment of the business,” acknowledges Gaucher. “But men shop differently from women. Women tend to buy if they see something they like, even if they don’t need it. Most men wait until they have to buy – or until their wife buys for them. And that’s not limited to shoes, it’s the same for clothes too.”

Treading a path in travel retail
As Repetto’s domestic presence flourishes, the brand is turning its attention to travel retail. Repetto is steadily opening stand-alone shops, which it sees as an excellent complement for travel retail expansion. Asia is a prime focus.

In 2010 Repetto had just 13 stand-alone shops worldwide; this year that will increase to 35. In Asia alone the number will rise from three (in 2010) to 19 in 2011. And its numbers are impressive, with turnover growing at +25% per year since 2006, and 2011 trending at +35%.

In Europe, over 20% of young people aged 16-25 are unemployed. We are going to open a school to give this “˜lost generation’ a chance for a better life.”
Repetto CEO, Jean-Marc Gaucher

To date, the brand’s travel retail presence has been centred around Paris, in partnership with Aelia and The Nuance Group. New listings this autumn at Nice, Beirut and Manila airports will be followed up with a high-profile opening at Seoul Incheon, with Lotte Duty Free, in spring 2012.

“We don’t work with “˜normal’ shoe shops,” notes Gaucher. “I want consumers to discover Repetto in a special place. We try to make [every door] an experience, not just a place where people go to buy.

“When people travel, it is special. They cross that border and they are in a different state of mind. Plus airports are no longer like they used to be. Many are more like department stores than airport terminals, so the environment is appropriate.”

And Gaucher believes there is much scope for Repetto to create theatre and excitement airside. “There are many things we can do,” he promises. “In fact, if you can’t do something special, it’s better not to do anything at all. We are good at finding ways to be different.”

Taking corporate social responsibility seriously
Repetto is also good at giving something back. Corporate social responsibility is something Gaucher believes in passionately and which, under his leadership, the brand implements in many different ways.

“Every year we give away product to dance schools struggling for money,” Gaucher confirms. “Last year, for example, we sent 27,000 pieces to Cuba. We’ve also donated to dance schools in Brazil, South Africa and Russia.”

This year, the brand created a special shoe for Japan, in the wake of the March earthquake and subsequent tsunami. The classic white ballerina flat sports the Japanese flag and the world “Solidarité” on the heel. It is priced at €165 and the entire proceeds go to victims of the tragedy. “We sell a lot in Japan, so when the earthquake happened it was natural to try to do something to help,” Gaucher explains.

Gaucher believes there is much scope for Repetto to create theatre and excitement in travel retail: “If you can’t do something special, it’s better not to do anything at all. We are good at finding ways to be different,” he asserts.

Gaucher is also committed to helping people closer to home. “In Europe, over 20% of young people aged 16-25 are unemployed,” he states. “I am a father, but I am lucky because my kids have been able to go to school, study and find a job. Too many others are not in this position, so we are going to open a school to give this “˜lost generation’ a chance for a better life.”

The school will be located close to the Repetto factory, in Périgord. It will offer education and training, and the prospect of paid employment with the company.

“Repetto is growing, so I feel there is an obligation to help,” notes Gaucher. “I would hate my children to think that the only important thing is money, and to forget we exist in a wider world. I try to live a better life than this. Those fortunate enough to have, have a responsibility towards those who have nothing.”

He continues: “More companies are realising this. For the past 20 years, the only purpose of big brands was to get bigger and make more money for the stock market. I think – hope – that something is now changing.”

It’s a serious message, delivered by a passionate man. “I like a challenge,” Gaucher concludes. “But I also like to enjoy life. The day I get fed up of doing what I do now, is the day I do something else.” Until that day comes, expect more encores.