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Classic Style at Human Scale
A Q&A with Officine Générale's Pierre Maheo.
Pitti Uomo is going on right now. David Coggins and I were chatting about it today for the next Central Division podcast. There's a lot of goofy street style stuff that happens at Pitti that sort of overshadows how great the fair can be. Finding interesting new brands are what make the trade show special to me. (Being in Florence isn’t so bad either.) Though in the 15 Pitti shows I have attended over the years I have probably left feeling really excited about a brand maybe just 2 or 3 times. One of the most memorable discoveries for me was when I first saw the French brand Officine Générale. I actually wrote about it on ACL. I immediately knew that the brand was going to be a big hit. Though I didn't think I expected it to be as big of a success story as it has been.
Officine Générale has everything I could want in a brand. It's independent, the clothes are cool, classic style is central to the design philosophy and the quality and make are considered. The final and most important thing: the founder is inspiring and a good person. Being "in the business" makes it so hard for me to support brands with bad culture of bad people. My rule is no a**holes, ever.
When I look at the brand Officine Générale I can't help but to appreciate how great it is. This is especially true considering how hard it is to build a successful clothing business. Either by design or accident, everything good came together at Officine Générale and the brand continues open new stores and grow. It's been cool to see and with the recent opening of the company’s new shop in New York at 220 Lafayette I wanted to chat with founder Pierre Maheo to talk about the brand he has built and the state of menswear. Our conversation is below. Hope you like it.
How would you describe Officine Générale?
I would describe in few essential words: down dressed tailoring, fully made in Europe, using only Italian, English and Japanese fabrics, a DNA that hasn’t change since day one, a design point of view based on changes in continuity, not obsessed by fashion, not marketing driven at all, product and quality first.
How have you been able to grow Officine Générale in both a time of wholesale upheaval and direct to consumer growth?
I quickly understood that the 3 business units in the company needed to be treated at the same speed. We had to grow wholesale, retail and our online at the time. Not over exposing wholesale was key, we have a limited distribution around 170 accounts in the world, working only with the best speciality stores, department stores and e-tailer. The balance is very healthy and our own retail and e-com as constantly grown season after season even during the pandemic.
How do you feel about the current state of menswear?
Everything is evolving quickly, marketing has certainly more importance than product for some. I regret craftsmanship has been replaced by hype for many brands. I still wear most of what I was wearing 20 years ago, and I don’t think my collections are dated. I do a runway show without thinking at trends, my focus is to install a change in continuity in order to keep my collections relevant.
This NYC store is your 8th shop. What took you so long?
Well, I don’t see it being so long! I started the company in 2013 alone, with my wife’s support. I was doing everything, collection, production, commercial and finance. I opened my first store in 2014, e-shop and then the second store in 2016, etc. We are fully integrated, which was my choice, we don’t have any third parties involved. I have my own warehouse, we fully control our e-shop, our logistic, our distribution…
This is how I wanted it to be, building the company with strong bases and building up when we would be ready. I know have a strong team around me and we are ready to accelerate. In an entrepreneurial venture you have to take human in consideration, my teams and their well-being is very important to me, Officine Générale is not a one man band…
We will increase our retail footprint with 3 to 4 new units for the next 3 years, without any distributors, fully owned and controlled.
Answer this honestly, is there any good French food in New York?
There is for sure some good French food in NY. Now even with same level of food it will always taste better in Paris on a nice terrace in Saint-Germain des Près or in Provence, you can’t disconnect food with experience…
I’ve read that your business has had some of its strongest sales months during the pandemic. Is that a function of casual clothes for home? Did the growth surprise you?
It was more than a surprise, on March 17th 2020, when all our stores closed, we quickly worked on a worst case scénario update of our business plan. It quickly appears that it was not needed. Our e-com exploded and compensates for our lost store revenues. We were able to minimize wholesale panic of cancellation, and as we have a very steady distribution, we faced very few store closure.
Believe me or not, one of the strongest category was still tailoring. The fact that we don’t sell a suit, but a pant and jacket was key. We saw or pant business increasing a lot for men and it was the opposite for women, more jacket than pants.
At the end of the day, we sold all categories on same usual basis. Certainly because of down dressed tailoring look, this how I dressed for decades now, a pair of tailored pants with a tee a sweat and denim jacket…
Do you think more people in the world care about how or where things are made? How will this inform the future for Officine Générale?
I have to say value I defend since my beginning in 2013 were pretty on point at that time, still are and will be for a certain audience, of course.
I value short lead time, as less as possible fabrics and product transportation and a fair make in a workshop or factory at human size where management cares for their employees.
I have only worked since 2013 with factories and atelier in Portugal and Italy, using Italian, English and specific Japanese fabrics for what I can’t find in Europe. A very down to earth logic, if you use an Italian merino wool yarn, sweater has to be produced in Italy, a Scottish yarn for Shetland has to produce in Scotland…
This is my recipe and it will never change.
What are you excited about?
Ability of human being to make necessary changes to make our future better, certainly one of our biggest challenge that we all need to embodies if we want to leave in a decent world! And going skiing with my family next week to Méribel in the French alps now that it snows a lot!