In an ideal world, I would be Nathalie Lucas. During the hustle and bustle and peacocking at the shows in Paris, she was one of the few women I’d bother to stare at – a Parisian running around in mannish tailoring always with a bright accessory or statement shoe of note. She cut her teeth working as a top business layer before making the jump into the world of fashion at LVMH and Chanel, and later in buying at Agnès b and Galeries Lafayette. Today, she’s the head of buying at online accessories mecca, Monnier Frères and forever the living epitome of a Frenchwoman of substance – stylish, charming and as perhaps even more dynamic than her CV.
After initially meeting in London, we caught up at Café Kitsuné, a stone’s throw away from the Tuileries and closer still to Palais-Royal, the home of this season’s Isabel Marant show. She arrived, hair still slightly damp (Parisians never blow dry), wearing a perfect-cropped pair of trousers, a black shirt (three buttons undone), multi-strap black heels and a black biker jacket thrown underneath one of those bold Charlotte Simone stoles. The most statement piece of her look, it’s the only item I could confidently put a name to. For any self-respecting Parisian, label flashing is out.
In many ways, her style is an apt illustration of that undefinable je ne sais quoi. It’s masculine, yet deeply feminine; her razor sharp buyer’s eye is evident, yet she has a spontaneous charm that you can spot a mile off. She knows the power of an image more than anyone, but she refuses to take it all too seriously.
Here, she talks to me about everything from her teenage penchant for crop tops and body chains (oh, how these things come back around) to the women whose style she most admires and what it actually means to be a buyer.
Being talkative and sociable I naively thought a lawyer career could be the perfect fit. It surely was a good fit and truly interested me, but I had no passion. I loved playing with fashion at that time – controversially, I had quite the appetite for crop tops, body chains and lamé tops – but never considered a career in this industry. After 5 years studying law I entered an MSc program in management at ESSEC, planning to increase my business skills to make me the best business lawyer and the perfect target for a huge business law firm (think Tom Cruise in The Firm). Being the fashion enthusiast I am, I thought I could try my hand doing it in the fashion world so then specialized in luxury brand management while passing the bar exam.
I had no experience in fashion when I got my first fashion job as an assistant buyer at Franck & Fils, the subsidiary of le Bon Marché in Paris. It was only theory from my courses and a lot of magazine reading. What I did have was two years experience interning at law firms, which gave me strong analytical skills and a taste for negotiation and meeting new people. When I started, I had an urge to learn more about the industry and I will never forget my experience there and what I learnt from the buyers. I worked closely with all the women’s buyers, from accessories to ready-to-wear and followed them in the showrooms, asking them thousands of questions.
The magic of being a buyer really starts at fashion week. Actually, for most of us, it really starts with the pre-collection, where most brands offer early delivery in November for the spring/summer season (known as cruise or resort) and May for the fall collections. At Monnier Frères, we place around 70-80% of our budget with those collections, as they have a longer lifetime, sell more and improve our margins. For our more fashion-forward customers, it helps them renew their wardrobes at a time where most of the interesting pieces of the season have already sold out. Because the pre-season collections come two months before fashion week, they’re such an important way for me to understand the influence or direction a designer is taking.
Even now, I can’t stop thinking about how lucky I am to attend the shows. I still get thrills when the music starts. It’s after the shows that the real work starts, as the showrooms open for brans to show us their collections. We start a walk-through with the sales team, who explain the spirit of the collection, the products they believe in and the price range. In those appointments I’ll work on a selection and edit that I feel works best for our customers. I’m always trying to balance between the pieces I know will sell well (either because they’re well positioned or because they’ve already been adopted by influencers) and the more editorial products that the fashion set will love. I’ll then create our orders, send them to the brand and wait for deliveries so our teams can start shooting everything before it goes live.
Buying is about instinct and taste, but also a real passion for design and art too. All of those things must always been balanced by analytical skills and knowledge of our KPI’s. When I edit and place orders, I always base my decision based on sale reports made from previous seasons to better understand what our customers are looking and for, and also to make sure I’m ordering the right quantities. Being a buyer means you always have to be aware of what’s going on and remain curious. When you see something new once, it’s new. If we see it twice, it’s either coincidence or a micro trend growing. Now with social media, trends last longer but also start quicker so you can see at a glance which trends will work best. I’m always looking at what influencers are wearing in places like East London or Le Marais in Paris.
Not everything can be rationalised or based on sales analysis. We may have no history because a product is new or a trend is just growing. Who could have guessed that we’d all sacrifice our 10 cm heels for flat and ‘fugly’ shoes? Fashion makes us love what we hated before, which is partly what makes it so exciting. If you wait for the trend to be major, you might miss a lot of interesting new products. Intuition is actually your best and worst enemy because you can believe in products that won’t work or do a make call on the right accessory. It is a matter of balance and where you place the volume of products. Either way, a buyers we must have a certain right to mistakes because fashion can be so irrational and it’s important for us to always keep things fresh and new. The risk is actually to be too safe and boring.
After nine years specialising in accessories buying, I don’t seem them as mere ‘accessories’ anymore. They’re so important as they can turn a dull, basic outfit into something really cool. Just think of the way teaming a statement necklace with a basic white t-shirt and skinny jeans can instantly transform it. Nowadays, I always start my outfit with a pair of shoes, like a strong, colourful pair from Sophia Webster. I tend to put on a pair of simple jeans of black pants to make sure my shoes are the focus or I’ll go all out and colour block my outfit to work with my shoes. My style is a mix of minimal or boyish outfits dressed up with eclectic or girly accessories. Shoes and sculptural earrings are my absolute must haves to twist an everyday jeans and sweatshirt uniform.
My style has changed a lot of the years, thank God. When a teenager I loved belly chains, orange skinny pants, wedge sneakers and miniskirts. Saying that now, it sounds like a terrible fashion faux pas but the irony is that most of them have come back in some way or another. Not only have I experienced faux-pas, I think they are absolutely necessary. What is the point to be stylish and faultless? It means you don’t have fun with fashion.
My mum taught me so much about style. She had the best collection of 70s flared denim and blouses you could find. My father is the worst when it comes to fashion and started mixing Birkenstocks and socks way before Phoebe Philo made it cool. I think the mix of both of them made my brother and I love playing with outfits. My brother can pick a Jil Sander women’s pea coat now and make it look incredible.
I think what people like in Parisian women is that they don’t seem to take their appearance too seriously. We are probably too lazy, but we don’t feel we need be perfect to look pretty. We’re not general eccentric either. For us, it’s more about wearing one eye-catching item at a time. For instance, we love shoes here so most Parisians would rather update their outfit with a striking pair of stilettos than a completely new, statement look. I’ve always been more experimental. I lived in London for a little while, which definitely gave me more confidence. Nobody there judges what you’re wearing, which is so refreshing because Parisians can be so judgmental about each other’s outfits. I love Susie Bubble – she’s so bold and has a great sense of mix and match. French singer Françoise Hardy is another one of my favourites. She was amazing in the 60s and 70s; very French in her way of having only one sexy detail at a time, mostly mixed with boyish outfits.