2017 has been a record year for store closures. So when colette, the cult French concept store and retail icon, announced it would be closing its doors for good after 20 successful years, many found themselves asking: Was the holy grail for labels both old and new yet another victim of today's retailpocalypse?
The closing of one of the world's most beloved stores — and a profitable one, at that — can leave people scrambling to understand 'what went wrong'. But the reason colette decided to call it quits is the exact reason other brick and mortar stores are losing their edge — it's not 'what went wrong' that forced the shop to close, but 'what could go wrong' if put in the wrong hands.
In a continuously changing retail landscape, colette was able to maintain its relevance, a direct result of founder Colette Roussaux and her daughter Sarah Andelman's hands-on approach. The statement detailing the decision to cease business read: “As all good things must come to an end, after 20 wonderful years, colette should be closing its doors on December 20th of this year. Colette Roussaux has reached the time when she would like to take her time; and colette cannot exist without Colette.”
It’s a hard pill for our modern sensibility to swallow, particularly when other retailers are looking to colette's commercial model — rotating, limited-edition collaborations, a carefully curated product selection with varying price points, visually enticing merchandise that's easy to browse — as the measure of success. Having something from colette — a store that existed solely on Rue Saint Honoré, save for the occasional pop-up — meant having something that Colette, her daughter, or their team had hand-picked. As Karl Lagerfeld once said: “It’s the only shop where I go because they have things no one else has...there is only one Colette, and her and Sarah are 200 percent involved.”
It’s possible Roussaux is a purist who thinks a brand needs its founder in place — in an act of dramatic irony, colette was among the retailers that stocked the parody “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves” sweatshirts after then-creative director Hedi Slimane decided to change the name of the fashion house. As a result, Saint Laurent took legal action and severed ties with the store. (In an even more ironic twist, Saint Laurent is rumoured to be taking over the Saint Honoré retail space). Knowing this, the closure makes sense: When a company's success is directly attached to a specific vision and leadership, relinquishing control seems out of the question.
Still, it’s a rarity in today’s world: walking away, rather than handing over the reins of (what is largely) a personal brand. It would be easy for colette to find a new CEO (as both Coach and Tiffany & Co. recently did) or sell it off to a larger conglomerate; luxury holding companies are always trying to expand their portfolios (in April, LVMH bought Christian Dior; just last week, Michael Kors snapped up Jimmy Choo), and by purchasing not just established brands but curated boutiques, too. Think: Richemont taking a majority stake in YOOX/ Net-A-Porter in 2015. Last September, Seattle-based Totokaelo, known for its avant-garde selection of clothing and accessories, became a part of Vancouver's Herschel Capital Corp, too.
The allure of colette, however, goes beyond curation and into the art of the collaboration — a strategy it's mastered over the past 20 years. Earlier this month, Tim Blanks wrote for Business of Fashion: "The burden on the bricks’n’mortar guys to flay their mark on a world where their customers’ attention spans are spinning into a digital void grows heavier. Logic would suggest that if you offer people the world, they will come. But Sarah Andelman has made colette the success it is by flying against the wind." Today, brands from Louis Vuitton to Vans are banking on the limited-edition offerings colette pioneered, while companies like Supreme and Bathing Ape have built entire businesses on the allure of exclusive, hard-to-come-by drops.
We all know the dreaded feeling of a shop or brand we love suddenly exploding onto Instagram and being sold in every department store — it’s just not special. And perhaps that's why colette has survived all these years, and why other retailers are following suit — it kept its image not just curated, but consistent. That also might have something to do with why its profits for 2016 were a reported $31 million, according to WWD, while stores like 10 Corso Como (which has been referred to as the Italian version of colette) narrowly avoided liquidation.
Even as its era comes to an end, colette is still wildly popular with big name designers vying to take over its top floor (at the moment, Balenciaga’s Bernie Sanders-inspired collection is on show), and its e-commerce business is booming; per Business of Fashion, "the store generates 20 percent of its steadily-rising revenue online, significantly more than the industry average." But if the coolest store in the world is choosing to close against a backdrop of Amazon Prime super-days, what does that mean for the future of concept stores — and retailers in general?
The beauty of a store that so effortlessly blurs the line between retail and art is that you don’t necessarily have to buy something to feel like you’ve taken part. colette is as fun to visit as a museum or gallery — it’s a visual spectacle constructed for the enjoyment of its visitors. Its unique high-low curation is worth noting, as well: You can buy a £5,000 dress or a £9 phone case — both are equally cool and valued in the context of the selection. And perhaps that's something retailers should be looking at more closely — maybe it's not about selling everything imaginable, but selling a selection of special items that have the ability to tell a story.
colette would conceivably be a welcome jewel in a fashion conglomerate’s crown, but Roussaux and Andelman are instead choosing to forgo further profits in exchange for something priceless: integrity. Launching a company and building a brand are two very different things: to Roussaux, being a founder meant leading a team, remaining involved at every level, and never trading sincerity for reach. No, colette hasn't fallen prey to the ever-changing retail landscape — it gracefully bowed out of a game of which it's no longer interested in being a part.
Retailers are dying to be colette because it's deeply authentic — the buzzword du jour when it comes to selling — especially to millennials.
But as it turns out, authenticity can’t be bought — it has to be built.