French disconnection for Rue du Mail

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 September, 2013, 12:59pm

As I prepare for an interview this week with Christian Dior chief executive Sydney Toledano, there is another pressing matter on my mind. Jimmy Chan, owner and founder of French fashion label Rue du Mail, has announced he's taking the company into a one-year sabbatical. However, it is not the end of the brand.

Creatively helmed by designer Martine Sitbon, the young label has won fans and critical acclaim for its quirky and complex designs, but has struggled with mainstream commercial success since the financial crisis of 2008.

Chan is sad about the move, which means it won't make an appearance at Paris Fashion Week later this month.

"It was a tough decision but Martine and I agree it's the bravest and smartest thing to do. Every season since inception until 2008 was profitable," says Chan. "By our third season, we were making decent profits."

But since the financial crisis the company has consistently been in the red. "From then on, we were trying to fix something that was fundamentally broken … since the crisis we've seen many labels go bankrupt, and we wanted to take that out of the equation for our brand."

"Something drastic" was required so the company would not incur more debt.

"This is to buy ourselves a second chance," Chan says.

By carefully cutting costs since 2009, he has erased 75 per cent of the company's debt. Being close to debt free, is a good feeling, he says. And now the company is open to new ideas, new business plans and even new partnerships and investments.

As a big fan of the label, I'm sad about it going into dormancy but, hopefully, the future has bigger things in store.

Sitbon's delicate balance of sex appeal with the unexpected is a rare gem in fashion.

I remember a dinner after the label's show in Paris last season. Sitbon, her famous image-maker husband Marc Ascoli, Chan and their entire team were there. The post-show buzz was positive and the company seemed to operate much like a family. Even interviewing Sitbon in this setting, her creative integrity came through.

The sabbatical will give the team "breathing space" to fix the business strategy, but Chan is adamant they won't be looking for a new designer. Sitbon has been his partner from the beginning, and will continue to be. His respect for her creative ideals is partly what makes the partnership so close.

"The creative part and Martine's vision are the only thing that don't need to be changed," says Chan.

"All the decisions are made alongside her and the thing we never want to do is to dumb down the creative just to make it more commercial."