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Journal du textile, interview

agnès b. keeps the spirit of independence alive. The accessible luxury brand has reached the heights of success while remaining true to the 100% family-run roots it first established in 1976. She opened her very first store on rue du Jour in 1976. Way ahead of Sandro, Maje and The Kooples, she laid [...] +

agnès b. keeps the spirit of independence alive. The accessible luxury brand has reached the heights of success while remaining true to the 100% family-run roots it first established in 1976. She opened her very first  store on rue du Jour in 1976. Way ahead of Sandro, Maje and The Kooples, she laid the groundwork for the much sought-after ‘accessible luxury’ market, adding a grungy geek-chic hipster feel and stripping away the bling. Almost forty years later, with the lizard (one of the brand’s symbols) noticeably absent, her timeless fashion is internationally-known, with 135 stand-alone stores dotted around the world, and an extra 23 in France alone. The brand also boasts 165 dedicated corners across the globe. 

The name of the parent company, Comptoir mondial de création, has long been a reality. The agnès b. brand generated 303 million euros in consolidated turnover in 2012, a fact that has no bearing on its independence, as the company remains 100% family-owned - something of a rarity in the fashion industry today. The famous press stud cardigans are emblematic of the brand, encapsulating a philosophy and lifestyle and continuing to fly off the shelves with zero investment funds and in every colour, style and fabric imaginable, whether belted, in leather, mercurochrome or embellished with a high neck. Yet this experimenting with the concept of the cardigan does not overshadow the rest: the brand’s menswear pieces have become wardrobe staples for many, and its kids’ fashion is highly praised for its resilient, comfortable, practical and fun aspects. Agnès b. is soon to reopen a new, revamped kids’ area at rue du Jour. There’s also an accessories line that’s sold directly to the customer, the latest of which featured recycled gold pieces (with manufacturer Little Pépite). Collaborations are a permanent fixture. A line in partnership with Dr Martens is on the books, and a current collaboration is underway with newcomer Le Slip français, a company that makes underwear embellished with names of French submarines (L'Insubmersible), working in good humour and wit to uphold the Made in France sector.

The topic lies close to the designer’s heart. She didn’t wait around to be named a member of Marque France, a government-commissioned think tank, before investing in French manufacturing. Every year, 40 to 50% of agnès b. production is carried out in France – substantial figures in today’s context, but as she notes herself, nothing compared to the 80s: “It’s difficult sometimes to find suppliers. Many have shut down, especially in Brittany. This means that every year I’m forced to find new subcontractors for both clothing and accessories. I even managed to get denim back to France, yet there are hardly any jeans manufacturers left. When a factory closes, a whole pool of work opportunity evaporates, a whole area is subjected to unemployment. I recently visited the French heartlands. I passed through deserted villages, it was shocking. It’s so important to continue to keep the textile industry alive, to stop it from dying out, to prevent the skills and expertise being lost and to ensure these villages don’t become ghost towns.”

A virtuous circle

Since 2010, the ‘Made in France’ label on certain items indicates items that have followed this ethos. “In some countries, one minute of labour is seventy times less expensive than in France,” says agnès b, “yet by coming back here for manufacturing, companies will contribute to increasing volume and thus lower prices.”  

The virtuous circle still seems some way off. How does she manage in the face of the competition who don’t hesitate to go further afield on a larger scale? “We make nowhere near as much as what we could,” she states matter-of-factly. “That’s not what interests me. I do everything instinctively, and care deeply about my company. Respect for the manufacturing process and suppliers ensures timeless fashion that isn’t just a fly-by-night trend.”

This woman, counted among France’s wealthiest professionals, dislikes profit for profit’s sake. “Maybe I’m an idealist,” the canny company director shrugs almost apologetically.

As a “left-winger” who considers it “normal to pay tax”, agnès b. remains attached to some post-1968 values. She still smokes and in her rue Quincampoix gallery she puts on exhibitions around the themes of rock ‘n’ roll, contemporary art (her latest is entitled ‘Thoroughly modern young people’ and explores the rock and post-punk scene from the late 70s to the mid-80s). She believes that ruthless competitiveness generates unemployment before anything else.   

From India to Peru

Yet she still manufactures abroad, mainly in Europe, but occasionally further afield, depending on what she needs and on her suppliers’ textile specialities. “There is no reason why I should limit myself to French know-how. There are rare and exotic skills in all countries, and employment is a priority for them all too,” she states. Agnès b. manufactures scarves in India, raffia bags, hats and handmade embroidery in Madagascar, cashmere in Nepal, and some of her knits in China, the Mauritius, Slovakia and Italy, as well as alpaca caps in Peru. She has some items, such as swimwear, leather bags, ballerina flats or heavy-weight sportswear pieces that are “expensive to make” in Morocco, Tunisia and Eastern Europe. The French touch that agnès b. embodies is a huge hit on the Asian market. With zero advertising (“I’ve never done any, I’ve never needed to,” she claims), the brand generated most of its turnover on the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, not forgetting Japan, which the brand considers separately from the rest of Asia (with around fifty sales points in collaboration with partner Isetan and a stand-along store in Tokyo). Asia is the location for all of its store updates.  

The brand’s best poster girl is undoubtedly the woman herself, which is why Hong Kong is home to 24 agnès b. Délices luxury chocolate boutiques that bear the ‘Made in France’ label and remain unknown to those of us in Europe. There’s also a Michelin-starred restaurant, La Loggia, as well as a generous handful of Agnès b Fleuristes, inspired by her enthusiasm for flowers. The biggest news of all is that she has just opened a 1,200m2 luxury liner showcasing all the agnès b. lifestyle concepts. The craft is called Rue de Marseille in a nod to her flagship in Paris, and is a name that “the people of Hong Kong absolutely love”, she smiles.   

Going feature-length

In 2014 in China, agnès b. will be opening a large flagship store in Chengdu, in the province of Sichuan. In France, as well as the reopening of her renovated Toulouse boutique (La Boutique rose), news to come out of agnès b. is mainly news pertaining to Agnès Troublé, to use her maiden name. In the spring, her first full-length film is to be released. Shown at the 2013 New York Film Festival, ‘Je m'appelle  Hmmm...’ is the story of a little girl who runs away from home – a tale she penned a decade ago, and a result she’s proud of.

Agnès b. and the multiple collections she designs herself (1,300 ready-to-wear pieces every season, excluding the Voyage line and the 300 accessory pieces) are not enough for Agnès Troublé. “I was lucky enough to be born a fast worker,” she explains. Meaning she has time to tend to her three art galleries at her own convenience (these establishments have nothing to do with the stores, and focus on photography, the rock scene and contemporary art, located in Paris, New York and Hong Kong). It also means she has time to spend on her environmental project via Tara, a boat she purchased to carry out scientific expeditions. Hyperactive? Maybe. But most of all curious about the world around her and the people who inhabit it. The secret to her eternal youth, perhaps. 


Photo credits/comments:

Agnès Troublé, aka agnès b.
“If fashion companies returned to manufacturing in France, they would contribute to increasing volume and therefore lower prices.”

The agnès b. look.
The designer continues to design the brand’s multiple collections herself to ensure the inimitable French touch that remains so popular with foreign clients.

The "historic" agnès b. boutique on rue du Jour, in Paris.
The first store to be opened by the brand in 1976, the site is still used as an example for the numerous agnès b. boutiques that continue to open around the world.

The agnès b. store on rue de Marseille in Paris (below) was the inspiration for the brand christening its new huge concept store in Hong Kong ‘Rue de Marseille’ (above). -