Maria, queen of shops
Fashion veteran Maria Luisa Poumaillou used to represent the personalised service of the small, Parisian luxury boutique. But never one to resist change, she says in today's rapidly evolving industry even niche operations like hers have to tap the mainstream in order to survive.
The founder of Maria Luisa boutiques, Poumaillou is visiting Hong Kong for the first time in four years. Here for the boutique's autumn-winter 2011-12 show at the Cat Street Gallery, she talks about the new rules of a globally connected industry, her role as fashion editor of Parisian department store giant Printemps, and laments fashion's new hegemony. She made her name with a multibrand boutique, launched in 1988 on Rue Cambon in Paris, getting into fashion 'by chance, having never worked a day before'. Her only boutique venture (a franchise owned by local company Sidefame) outside France is in Lee Gardens, Causeway Bay. After Poumaillou closed her Parisian flagship in mid 2010, this local outlet is the only Maria Luisa standalone boutique in the world - stocking a sophisticated yet edgy collection including Christopher Kane, Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester and Margiela - all handpicked by Poumaillou. Since opening in 2004, the store has seen a 30 per cent year-on-year increase in sales.
We're in an Italian restaurant in Lee Gardens for lunch - her slicked-back chestnut hair, bright bolt of coral lipstick and impeccable outfit (that includes enviable violet high-waisted, boot-cut pants), stand out against a sea of conservative tai tais and office workers in black.
Her name sits beside Joan Burstein aka Mrs. B of Browns in London, or Joyce Ma of Joyce Boutique for pioneering ventures into fashion. In the early 1990s, she helped introduce and support then little known designers such as Helmut Lang, Martine Sitbon and John Galliano. Her savvy eye earned a reputation for curating eclectic, fashion forward buys. Despite her mainstream fame, Poumaillou still finds inspiration in niche labels.
'Comme des Garcons is genius,' she says. 'Genius in design and genius in retail - they really did a revolution in this business. She [designer Rei Kawakubo] is definitely one of the unquestionable ones. It continues to be so interesting. When you're in fashion and everything is available to you, it remains one of the few brands that still surprises.'
'Carven is also really good,' adds Poumaillou, 'It is still a small house but with very strong fashion content with a very good price.'
'I respect designers who have an identity,' says the feisty Venezuelan. 'You need to be setting rather than following trends. Ask Nicholas Ghesquire about the latest trends and he wouldn't have a clue.'
Never a stickler for the seasonal fads that drive high sales, Poumaillou sees many new challenges in her trade as the industry becomes more developed. 'It's a new game now for a buyer, well at least for me,' she says, 'I try to buy something that Zara and H&M cannot copy. I can already see those Givenchy sweatshirts being copied everywhere.'
The past decade has seen big luxury labels offering items at contemporary prices to widen their customer base. Meanwhile, contemporary brands are behaving like big luxury houses. And never has the word 'luxury' been so overused. 'Between the big luxury labels and the contemporary ones, the line is blurring,' Poumaillou says.
These blurred lines, grey zones and new global reach have also seen a change in shopping habits. Gone are the days when just one boutique stocked a particular piece. 'Now that piece is absolutely everywhere,' says Poumaillou. 'Before, the American girl from New York would come to my Paris store to check out new Balenciaga we had. But now she probably has a Balenciaga on her block at home, if not two or three.'
The closure of her indie stores and move into the commercial and digital worlds unnerved her many fans. But, she says, it was a sign of the times. 'What would have really been out of fashion was to remain local and destination-based - it was great in the 1990s but totally stupid in Paris in 2011.'
She joined French fashion giant Printemps as fashion editor in 2009, bringing her boutique concept into their Paris Haussman flagship and continues to nurture young talents. The 1,615 sq ft Maria Luisa department sits in the middle of Printemps' high-end designer floor and is one of the floor's top performing departments. Luckily, she says: 'They didn't want me to change and be more commercial but to remain as edgy as ever.'
Always the modernist, Poumaillou raves about the development of a Maria Luisa webstore, operating under the umbrella of thecorner.com. Powered by Italian fashion e-commerce giant YOOX, it (thecorner.com) will be the first online international fashion boutique opening with a physical branch in China - a coveted title.'Net-a-porter.com can deliver to China,' she says. 'But the corner.com is really the first to operate from China with a licence. It will have a logistical centre there with a Chinese team and will be able to deliver to any city in China within 24 hours. Federico Marchetti who founded YOOX, said that of course the others will come, but the important thing is to be there first.'
Everybody wants a piece of China - also the world's largest online community. Which is why many big brands, who don't traditionally sell to online multi-brand stores, have agreed to the YOOX Chinese project 'because they would rather reach the China market now than wait for their own company to be ready in two years,' says Poumaillou.
This pioneering project - Chinese luxury online shopping - is a far cry from 1987, and her naive start in the industry with a small Parisian boutique. Despite trading off independence for greater ambitions in new countries with new mediums - it looks like Poumaillou is having a second coming.