Meeting the buyers of The Broken Arm
The owners of the Paris-based multi-label store took us through their buying process.
The first thing you should know about the owners of Parisian multi-label store The Broken Arm, is that they’re not difficult to find – buyers Guillaume Steinmetz, Anaïs Lafarge, and Romain Joste are practically always inside their own shop, helping out clients or styling the clothes on the rack. To the buyers-trio, the space is an extension of their personality, so everything has to be just right. Their perfectionism is what guides them to their extremely curated selection of high-end labels (from Céline and Balenciaga to Comme des Garçons and Prada), as well as their support of less established talents (Jaquemus, Martine Rose, Gosha Rubchinskiy). It was Guillaume, Anaïs and Romain who first spotted Marine Serre at her LaCambre graduation show in Brussel, offering her a full window during Paris Fashion week, which ultimately lead to her winning the LVMH Prize.
I met two of the founders in the Marais-based store before opening hours. While Anaïs was frantically preparing the shop and adjacent restaurant for the day to come, Romain and Guillaume took time to explain their vision with matter-of-fact honesty and a touch of poetry, as illustrated by the following description of their job one of them gave me: “It’s like a sentence, you have to put the right words together. The meaning will change if you don’t choose the right words. It’s never sure that you’ll make something out of it, even if the show was magnificent.”
Your collaboration started with an online magazine – Des Jeunes Gens Modernes – what pushed you to open a physical space?
Romain: Exactly, to make everything more tangible. We were tired of showing products without knowing the price or the production details. We wanted to materialise the images we used. Opening a public space means welcoming people, presenting our products in a way that clients want to touch them and try them on. First we had the physical store, then the online shop. We wanted people to come to our space first.
Coming from a media background, your journey is different from other buyers. What did this experience bring to your work?
Guillaume: The most important thing we learned, is that people are looking for something honest. We shared what we were really interested in, and we wanted to do something that represented us. We did the same thing when we opened the shop here. You have to propose something that’s honest and that’s part of who you are, otherwise it doesn’t work.
Why did you wait before opening your online store?
Romain: For a very pragmatic reason, we didn’t have enough money for a website yet. To do it right, we needed to wait. We like to spend a lot of time in the store, helping the clients, so we couldn’t just focus everything on the website. Today, websites are really an extended window for stores, it represents the universe of the shop. Everybody looks up a shop online before physically going there. So the website needs to represent the physical space.
Guillaume: The identity needed to be clear physically, before we could translate it virtually. We really wanted to take our time in defining who we are and what we do. It takes time for everything to be in total balance.
Do you buy differently for both platforms?
Romain: No, though other shops do. We want the site to be a reflection of the physical store. Of course, there’s a slight delay as we shoot everything ourselves, but we’ll never sell the sneakers everybody wants if we don’t like them ourselves. Maybe that’s a mistake, but we never want to do something that isn’t us, even if it would make us a lot of money.
Guillaume: Once you open those doors, there’s no limit. How can you make the difference then between responding to a demand and making a selection with a specific vision? The sneakers everybody wants are rarely the designs we like.
Romain: We would be embarrassed to even sell them. [laughter]
Guillaume: What we sell is an extension of ourselves. It’s like a personality. You wouldn’t be able to adapt to what others like all the time, without losing your personality.
It’s interesting that you put this much effort into the online shop, without neglecting the physical store. Even the fact that you’re all present in the store each day can be considered rare.
Guillaume: This isn’t a business for us. Obviously we’re realistic, and we need to make money to survive, so we’ll maximise the sales and we want to grow. But before all else, it’s not the growth that makes us happy. What makes us happy, is to have a project that makes us proud. We’re not developing just to make money.
