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Remy Baume has been an observer of the fashion market becoming polarized over the last two decades, a trend that has only accelerated in the last few years.
“The middle market is very much squeezed,” the CEO of Zadig&Voltaire tells The CEO Magazine. “You are either a brand that creates desire and aspiration, or you are just playing on price. But when you are in the middle you are neither of those, and the market is really shrinking there.”
As the name suggests, the fashion label was born on the stylish streets of Paris. Evoking the name of the great French writer and philosopher, Voltaire (real name, François-Marie d’Arouet) and one of his novellas, Zadig ou la Destinée (Zadig, or the Book of Fate), Zadig&Voltaire was founded by self-described artistic entrepreneur Thierry Gillier in 1997.
More than 25 years later, Gillier is a fixture on France’s rich list and Zadig&Voltaire has 450 boutiques around the world.
France’s Le Figaro newspaper has described the brand as “the wardrobe of the rebellious bourgeois”. Baume prefers to label it “the allure of the free spirits”, playing on the “effortless luxury” attitude.
“It’s a rock brand, not rock through the music, but more through the attitude and freedom that goes with it,” he says. “Yes, we are positioned as luxury, but effortless first and foremost.”
This means that rather than giving fashion prescriptions as luxury traditionally does, Baume says Zadig&Voltaire gives fashion permissions.
“We don’t promote concepts such as total looks, for instance, which create the potential for fashion faux pas,” he says. “We do the exact opposite. We have a range of products and we dance with clients to really find their fit.”
It also means that the brand will never push aspiration to a point of audience disassociation.
“There is this furiously cool atmosphere in the boutiques in the relationship between the customers and our staff,” Baume says. “We bring luxury through the products, through the architecture of the boutiques, through the communication and all the ingredients of aspiration, desirability and love. This effortless approach is distinctive of the brand.”
It’s a distinctiveness within a crowded landscape that is attracting a lot of people to the label – himself one of them.
“The brand is very unique,” he says.
Baume has been in the role since January 2020, coming across from Kidiliz Group, the name behind chic French kids’ clothing brands Absorba and Catimini, where he spent nearly six years as CEO. Prior to that, he held executive roles in strategy and non-food with French retail giant Carrefour.
More than the chance to segue into the adult fashion market, Baume explains that he was motivated to join Zadig&Voltaire because of the crossroads the business had reached in its growth.
“We are now a half-a-billion dollar brand and this is typically a pivotal moment, because of our size and our geographical spread,” Baume says.
He notes the opportunity to steer it forward was too good to pass up. “The different leadership aspects of making sure that we can really go to the next level is of paramount importance, but I also take great pleasure out of it,” he explains.
“Building teams that have common expectations and know how to best work while not necessarily being all together, while bringing additional talents into the company, and ensuring everyone can work seamlessly together, is a key topic of any growing company, particularly a fashion company of this size,” he says.
Layered on top of that was a mission to continue to sharpen the messaging around the Zadig&Voltaire spirit and to ensure that customers understand what that spirit is.
“Our fans, which are very many, do understand it, they feel it,” he says. “The game is really to make sure that we are clearly spreading the word to the many other people who love being in this environment and getting a piece of that in their life.”
To do that, Baume has his gaze fixed outwardly. “Today we have a lot of success in Europe, North America and Korea, our stronghold in Asia,” he says. “But one of the challenges to be really global is to have a message that is understood across all cultures.”
China, in particular, is a country that is seen as pivotal to the brand’s growth.
“We are strongly accelerating, but we don’t have the same position as some other players. The challenge is to fine-tune our messages, potentially our collections, to ensure we are in sync with the culture there,” he says of China.
Baume also points to accessories as another driver of growth. “We were born through ready-to-wear,” he says, referencing the cashmere sweaters that first won the brand a cult following. “Today, however, we are 60 percent ready-to-wear and 40 percent accessories. Our product pipeline leads the brand to a 50–50 mix.”
The range of handbags, purses, jewelry, belts, sunglasses, scarves and watches demonstrate how emotionally invested its customers have become in the label.
“The level of accessories determine the truth of the extent to which we are a love brand,” he says.
After all, as he reasons, if you buy a jacket, no matter how fantastic it is, it doesn’t show the brand. Throw a bag over your shoulder, however, and there’s a logo that you’re exhibiting and a statement about your identity that you’re making.
“It’s a sign of a special relationship with the brand,” he says, noting that continuing to develop this accessory line is therefore a high priority.
