BoF VOICES 2017: The founders of Colette and STORY discuss concept stores
Dec 18, 2017

1997- 2017. When Parisian boutique Colette announced its closure in July 2017, the fashion industry went into mourning. Since opening 20 years ago, Colette has paved the way for a new breed of retail - defining the ‘concept store’and championing such novelties as the high-low product mix in a space that fuses fashion with other desired consumables.

As a younger incarnation of Colette, the New York-based retail destination STORY has taken these ideas further, evolving the in-store experience, specifically for a millennial audience, and presenting itself as a “physical magazine”that explores a new theme every few months. At the Business of Fashion’s VOICES event in December 2017, Colette founder Sarah Andelman and STORY founder Rachel Shechtman came together to discuss their take on the experience economy, the high-low product mix and what’s next Andelman and Colette. Emma Elwick-Bates, the Fashion News Editor of Vogue US, invited as a guest of QICGRE the principal partner of the conference, reports. 

Sarah Andelman and Rachel Shectman at BoF VOICES
Sarah Andelman and Rachel Shectman at BoF VOICES

An absolute must-visit fashion destination, Colette occupied a legendary space on the corner of rue Saint Honoré and rue du 29 Juillet in the beating heart of Paris. It defined the idea of the concept store by displaying a cool and ever-changing selection of designer clothes, high-tech gadgets, art books and sneakers, as well as till-point candies and stationary, often with a humorous twist. Set over three stories and a sprawling 8,000 square feet, there was even a water bar in the basement serving over fifty brands of bottled water from all over the world.

Yes, Colette had cool in numbers – during its tenure there were 8,600 brands for sale, 37 compilation CDs, 92 podcasts, and approximately 300 art exhibitions. Colette also displayed over 2,080 outstanding shop windows, creating an undeniable sense of arrival for any young fashion designer, who always remembered their first hallowed ‘take-over’ or ‘pop-up,’ both of which are now standard retail vernacular. London Fashion Week darling Simone Rocha recalls hers: “I was only a couple of collections in and I had the Paris Fashion Week window,” says the baroque romanticist designer, before laughing at the memory of people thinking she was a tourist snapping herself with her parents [her father is designer John Rocha] outside. Jonathan Anderson, creative director of J.W. Anderson, and Kering-owned Spanish leather brand Loewe, recalls Colette not only being an adventurous, early buyer of his own brand, but feels it differentiated itself for him by hosting an exhibition of an art project that he put together with the acclaimed Kids film director Larry Clark.

Granted Colette had an online presence, but for the most part, it was a physical destination. Upon hearing about its forthcoming closure, New York-based Rachel Shechtman made an emotionally driven pilgrimage to Paris for one last browse. “The 5-year old in me asked, “but why?” When I think about Colette - surprising, thought-provoking, entertaining – it’s all the adjectives you’d use to describe a friend. It’s like when you’ve met someone at a cocktail party and fallen for them - Colette evokes that sort of emotion.” For many, Colette has been the forerunner for a very revolutionary type of store concept: ephemeral retail.

“I think a shop should be a weekly magazine, with the windows as the cover, changing and creating a story. Quality and meaning have to be central,” says Andelman (daughter of namesake founder Colette Rousseaux).  “We have to have the best product and explore how to constantly make it better. Actually, social media was fantastic for us and for the shop itself. There was really a ‘before and after’ with Instagram. I don’t think people realised before Instagram that we receive new products every single day. It’s helped us to communicate the activity in the store, the events and all the different things we do.” 

"I think a shop should be a weekly magazine, with the windows as the cover, changing and creating a story. Quality and meaning have to be central."

Both Colette and STORY saw and see themselves as physically manifested magazines, with a unique point of view and voice, making changes like a gallery, yet selling like a store. However, while Colette was always a reflection of Andelman and her mother’s personal tastes, making it more of a niche pleasure project, STORY caters to the mass market with a more inclusive mood. Erudite, fashion-savvy shoppers on a mission would flock to Colette, but STORY aims to cater to a myriad of ages and demographics with its four, to eight weeks cycles of “stories” or reinventions, from the design to the merchandise, celebrating the concept of product as content. The goal is to bring to light a new theme, trend or issue, and so far STORY has had 38 of them – each complete with a redesign, new product and marketing strategy. The store brings the variety and refreshing buzz that Colette first harnessed, and takes it to a new level. “If time is the ultimate luxury and people want a higher return on investment of their time, you need to give them a reason to be in a physical space,” said Shechtman on stage at BoF VOICES, “and the merchandise needs to connect to the narrative. One of the things I’m most passionate about is taking two things that you never imagined together and the second they are together, you can never imagine them apart.”