Romain: It’s true that, at its core, the job of a buyer is a commercial one. However, what makes us really proud is that, when we’re in a showroom with ten other stores, our selection won’t look like anybody else’s. That’s what makes this interesting – you choose what you like and what you want to combine it with. We also love discovering young brands and looking up their work, and showing work that might not be the most obvious choice. This is what is so exciting, to bring products that people like, even if they didn’t expect it. It’s what Guillaume was saying, we don’t respond to a request, we don’t carry a brand because people desire it and are ready to do anything to get their hands on it. We have it because we like carrying it in our shop. That’s what’s fulfilling.
Do you have a type of client in mind when you make the selection?
Guillaume: Yes, we do, because it helps us communicate our vision between each other. When we make a selection, it’ll always be subjective. In a way, we’re discussing taste. So each one of us will understand taste or elegance in another way. But if you describe a precise client, thinking – I could see this garment on this type of client – it brings something tangible and more objective to the discussion. It contextualises what would otherwise be vague. For example, if I told you I like blue, you would have no idea what I mean unless I say that I like Klein.
I’m impressed by how curated your selection is. You manage to make a very precise selection, even for huge collections like Prada.
Guillaume: Well, that’s what so interesting! We’re very proud of the list of designers we carry, but you can find the same names in other shops around the world. What makes us different, is the angle of selection. I’ll go even further, what really defines the identity of our store, is the specific selection of designers that are also sold elsewhere. People see our selection, and compare it to that of other stores, and then they’ll decide which store to go to.
Romain: Within the same brand, you can have two completely different styles. It’s like that both for the brand we love, the brands that don’t really coincide with our identity but have a few pieces that feel really spot on.
Guillaume: To make it more concrete, I’ll explain our work in the showroom. When we enter, we will have already seen the show, which gives us a first impression, a specific emotion, but we don’t select any specific items yet. We make a first round of the showroom, where we simply react to each piece. Then we talk to the person who works for the brand, who explains what sold best and what might not even get produced. Then we do another round where we really make the selection. It can get very practical, for example – we already have this style pants, so we shouldn’t re-order. Then when we’re back in the store, we’ll have another look at the pictures, and we’ll adapt our order again.
Romain: This is where you really have to think about the type of client. Some things might fit perfectly on someone with a bigger size, but it won’t sell as well in a smaller size and vice versa. An oversized vest doesn’t need to be ordered in XXL. This might seem logical, but it takes time to get it right.
Guillaume: What’s interesting is that, for a brand like Raf Simons for example (which is a brand we love), each season there’s pieces that work amazingly, but you can also really get it wrong. It’s never won in advance. It’s not because the collection is good, that you’ll make a good selection in your shop. That’s what’s so exciting and so stressful at the same time. If you go there thinking it’s easy, you can completely miss the story. It’s not a question of good or bad, but there’s a density that can be constructed if you do it well, a specific story. Thus, putting this story together requires a real effort. It’s like a sentence, you have to put the right words together. The meaning will change if you don’t choose the right words. It’s never sure that you’ll make something out of it, even if the show was magnificent.
At what point do you realise your selection is flawed? When it doesn’t sell, or even before?
Romain: It’s as soon as we see it in the shop. The collection has to express something. What happens, with collections like Raf Simons, Comme des Garçons or Prada, brands that are that creative and change from season to season, is that the clients aren’t necessarily the same from one season to another. So it’s even more complex to understand. Sometimes we need time to understand, to digest the work. You can’t just look at the images and say – oh yeah, I get the general sprit. You have to see it live. There’s music, there’s an entire universe. You can feel it when the designer is happy about their work and proud of their collection. It’s subjective of course, but you can really feel it.
Guillaume: With those designers, many pieces have a double or triple meaning. It’s the way in which you construct your story, that adds meaning. With Prada for example, the 70s-style polo-shirts can be read in a very obvious way, but then the other garments around it will decide whether it’s understood correctly. It’s almost like cooking.
Does your selection ever get influenced by show critics?
