Interview with Frédéric Biousse: Manufacturing in French, an act of politics and citizenship

He was behind the success of Comptoir des Cotonniers, then the SMCP group and now chairs a fund dedicated to affordable luxury. In conjunction with the show, Frédéric Biousse shared his view of “Made in France”, and the conditions for its success.

What do you think are the assets of Made in France?
First of all, a favourable period.  Right now you can feel that people have a strong desire to return to a local footing. People are tired of sourcing on the other side of the world, and standardized shops that are exactly the same in Paris, New York or Tokyo. They want singular items, exclusivity. Different shops depending on the city, and products closer to home. It’s a matter of ethics and now ethics are everywhere. No one wants to risk wearing a garment made by a child in Vietnam anymore, just like we don’t buy exotic fruits in winter. We choose local, traced products, which are consistent with our values. It seems to me that the return to favour of Made in France expresses these same deep-seated desires. The desire to consume products made close to home.

Products that will help support people who are doing things and taking risks in our own country. And that’s not just a fad, it’s a bottom line.

 

Is this a groundswell we are seeing throughout Europe?
We’re not only seeing it, this kind of patriotism is much stronger in our neighbours. Germans and Italians have always had a preference for local products. And Donald Trump is doing nothing but reviving an already very strong patriotism in the United States.

 

Regardless of this social phenomenon, does our production also benefit from this famous French reputation?
Undeniably. Made in France immediately calls to mind a tradition of exceptional craftsmanship. We think of Versailles, the Age of Enlightenment … This is part of the French image, but our country has an indisputable sense of beauty, which is particularly due to our obsession with detail. And French luxury goods are its most perfect expression. In a French luxury product, everything counts. The lining, the quality of garment’s hand-sewn finishings, the delicacy of the marquetry in a piece of furniture.

 

Training and education in beauty is a French exception, envied throughout the world. It is sustained by unique techniques and exceptional know-hows. What would you cite as its weaknesses?
Unlike its neighbours, our country has not sufficiently preserved its manufacturing base and now we have to try to reverse the trend. Moreover, and this is probably the heart of the problem, French production is expensive and the French have very paradoxical desires. They want to consume locally but aren’t always willing to pay for it.

 

What would your advice be to a young company that wants to produce in France today?
I would give them two. First, you have to want it! In 2016, my company bought a stake in the brand “Le Slip Français”. Its founder, Guillaume Gibault, had absolutely no doubt he wanted to produce in France. He makes it about citizenship, a political issue. And he is willing to pay the price. I’ll give you as an example a boxer from his brand, sold at 35 euros. Recently, we conducted a survey and asked the question: what would you be willing to pay for a boxer if it was manufactured in France? The answer was: 25 euros. But at that price, the company would go out of business. Le Slip Français continues to price its boxers at 35 euros and it probably sells less than if they were at a lower price. But the company was founded in 2011, it’s been an undisputed success, and it is now profitable.

 

You said you had two pieces of advice, what’s the second?
It’s about communication. Selling French means selling more expensively. It’s completely possible, but your product has to be very attractive, eminently desirable. It has to inspire people, make them dream. So you have to tell – and incarnate – a story, and offer something really strong. If people feel that there’s a real content behind the product, they’re willing to pay the price. This means an actual marketing strategy – to get known, to cultivate an image.

 

Is the situation different for luxury houses?
Completely. In the luxury world, the issue of price disappears and is replaced by a demand for excellence, and the major houses champion precisely this exceptional French know-how. It’s their label and the justification for their high prices. In my opinion, the future of Made in France is largely linked to the world of luxury. It can be conveyed there more naturally than in intermediate products.

 

So is luxury the only way forward for Made in France?
Certainly the safest way. But today, the future of Made in France is also a political decision. If the government decides it is in the public good, it can choose to revive the sector by lowering business charges, corporate taxes, professional taxes. This could provide a real jolt, and give everyone the means of a recovery.