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PARIS — Sonia Rykiel is back. The French fashion label and its signature striped knits are emerging from a prolonged pause — it so happens, along with the rest of the world, just as coronavirus lockdowns ease up.
Shuttered since last July, the label began to show signs of life on social media in May, its initial Instagram post of black and colored stripes garnering thousands of likes.
“What did we put? The stripes — something that belongs to Sonia Rykiel — protected intellectual property,” said Eric Dayan, who teamed up with his brother Michael Dayan to win a nail-biting bidding contest for the label late last year.
“Social networks are a priority,” noted Michael Dayan, adding that they are emphasizing knitwear, which had become less of a focus of the label in recent years.
In their first interview since purchasing the company, the pair spoke to WWD from their Paris offices, recently filled with objects from the brand. The striped backdrop featured on the first Instagram post covered one wall, while racks of clothing ran alongside another; vintage magazines, boxes of sketches, quilted handbags and a bolt of striped fabric were carefully set on side tables.
Digital entrepreneurs, the brothers had developed an online private sales platform for branded goods, Showroomprive.com, working with their older brother, David Dayan, who remains chief executive officer of that company.
Following the stock market listing of the start-up — which had expanded outside of France to other European markets — the pair took a couple years off to travel, happy to spend time with their families and manage their investments in real estate and other start-ups.
It was their brother David who alerted them that Sonia Rykiel’s assets were up for sale, piquing their interest in embarking on another, ambitious project.
“You have a solid entrepreneurial background, you know the digital world for fashion and retail — you should take a look,” Michael Dayan recalled their brother telling them.
They only had a few days to prepare their offer, but were spurred along by the challenge.
“Imagine — in three days, the difficulty of obtaining bank guarantees, with a weekend in the middle?” said Eric Dayan. It wasn’t just about coming up with enough financing, they also had to draw up a plausible development project to convince the court handling the sale, and shoot for the right price.
“I think Sonia spoke to us at that moment,” he laughed, referring to the late, fiery-haired founder.
“We’re talking about a designer who was for freedom for women, she defended so many values, she did so many things that were incredible for the world of fashion — it’s not just a brand that we have acquired,” he said.
Known as the “Queen of Knits,” Rykiel had captured the liberated spirit of the French capital’s intellectual Left Bank with lively knits, stripes and sequins that carried broad appeal.
“If it was simply a brand, we would not have gone for it,” added Eric Dayan.
The tension of the auction sale process, presided over by a court, only served to heighten their desire for the brand. Once each of the 21 bids had been revealed, finally indicating that theirs was indeed competitive, the judge said he would take three weeks to consider them.
“Three weeks during which we had no idea if we would win,” recalled Eric Dayan.
The purchase of brand assets included half-a-century of archives, intellectual property rights, prototypes and the last collection, which never made it into stores.
The label had struggled — despite its strong heritage, approval from fashion critics for collections drawn up by its last designer Julie de Libran and resonance in its home market — highlighting the challenge for smaller brands to adapt in an increasingly digitalized industry, which calls for steep investments in technology and infrastructure.
The house went into receivership last year after luxury group First Heritage Brands, controlled by Hong Kong billionaires Victor and William Fung, who owned it since 2012, renounced turnaround efforts and abandoned an attempt to find a new investor.
“If it wasn’t a project like Sonia Rykiel, we wouldn’t have gotten involved. There’s an element of ‘We have to save it, we have to preserve what she’s done, we can’t let this brand end up just anywhere’ — this has been our obsession from the beginning of our involvement,” said Eric Dayan.
The pair have been flooded with messages of support and encouragement.
“You have saved a French heritage brand — you had to given the current context. It’s a brand that has contributed to the renown of French fashion and savoir-faire abroad,” Michael Dayan recalled people telling them.
“We decided to start by reactivating social networks — it’s an entry point with the existing, online community,” he continued, explaining that they sought to both reassure fans of the label and raise its profile with younger generations who are less familiar with it.
Next up, the opening of the Internet sales channel, which the pair aims to do as soon as next month, with a newly global site that automatically adjusts to local currencies and preferred payment methods, applying their experience in the digital realm. They plan to sell products that represent their vision of the brand going forward, picking pieces from the last collection that was made before operations were closed down as well as other timeless pieces from previous seasons.
“The Internet business is very intense,” noted Michael Dayan.
“It’s not like a store that you close at 7 p.m. and then go home — you are always open, 24 hours a day — you have to have impeccable client service, you have to have all the right elements — products have to be displayed properly,” said Eric Dayan.
With a focus on high quality products, the pair said their approach is not mass market, while aimed at capturing a younger clientele.
Rykiel relayed messages of female empowerment, independence, positivity and dynamism, noted Michael Dayan, recalling her role in introducing freedom of movement through knits — which he likened to Coco Chanel’s liberating women by doing away with corsets and Yves Saint Laurent’s empowerment through trousers and prominent shoulders.
“All these values that younger generations defend today,” he added, detailing plans to work with schools, young creative talent, influencers and social networks to promote knowledge of Rykiel’s legacy.
“We need to work to pass on her messages,” he said.
They are pulling together a design team to build their first collection, which they hope to release next year, based on quality knitwear, made in Europe.
The COVID-19 crisis has slowed the process, but they are reconnecting with factories that worked with the label over the years — drawing on a list of 300.
At a time of disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, the brand will continue to hold certain relevance, they predicted.
“We are convinced that after the crisis, it will be even more relevant — because consumers will want to turn to authentic brands, with a history, with quality products that they can identify with — with a brand like Sonia Rykiel you’re saying something when you wear it,” said Michael Dayan.
The brothers expect to tap into a rising interest in vintage pieces, and are looking at ways to recycle and upcycle clothing.
“We have prototypes, vintage and iconic pieces — there’s a diversity that allows for lots of ideas, we want to work on recycling, on upcycling, to repurpose stocks,” said Eric Dayan.
Repositioning pricing, they aim to remain in the luxury sphere, but with a more accessible register.
“Recently there were sweaters sold for 3,000 euros — this is not where we want to be,” he added, noting that they aim for prices similar to a label like Isabel Marant.
“We’re not here to do a new line for younger people, but offer a collection that suits different generations,” he said.
Physical stores will be part of their strategy, and the brothers envision smaller boutiques than the sprawling, book-lined historic flagship on Boulevard Saint Germain, perhaps on prestigious streets like Rue Saint Honoré.