Guillaume: No, never. We’re not actively avoiding them, but it’ll never influence us. We’re not doing the same job. A critic will look at a show, and try to understand what a designer is trying to communicate, but they have don’t have an editing approach. A buyer has to look beyond the central message of the show, we need to look at what is presented in the showroom. If a critic is negative, it’s usually because of a very specific reason, and it doesn’t always mean the collection is bad.
Romain: Critique is subjective, it depends on so many microscopic details, like someone’s mood.
You mentioned that it’s not a bad thing to carry the same brands as other stores, because it defines your identity. In your shop, you have very experimental designers that push the boundaries, yet your selection is always elegant and sophisticated. In London, for example, the selection might look very different.
Romain: Obviously, style is defined differently in London than it is in Paris. Just look at the fashion week calendar. It doesn’t mean one is better than the other. In London, a designer might have been working for ten years, but to us, their collections can almost be considered graduate collections. There’s a purity in their creativity. In London there’s a certain liberty. We have very little French brands, and I’m not particularly looking to defend our nationality.
Guillaume: I also think that, in the way we built our interior design, we’re not classic fashion victims. When it comes down to it, we love the simplicity of a perfectly tailored pair of pants, and this is translated in our interior design. Even if we’re looking for strong pieces, we’ll always pair it with great quality. There’s a certain rationality in our selection that’s not just an accumulation of strong pieces. Machine-A in London, for example, has this vocation of supporting young talent and they really want show pieces. That’s just not who we are, we have a wardrobe approach. We can’t support a label if they don’t bring an entire wardrobe. We would never buy a brand if they only do amazing coats, for example. We want a balance on each rack. That’s the importance of editing.
Romain: How the collection looks on the rack is so important, as it’s the first impression a client will receive. It needs to reflect the central message of the show as well.
Could you give an example of one collection and what it was like to buy?
Guillaume: With Raf, we’re always guided by what moves us. Last season for example, with the printed Mapplethorpe shirts, we selected those that we liked the most personally. We know that the strongest Raf pieces will work for us, as it’s a clientele that loves Raf for his design innovation. When we select his knitwear, we’ll select the most extravagant pieces. Raf always has great tailored pants, so we always try to select at least one.
I’ve read that the new generation of consumers will more easily mix different designers, they’re less keen on wearing a total look. Do you notice this as well?
Romain: There’s so many types of clients. There’s the fashion victim, the hard-core fan,… but at the end of the day, they all want an amazing pair of trousers, or the perfect jacket. As we’re a multi-brand store, clients will come in for one particular item. They’ll need a new jumper to keep them warm in the winter, for example. In that case, the names on the label don’t really matter, and the client tries different things. The way they’ll shop will be very different. In general, we don’t have that many total look clients.
Guillaume: It’s also cyclical. Not that long ago, before we opened the shop, there was a new generation of thirty-something designers reaching high positions in luxury houses, and I think that they have touched a younger generation of fashion followers. I’m thinking of Jonathan Anderson, or Demna, or Michele at Gucci, there’s a new demand for total looks, because brands are speaking to a younger audience that feels more affiliated to what they propose.
What do you look for in the work of a designer? How do you decide to buy a new label?
Romain: It’s always a good sign to have that coup de foudre. If you’re doubting, it’s never a good sign. It has to be direct. On a practical note, we always think about our clientele.
Guillaume: We have become a bit more relaxed. Before, when we brought a new brand on board, we felt like it had to be a match made in heaven, a union for the following twenty years. Now, we’ve agreed that it’s okay to change your mind, as a young designer does so as well. We won’t miss the first seasons anymore, waiting to be a 100% sure. Now, we buy from the beginning, without waiting for the confirmation. Thomas Tait for example, we supported from the beginning. If we would have waited, we would have missed it. And I don’t regret having him in the shop for one second, even if he quit. We also want to be guided by the message of the designer, and this is often stronger in the beginning, but also more fragile. But that’s what makes it interesting, when everything isn’t 100% in order. It’s more exciting than something perfectly constructed that responds to specific requests, where all the groups are completed.