Paris’s Place Vendôme used to be famous for its dressmakers – Madame Chéruit had her headquarters here, as did Schiaparelli – but few remain. Now it’s known best for the Ritz and the last sad journey of Princess Diana.
However, a new breed of fashion designer has moved in. In a hotel off the square’s north-east corner is a suite of monochrome rooms filled with skulls. Skulls are incorporated into the lamps, stamped into candles and visible in the features of Keith Richards in a vast photograph. “In the end, we are all skulls,” said one of the three black-clad brothers who greeted me.
In the photograph Richards isn’t alone. Anita Pallenberg lies across a chair beside him, all legs and gold wedges. The brothers in front of me – Alexandre (37), Laurent (36) and Raphaël (26) – are inspired by this picture, and by the couple at its heart. The Elicha siblings know that people want to emulate couples like Richards and Pallenberg and have ridden this hunch through the recession with their brand the Kooples.
To many, theirs is an unlikely success story. Arriving in the UK in 2010, the Kooples was part of a wave of French fashion brands – such as Sandro and Maje – that invaded the British high street and became arguably the best known, thanks to their advertising onslaught showing ridiculously cool couples telling us how long they’d been together. It seemed a little smug. Today you’ll struggle to miss their shops full of skinny jeans, crisp shirts and well- tailored rock-star jackets on the posher high streets. The Elichas have boutiques across Europe and are currently launching in New York and LA (having tested the market in Bloomingdales). After that comes Seoul. “The concept touches everyone,” says Laurent.
Walking around Paris, it is clear from the number of couples carrying bags from Kooples how many buy into the concept. They now have 321 “points of sale” in Europe and the US and 17 stores in London alone, “which is a lot for such a young brand in the recent economic climate,” says Honor Westnedge, a senior retail analyst at Verdict. Backed by a private equity firm, the Elichas are picking their spots carefully – and ensuring there are more of the bigger (they say “athletic”) sizes – as they go into the US.
We are now in a room filled with the new season’s collection. Women can have a boyfriend shirt in floral print for £120, men a linen “skullhead sailor” T-shirt for £70.
“Is your ideal a world where you are walking down the street and all the couples are dressed alike?” I ask.
“That would be nice,” says Alexandre. “That would be funny,” says Raphael.
Their look is unashamedly retro. Laurent, who designs the womenswear, is dressed in leathers and seems to be channelling Marlon Brando via fashion’s favourite architect, Peter Marino. Alexandre, responsible for the menswear, is smooth in good English tailoring (their creative director is the Savile Row tailor Patrick Grant). And Rafael, the baby, who is in charge of the branding, comes across as a bit of a geek. Good at koopling, they are all married and their wives, they assure me, wear the brand.
What interests them, Alexandre says, is stories. And the Elicha story, of taking often unspoken truths about people’s behaviour and profiting from them, comes from their parents. Tony and Georgette founded Comptoir des Cotonniers in 1995, the hugely successful womenswear brand which plays on the idea of being chic yet unthreateningly trendy enough to sell simultaneously to mothers and daughters.
“It was our mother who had the idea,” says Alexandre. “We were there at the beginning. We didn’t know how to do marketing so we went to see one of the biggest agencies with the concept and they said: ‘No, mothers and daughters never want to dress like this.’ But we did it, and it was a phenomenon. Because of that we wanted to continue to do things with real stories.”
I ask whether it’s hard working together as a family. “I have a lot of friends who say they couldn’t do it,” says Alexandre. “But I don’t think I could work with anyone else. You can disagree on a lot of things, but as long as you are not blocked you can work together. There are a lot of great things. You can trust your family. And things go faster because if you’ve grown up together, you know each other so with two or three words, my brothers know what I want.”
He points to the collection: “We try and find common inspiration. This collection, we have a rockabilly, teddy boy thing. We go around – to New York, Paris, London, Seoul, Tokyo – and we look at books, look at vintage. We talk and find the good idea. Build something with colour, range and great fabric. We build something that can inspire men and women.”
We discuss the candles and lamps – the homeware they are getting into – and finally come back to the skulls. “It’s a big spiritual story,” says Alexandre. “It will always be the big question. What’s under this life? What’s happening besides this?”
You are discussing these sort of questions? “Of course! The skull reminds you that you don’t have the time you want. There is an end.”
Which is something to think about next time you turn on a lamp.