“Not only business-wise, but because of what it means in our relationship with our customers and to make sure we have a great balance in our proposals to them,” he says.
Baume says the last few years have ushered in changing fashions.
“It’s no mystery – and no discovery either – that in terms of style, we went from a time of a lot of formality to a more freestyle way of dressing,” he explains. “We could see that at the office, of course, but we could also see that when people would go out, and not only in settings such as the opera, but also in restaurants.”
It’s a trend the COVID-19 pandemic sped up, but one that is at the core of Zadig&Voltaire’s DNA.
“Now you can easily mix a suit with sneakers, and that happens to be exactly our purpose. We play for effortless luxury,” he says.
More specifically, the brand zones in on the silhouette. “We have these silhouettes that are associations of opposites,” he says. “We mix tough and soft together, so a crinkle leather jacket with a feather cashmere or a lace dress with stud boots.”
The brand hasn’t changed its concept, but the target market has realigned to a fluidity of dressing that it had already mastered.
“You just change the dress or jacket and you go from day to night. And this approach to styling happens to be exactly in sync with the proposal and the purpose of Zadig&Voltaire,” he says. “We’re just lucky to be in that wave.”
Baume hardly had a chance to settle into the role before the pandemic swept across the world, and along with its impact on how we dress, business-wise, he called it an interesting moment of truth.
“Looking back, from a business perspective, it was a great opportunity,” he reflects. “It was a moment that revealed our strengths and potential weaknesses.”
The business had already established a solid digital footprint, a transformation that was easily accelerated. Online sales accounted for 23 percent of turnover in 2021, compared to 15 percent in 2019.
“It was also an excellent time to strengthen our teams, because so many things needed to be managed with agility,” he continues. “The battle was won, and the results are paying off already. Because we’ve killed that dragon, it’s easier to believe we can kill others.”
Strong commercial partnerships with key partners were also an essential factor for the brand as it navigated the uncertainties of the pandemic, including product lifecycle management software company Centric Software, Portuguese textile manufacturer R.Lobo and Franco-Indian leather goods specialists Pioneer.
“In our model, we don’t own any manufacturing facilities as such,” Baume explains. “In many cases, the supplier’s creation and growth is linked to the brand.”
Seventy percent, he says, are long-term partners. “This is deepened by the fact that we have a very specific feel to our fabrics; a specific way to knit and to source the raw materials,” he explains, adding that it’s almost unheard of for the business to put out a mere short-term request for proposal.
“These strong partnerships were one of the key success factors during the pandemic, because we needed to work together to significantly change the production schedule and to switch or drop products,” he continues. “It wasn’t easy, but it went smoothly because of these long-term relationships.”
The brand has always practiced a “go to the quality and the know-how” approach when it comes to finding suppliers. Baume says it looks to Portugal for shoes, particularly footwear manufacturer Martiape Calçado. The brand sources watches from Switzerland and lace from India.
And cashmere, one of its signature materials? “The raw material comes from Mongolia and Inner Mongolia,” he says.
Zadig&Voltaire is working closely with these suppliers now as it looks to achieve key sustainability targets, especially around procurement, after an assessment revealed that raw material production accounted for 80 percent of the brand’s CO2 emissions.
By 2025, it aspires to use only eco-friendly key raw materials, only packaging sourced from certified sustainable and recyclable traced materials and no virgin plastic made from fossil fuels.
Sustainability, Baume says, has always been in the culture of the brand. “We are many in the business who believe that our mission is more important than our function,” he says.
In 2020, this attitude was formalized with the creation of the VoltAIRe program, the name a clever play on the brand identity to emphasize the primary goal: to protect the air we breathe by fighting climate change and air pollution.
Along with sustainable materials and packaging, the program also aims to reduce CO2 emissions across its operations in line with the Paris Agreement and drive a collective industry commitment toward sustainable fashion.
The goals are lofty, but already there’s a lot to celebrate. “This year, we will be 100 percent certified on all our fabrics, including cashmeres, leathers and cottons,” he says.
There’s also the often counterintuitive fact that luxury clothing is inherently sustainable owing to its durability.
“End to end, you need 70 liters of water to manufacture a T-shirt, be it mass market or Zadig&Voltaire or another luxury brand,” he says. “But the mass-market T-shirt is going to last four washes because of the quality, while for us, it’s many years.”
He admits that there’s a tension between delivering quick results and playing the long-game.
“The question for me as a leader is how to continue to fuel this multi-decade work while being willing to advance very fast,” he says. “From a leadership standpoint, it’s a really interesting topic to work on.”