'Gulf princesses' hold key to lingerie firm revival

Gulf princesses. The key to success holds in two simple words for Maison Lejaby, a historic lingerie maker rescued from collapse 10 months ago, and 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 seducing the mega-rich shoppers 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 Lejabi'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 told AFP. "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."

Especially if you are a millionaire, it goes without saying.

Thick carpeted fitting rooms, with deep armchairs and scented candles, are designed with such VIP shoppers in mind, whether Gulf princesses, rich young Russians or Chinese.

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, I have seen them buy the sexiest outfits -- sometimes behind their grandmother's backs!"

While these VIP shoppers are its key target, the salon also offers smaller private rooms for regular Parisian clients, "who can come to see a lingerie show, for a hen night," said Prost.

-- "Haute couture has no lingerie equivalent" --

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 that saw its turnover divided by four, from 80 to 20 million euros ($100 to 25 million), between 2009 and January 2012 when he acquired it in a state of near-bankruptcy.

"Its products had lost their soul. The strategy was to use a respected name -- Lejaby -- to sell low-cost goods made in China," he said. "The company lost 60 percent 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 Maison Lejaby couture, entirely hand made in France using locally-sourced materials -- from Calais Lace to Lyon silk -- usually reserved for designer fashion.

Each garment is individually numbered and signed with the name of the seamstress who made it.

Models include an Empire-style half-cup bra, in strawberry pink silk with an underlay of Calais lace, soft jersey lining and velvet straps, to be paired with a pleated tulle petticoat, open at one side.

Off the shelf "couture" bra and panties sets start at 250 euros while made to measure pieces -- like a black slip that doubles as a cocktail dress, in Calais Lace with Lyon embroidery and silk -- range from 1,000 to 5,000 euros.

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 it will continue to use a Tunisian supplier for it 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.

This year it expects to turn over 24 million euros and hopes to break even in 2013 on a projected turnover of 30 million euros.

ec/jz

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