Bonpoint CEO Marie-Sabine Leclercq on How a Small Luxury Brand Makes It in China

When Bonpoint CEO Marie-Sabine Leclercq visits China on behalf of the company—there are 16 of the French luxury childrenswear shops on the mainland—she notices one key difference in the women there compared with women in Europe.

“Every one of the employees wants to ask me a question,” she said. “Sometimes, it’s very personal questions. Some ask what I think about education, because they are very interested in their children’s education.”

Leclercq, who has over 25 years of experience in international luxury (including stints at Louis Vuitton, Lanvin, and Lancôme), attributes this inquisitiveness to the fact that women in China are very educated and modern, and, unlike many of their more traditional Western counterparts, most of them work. For these women, and Chinese parents in general, the quality and style of their children’s clothing is very important.

Quality and style is one thing Bonpoint, which was launched over 40 years ago in Paris, knows well. It’s a unique brand in the universe of children’s clothing in that it functions like a couture house, with a 25-person-strong atelier in Paris and fashion shows during Paris’s Haute Couture Fashion Week.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

Coming to the Bonpoint store is a unique experience, according to Lecercq, one that is entirely designed for children. Here, inside a mansion on the Rue de Tournon, there is a 1,000-square-foot Bonpoint shop overlooking a formal garden. Each of its eight rooms is imaginatively decorated in a different fairytale theme. Photo: Bonpoint Rue de Tournon store.

In 2006, when it was bought by Societe Europeenne de Participations Industrielles (EPI), (the family-owned luxury goods holding company run by Christopher Descours, which also owns other high-end brands including J.M. Weston, Michel Perry shoes, and the French champagne house Piper-Heidsieck), it amped up its global expansion, bringing its floral-print babydoll dresses and butter-soft cashmere cardigans to consumers in Europe, the U.S., and Asia. It opened its first store in China that year, in Shanghai. Today, it has over 120 stores in 27 countries.

We sat down with Leclercq at the company’s headquarters in New York, where delectable samples of the next season’s designs for the world’s chicest girls and boys were organized into themes like “Tess” and “Vauvenargues.” Leclercq shared with us her insights on the market and consumer habits in China, and divulged details on the challenges of operating in a country where stores can be 3000 kilometers apart.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

What makes Bonpoint different from other luxury brands that have childrens’ lines is that Bonpoint uses fit-models and mannequins for creating their samples to ensure the fit is just right, even for babies as young as six months old. Photo: Bonpoint 2017 Fall/Winter collection

Jing Daily: When did Bonpoint first take an interest in the market in China?
Marie-Sabine Leclercq: I think that what is key is that when Bonpoint was bought by [EPI], we immediately opened in Japan and China and in the United States. We are absolutely a French heritage company, but we are extending the business everywhere in the world by giving attention to new markets but also keeping the traditional domestic markets, because we don’t want to be too dependent on tourists. Tourists are key. It’s key for us to think “Chinese globally” and not only “Chinese domestic markets.” But we need the domestic market (the Chinese who are buying in China), because they are looking for a real experience when they will discover the Bonpoint stores.

What is unique about Bonpoint to the Chinese market?
We are kind of an “imagination brand.” That means that you give a full experience through the brand, through the products, and through the store, anywhere, whether in Paris, in the UK, in Shanghai, or in Tokyo, you are discovering a real Bonpoint experience. Everything is aimed at making people happy.

Is there anything particular that Chinese shoppers like about the brand? What are they looking for when they come to Bonpoint?
In the last five months, I’ve been to Asia three times. I visited stores in China to have discussions with the sales teams there. After that, I ask to meet with some opinion leaders, journalists, celebrities to get their comments about how we are perceived. What I could say from my last trip to China is that Bonpoint is a unique reference. To them, it means this French heritage, quality, excellence and style. The style is very important, because the Chinese are really modern. China has a lot of smart women who work. You don’t have women at home—traditional families—as it could be the case in other European countries.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

“What it means is the excellence, the research for the quality, and security,” says Leclercq. “I mean the fabrics, the buttons, the details. We are really the reference for Chinese women.” Photo: A tailor is sawing clothes at Bonpoint’s Paris contour studio.

If there’s only one or two kids maximum for every family, as in China, where the one-child policy was only recently phased out after 40 years, how does that impact the growth of the market?
It’s not the number. In terms of income, we’re growing in some markets where they don’t have a high birth rate, which is a kind of paradox. That means that, for example, the budget to be invested doesn’t mean a lot. What it means is the excellence, the research for the quality, and security. I mean the fabrics, the buttons, the details. We are really the reference for Chinese women. For some who are not so rich, for the first items they buy, they will go to Bonpoint. We are high luxury, but we have different products at various prices. It could be socks. It could be accessories, the perfume, but also an haute couture dress.

