The French dance specialist has ended three years of painful reorganization and reengineering by doubling its annual sales to more than €15 million over the period and with an increase in orders of more than 50 percent for this year. Thanks to savvy marketing, Repetto’s dance-inspired ballerinas for street and evening use, which use a special stitching technique, have become a hot cult item, especially among French teenage girls, and the demand is spreading internationally.
The company, which was previously focusing only on shoes and clothing for ballet dancers, was bought out in June 1999 by Jean-Marc Gaucher, a manager who had refined his marketing techniques by building up and running Reebok’s business in France. He acquired the loss-making Repetto together with 3i, the large British investment group, but ran into numerous problems due to the different culture of the company - more product-driven than market-driven, like that of many other traditional European shoe firms.
Besides the resulting tensions, Gaucher had to cope with a high debt load, but he began to make some investments to build up and rejuvenate the Repetto brand. From 2001 he began to work on collaborative projects with big-name fashion designers such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons. At the same time he made numerous changes to improve the cost base, including the sale of a sister brand, Crait, and the elimination of many jobs at its shoe factory in the Dordogne region of France, but these measures were insufficient to turn the company around rapidly.
Then 3i pulled the plug and got out of Repetto’s equity, as it did with its investments in two other French shoe companies, Paraboot and Hasley. Gaucher was forced to place Repetto in Chapter 11 bankruptcy and to lay off 27 more people in France and to close the UK factory of its British dancewear subsidiary, Gamba. In April 2003 a French court allowed Repetto to continue to operate normally while giving its management a long breathing period of eight years to fulfill its business plan.
Last month – five years ahead of schedule – Repetto came out of its bankruptcy proceedings, paying off all its long-term debt and with a solid new structure and a very positive new image, underscored by the reopening a week ago of its flagship store near the Opera in Paris with a modern and trendy new look. Backed by plenty of public relations work and by quite a bit of celebrity marketing, Repetto’s shoes are now photographed on the feet of numerous French actresses and singers such as Charlotte Gainsbourg, Diam’s or Vanessa Paradis, giving the brand a special aura of trendy sophistication, and the company’s newly found financial muscle will allow it to embark on its first full-fledged print advertising campaign in France this coming Fall.
Like before, Gaucher’s goal is to turn Repetto into a global dance-inspired brand with exclusive items that combine technology and fashion flair. Like those used on the dance floor, its street ballerinas are still made in France with a unique “stitch and turn” technique, adding special comfort features that are partly borrowed from the sports world. In a project conducted together with the University of Compiègne and cooperation with the Paris Opera, Repetto is now testing new technologies to minimize pain on the ballet dancer’s foot and noise on the theater scene.
Street and dress shoes have come to represent about 55 percent of Repetto’s annual turnover, dance shoes 22-23 percent and clothing the rest. In addition to its technical and fashion shoes, Repetto continues to sell tutus, but it is gradually developing a real ready-to-wear line, starting up with girl’s clothing being developed together with a children’s specialist, Marese. A line of jewelry and watches will follow next spring to further support the brand.
Four designers are now working on Repetto’s line of fashion footwear, which features six collections with 250 styles every year. Like at Zara, new models are constantly re-injected into its Paris flagship store, which is meant to be used as a model for an international store franchising program, starting with a free-standing boutique due to be set up by its Japanese agent in Tokyo in the Fall of 2007.
Repetto has close relations with a select network of key accounts such as Au Bon Marché, the high-class Paris department store of LVMH, or the Colette store in Paris, where it even sold a very exclusive model in python leather for last Christmas. Together with Free Lance, Kurt Geiger, Robert Clergerie and other important names, Repetto has its own corner in the huge new 3,000-square-meter shoe floor of the Printemps department store in Paris that opened a few days ago. It has six corners in Takashimaya stores in Japan, and it has a presence in other prestigious department stores such as Selfridges in London or Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus in New York.
The demand is so high, especially in France, that Repetto has decided to expand again the workforce at its French factory, hiring 27 more workers to handle the production of more than 250,000 pairs a year. The brand could be sold in 500 different stores in France, but Gaucher has decided to limit its domestic distribution to only 110 points of sales, asking the buyers to place their orders earlier. He is not accepting any more orders for Fall fashion products after March.
While most of Repetto’s strength remains confined to France, the foreign business has grown from 5 to more than 50 percent of its turnover, not counting sales under the Gamba brand in the UK and some other markets. Gaucher could easily make a blitz in certain foreign markets by working through certain distributors that would like to take on the brand, but he prefers to work directly or through agents for the moment to help control the growth. While Repetto has pulled out of the MIDEC show in Paris, where he would have to say no to many would-be clients, Repetto continues to exhibit at the MICAM fair in Milan.