France Fights Back: Fast-Fashion Retailers Get Nimble and Quick

Steamrolled in recent years by cheap-chic behemoths H&M and Zara, French stores are adopting the tactics of their bigger and more efficient foes.

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A Kookai runway look.

Photo By WWD Staff

A Naf Naf summer ad.

Photo By WWD Staff

PARIS — Just when many had left them for dead, France’s fast-fashion firms are resurrecting themselves.

Steamrolled in recent years by Europe’s cheap-chic juggernauts — Hennes & Mauritz and Zara — homegrown companies from Etam and Morgan to Kookai and Naf Naf have found new verve by adopting the aggressive tactics of their bigger and more efficient competitors. And their methods provide valuable lessons for retailers worldwide as H&M and Zara roll out throughout Europe and the U.S.

The new efforts of the French chains appear to be paying off. Groupe Vivarte, which runs Kookai, last year doubled profits. Groupe Etam, which counts Etam, Tammy and 1-2-3 among its diverse fast-fashion brands, turned a profit this year after languishing two years in the red. In turn, it reversed a moratorium on investment and plans to spend $60 million this year opening units.

Naf Naf’s net income increased 64 percent last year and the group, which also owns the men’s brand Chevignon, plans to open 50 shops in France over the next two years.

The rapid turnaround comes as a surprise. Only two years ago, France’s leading chains were edging closer to obsolescence. Their stores had turned dusty, their advertising was a yawn and their twice-a-year collections lagged behind H&M and Zara, which brought in new merchandise every few weeks.

“We were in serious trouble,” said Naf Naf president and cofounder Gerard Pariente. “We had become very uncool. The situation became urgent: either do something now — get younger and cool — or sink.”

Before H&M and Zara blitzkrieged France in the late Nineties, most French chains moved to the rhythm of the runway seasons, bringing new collections into their stores every six months.

Suddenly Zara and H&M, with their sophisticated design and production chains, were bringing new hot trends into their stores on a four- to six-week cycle. By the time the same trends trickled into French chains, the trend had already run flat.

The question became how to deal with the pressure. Etam decided to open larger flagships and pump up the fashion quotient. The most recent example of this is the group’s partnership with the Hyeres young designer fashion contest. Its 1-2-3 chain will produce exclusive collections for three Hyeres designers for fall.
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