What are the best-selling items in China?
The dress. Not only couture. Just the dress, because we are famous for our prints. Our creative director paints each print each season. It’s not something we buy from other suppliers. And in China, they love that. As a second, I would say the baby clothes—the beautiful cashmere, delicate cottons; especially as baby gifts. Many people come to look for gifts.

Does the volatile and unpredictable Chinese market pose any challenges?
So the Chinese market is a fantastic market for us, because everything is ahead of us. But it’s always challenging to develop an occidental business in China because first, it’s very expensive to get the space. Especially as a family business, we compete in terms of location. I’m not talking about LVMH, Kering, Richemont—they can afford what they want. We cannot open 10 stores per year. But when we open, it’s immediately successful. We have 16 locations in China. The challenge is the distance between key cities. In Shenzhen and Shenyang, we are 3000 kilometers apart. We are a little team. When you are a growing, but little, company, it’s a challenge.

Do you advertise in China? How is the marketing different? Do you use key opinion leaders?
We don’t advertise at all. The brand is based on word of mouth, which means quality and excellence is important. We have public relations around the world and also digital. We will renew the e-commerce platform next year. We are also investing in social media, to grow brand awareness. We have a lot of endorsements that we don’t pay for through opinion leaders, because they love the brand. We invite them to the show. Don’t forget, we have the haute couture show, twice a year. And this show is incredible. And because of this show, we are everywhere on social media. And a lot of celebrities want their kids to walk in the show.

Freshboy and his son. Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

While Bonpoint does not advertise, it relies on word-of-mouth promotion and endorsements by key opinion leaders (KOLs), some of whose kids walk in the shows during Paris’s Haute Couture Fashion Week. Here is KOL Freshboy and his oldest son attending Bonpoint 2018 Spring/Summer Show held in July this year. Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

How do you balance discretion with the need to be on Chinese social media. How does your WeChat marketing work?
We count on the opinion leaders to post about us on their WeChat accounts. It’s not a paid relationship, but we are sought after on WeChat. That’s why I’m very proud of this company. This company is growing so fast. We have double-digit growth, globally, and especially in China. And we still have a double-digit growth in Europe, in the mature markets. That means that when the product is there, in the luxury sector, it grows. When you have some brands collapsing it’s because the quality was not there.

One of the biggest challenges for brands working in China is counterfeit products. Does Bonpoint have those challenges? And if so, how does it deal with them?
We take the counterfeit issue very seriously. Our parent company, EPI, has a legal department with one person dedicated to working with Bonpoint counterfeits, internally. So, we are following that. But we haven’t had many counterfeit problems, because we are too difficult to copy. We have more counterfeit issues in perfume and cosmetics, because there’s incredible growth there. On the other side, I will say that to be copied is a good reference. Especially when you are not very famous, which is our case.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

“We are really the reference for Chinese women,” says Leclercq. “For the first items they buy, they will go to Bonpoint. We are high luxury, but we have different products at various prices. It could be socks. It could be accessories, the perfume, but also an haute couture dress.” Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

Why are the fragrance and cosmetics products doing so well in China?
There’s a sociological concept emerging everywhere in the world: What is good for my kids, is good for me. At the end, this is how we are perceived by customers buying our skincare. The face cream is the number one in terms of sales in the cosmetics segment, and after that, the body cream. China is our number one market for skincare, because Chinese women are difficult consumers, and skincare is a real ritual for them. They give a lot of attention to replenishment, and hydration of the skin. Our fragrance, L’Eau de Bonpoint, is very light and modern, and Chinese women don’t like very sugary fragrances.

What are the fastest growing segments for the company in China?
In China, the fastest growing is ready-to-wear for babies and girls, and then perfume and skincare. Our newest store in Shanghai, which opened two days ago, only sells perfume and skincare.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

Bonpoint’s perfume and cosmetic conceptual store opened on September 2017 in Taikoo Hui, Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

Does Bonpoint sell on Chinese e-commerce platforms like Tmall or JD?
We are looking into selling only cosmetics and perfume on Tmall, because it makes sense. We don’t want to be on the others. The other ones have a very mass-market position, and also have counterfeit problems. I visited Alibaba when I was in China a few months ago to meet with the people and to understand their proposal. Finally, we are ready to go, and it might happen soon.

Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

Bonpoint plans to only sell cosmetic and perfume on Tmall. Photo: Courtesy Bonpoint

You don’t want to sell clothes on the platform?
For now, I don’t want to put clothes there, not at all, because we are unique, and this uniqueness has to be conveyed with the full experience. This experience cannot be translated through Tmall. Because there’s something full of emotion when you visit our clothing stores. And our own website is like our stores—customers can have the same experience on our website. We want to own our digital experience.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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