 The company’s partnership with health insurance provider Cigna last year, for example, resulted in a store where you could buy a heart monitor, Outdoor Voices workout clothes, healthy snacks, do a Pilates class, join a panel on the future of healthcare, or try out the Virtual Reality meditation. The store’s beauty story included make-up wisdom from 96-year old fashion muse Iris Apfel and a Q&A with Nicky Kinnaird, the visionary founder of Space NK. Coming from four generations of retail, Shechtman’s own media business model generates two revenue streams – one through sponsors (such as American Express) but also sales from merchandise in their Chelsea-based store. Sponsorships, Shechtman states, can cost anywhere from $75,000 to $300,000, “We call it experience per square foot.” Creating a community through experience is working – over the past two years’ STORY’s net income has doubled annually according to Shechtman.

 Colette and STORY both stand apart from other retailers who may be grappling with the changing needs of customers in the age of e-commerce. “Nowadays, having a multi-brand shop is very challenging. You have to fight to get good product, but also to explore [new designers] and not limit yourself,” advises Andelman. “We didn’t plan to do the collaborations,” she says, recalling the organic way Colette evolved by working with mass and luxury power houses like Coca-Cola, Apple, Ladurée, Cartier, Chanel and Hermès. “For sure, Chanel was really a dream, but we wanted to offer things you couldn’t get elsewhere. We only thought of the customer, finding them new things, and exclusivity was the way to do this.”

 You could say Colette, and indeed STORY, both pioneer inclusivity via exclusivity – but not elitism. “On the ground floor we always had the streetwear which became bigger and bigger,” explains Andelman. “Back in the day when we went to see New Balance, they were surprised because we wanted to carry their sneakers and at that time the only shops to carry New Balance were sports shops. It was the same with many other brands. You can tell the way I dress myself, I always wear sneakers with designer pieces.” The longevity of Colette simply came from change, “We didn’t assume that because a brand works well or if it sells well that we’ll continue it forever. We like to not rest or sleep on success. We would always try to know what’s coming next.”

"We call it experience per square foot." Creating a community through experience is working – over the past two years' STORY's net income has doubled annually.""

Shechtman raises a poignant question - why did Andelman not sell or franchise Colette? "We wanted a happy end after 20 years. Everything has changed so much we thought we could either radically change everything, or turn the page and write an entirely new chapter," Andelman responds. Her vision and forward-thinking cool factor will not end with Colette though, having just announced her new venture Just an Idea - a brand and artist-facing consultancy platform. The name is cryptic, but with a characteristic Parisienne shrug, Andelman sighed, "It's just what I think –that's what it will be. Ideas should be free. I think the Internet is part of the future and the new generation will make us look differently at lots of things we thought were clear. I think lots of things will change in the future, but we will try to follow.

"It seemed fitting that the final collaboration for Colette before its closure on December 20th was with STORY, making it the first – and last – retailer to stock Colette merchandise (t-shirts, home fragrance and the coveted Colette "mystery grab bags") outside of Colette. "I am always on the hunt. I am fascinated with the brands and designers that continue to move forward as it's not easy," concludes Andelman. "But I will do it from behind the scenes now – not the shop front."

Colette and now STORY provide the antidote to the traditional store experience. Whilst some anticipate the delivery of shopping via drones, many people still love the emotional and social connection of entering the store, which these two progressive retail outlets have serviced stylishly and with acute timing. By curating their premise either weekly or bi-monthly, they have not only kept up with the zeitgeist, they have defined it.

While STORY acts as a modern Colette, aiming at a broader, even mass customer of any age, Colette's nuanced very "fashion" customer was more focused. If Colette was the insider's open secret, STORY pushes the idea of inclusivity with both a local and online community (all in-store talks are live on Facebook).

There is huge value for brands in having a place where they can experiment, to have a laboratory that generates a profit, but one where people can also engage with new and exciting experiences that build community. As Andelman and Shechtman's discussion concludes, it seems clearer than ever that the spirit of collaboration and community is alive and well in retail, poised to take the industry forward into the future.