Sandro Homme's Ilan Chetrite on designing clothes that men will want to wear, "even if they don’t know it yet"
For more than 10 years, Sandro Homme has been synonymous with men's fashion within SMCP. But now the French fashion group, listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, is about to break this monopoly, having recently entered into exclusive negotiations to buy French menswear label De Fursac. De Fursac will complete the accessible luxury portfolio of SMCP, a group currently worth a revenue of €1.017 billion.
Will De Fursac cast a shadow over Sandro Homme? According to Ilan Chetrite, the man who launched Sandro Homme and is in charge of its collections, that isn't the case. “De Fursac’s [clothes] have a timeless feel. As a label, it’s completely independent of trends, whereas Sandro follows them,” said Chetrite, when the negotiations for De Fursac’s acquisition were made public. Inevitably, Chetrite, passionate about fashion and the son of Sandro’s founder, was one of the first within SMCP to get involved in the project, and to glimpse the potential stemming from the two labels’ association. Daniel Lalonde, the boss of SMCP, also thinks the project has a rosy future.
“The two labels are truly complementary. There is slight overlap, but it’s minimal. De Fursac is rooted in men's tailoring, while Sandro has more of an urban background. They don’t have the same customers,” he said.
A view that was confirmed by the metrics produced by Retviews, which analysed for FashionNetwork.com the product range available on the two labels’ e-tail sites. While the shirt range has a similar price positioning (€152 on average for Sandro and €141 for De Fursac), De Fursac’s style is more formal, while Sandro’s is more casual. Suits are a key category for De Fursac, accounting for 14% of the products on offer. The range analysis was also illuminating in terms of tops. At De Fursac, sweaters and shirts account for nearly two thirds of the range, while they account for only just over half of it at Sandro. Given their different styles and segmentation, the two labels don’t seem to have the same customer profile.
Working in Sandro’s extensive, elegant Parisian offices, Chetrite, who is in his thirties, is very confident about the future. The arrival of a menswear label within the group, the changes in the latter’s shareholding and the hiring of a new general manager for Sandro have not ruffled his composure.
“We have our sights set on the objectives we fixed a while ago, and we aren’t changing the way we work,” said Chetrite. “What must be taken into account is that we are a well-developed brand. But I never felt there was pressure on our creativity and on the collection's strategic development. The brand is firmly rooted within us. I like to think that I design our collections for men who stroll down rue des Francs-Bourgeois [in Paris’s Marais district] and stop to look at the shop window, as they did ten years ago."
At the time, Chetrite designed a dozen men's items, showcased in the Sandro store in the Marais district in Paris. Sandro had been created by Chetrite's mother in 1984, and was then in full bloom as a women’s label. The men’s looks introduced by Chetrite were a blend of formal and sportswear, and were immediately well received, the menswear line growing very quickly indeed. Sandro Homme, driven by the SMCP group's growth, now accounts for about 20% of Sandro’s total sales, and is worth about €100 million. A new entry on the French menswear market, the label gradually assumed a leadership position within it, and is notably well-placed in department stores.
But this position is being challenged by new labels, gaining market share in a segment on which Sandro was one of the first to invest, as Chetrite explained.
“The men’s mid-to-high-end designer segment was virtually non-existent 12 years ago. We did a good job of breaking into it. We were attracted to it because, while it was three times smaller than the corresponding women’s segment, it was also growing three times faster. It's understandable that we have followers. Yet, I think Sandro has more of a designer positioning. We try to entertain, season after season. I don’t think you can dwell too long on a blue sports shirt. There comes a time when, if everyone’s wardrobe style is Parisian Bobo, it’s just too limiting. I love Parisian Bobo style, but I also think that we can create new demand, and design clothes that men will want to wear, even if they don’t know it yet. I don’t want Sandro to get bogged down, if you pardon the expression.”
Chetrite emphasised that the rules of the game are clear. Sandro Homme follows the trends, for example boosting its sweatshirt range last season to meet demand for casual clothes, while making sure that the product mix in-store corresponds to the label’s Parisian chic image. Each season however, Chetrite allows himself a few digressions, looking for materials that inject fresh energy into some of the items. According to him, it is this eclecticism in terms of products and creativity that makes a difference. Last year, Sandro did very well with the colourful, striped Positano shirt, a hit with fashion magazines and with customers alike.
“It worked really well,” he said. “If you look around on the streets, after all, what [clothes] do men mostly seem to buy? A navy-blue suit, a navy-blue jumper, black trousers and sneakers. But there's more to it. There are people in search of an identity, people who yearn to express themselves. I come from a family which emigrated from North Africa. My grandparents didn’t speak French very well, and for them clothes were a way of expressing themselves. A way of talking to others without needing to open their mouths. Something I think has stayed with us, in our family company. And the [Positano] shirt, in the midst of a row of navy-blue suits, it really has an impact. It’s a ray of sunshine.”
An approach that is reflected in the Mediterranean theme adopted by Sandro for the Spring/Summer 2020 men’s collection, in which colourful shirts with quirky flowery prints, polos with a slightly retro feel and a bomber jacket add spice to a selection of essentials and suits. Chetrite said that he is constantly interacting with his 25-strong design team on the collections’ creation, development and production follow-up. Sandro Homme's collections have been strengthened in terms of accessories and footwear, two categories in which the label still has ample room to grow. Chetrite, who “loves being proved wrong by a valid argument,” said he needs sparring partners within the merchandising team too, and is keen on analysing customer feed-back.
“We take it into account when we design our collections. It’s so important that the clothes are well liked. And not simply that they sell well, because if we looked at them from a business perspective alone, we’d end up lacking charm. So it's important that the clothes are appreciated, and that they please. Otherwise, we need to think again,” said Chetrite.
Chetrite also mentioned that he is looking at developments in AI tools to track consumer expectations, though for the time being he is wary of their application in the field of fashion design.
“I believe that nothing will replace that moment of insight, that little personal touch that makes something attractive. I may be wrong, but I think that in a world in which often people live their lives behind an avatar, there is a yearning to be a little more grounded in reality. This is why people are inclined to feel hugely sympathetic towards designers who fully embody their labels,” said Chetrite.
While the French market is very tough, and Sandro must strike a careful balance with its positioning on the threshold of luxury, the formula seems to be working, and the label is expanding internationally. Sandro Homme currently operates 116 monobrand stores and retail corners worldwide, and is also available at some of Sandro’s womenswear stores around the world. Sandro Homme’s growing influence was boosted by three catwalk shows in the mid-2000s, enabling it to increase its visibility. Chetrite has mixed feelings about shows and, while saying that “they shouldn’t necessarily be an imposition,” he didn’t rule out a catwalk return one day.
The label has now assumed an international dimension, and is poised to expand outside France. Since the SMCP group's majority shareholder is Chinese conglomerate Shandong Ruyi, Asia is of course the main target, notably through the distribution deal inked this year with Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com. The group also wants to grow in the USA. A 215-square-metre Sandro men's and women's store, focusing on the label's fashion savvy, will open on Prince Street in New York next August. Another statement with a global resonance.
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