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Q&A with Zacharie Elmaleh, vice president of Deux par Deux.
Now at the reins of his family-owned business, Zacharie Elmaleh, vice president of Deux par Deux, reveals why diversifying the company portfolio and embracing e-commerce are musts in today’s rapidly evolving industry landscape.
Zacharie Elmaleh says it’s like he was born in a shipping box, having literally grown up in his parents’ company, Deux par Deux. Both he and the company were born exactly 31 years ago and, amid last year’s dual milestone celebrations, Co-Founders Claude Diwan and Maurice Elmaleh made the pivotal decision to hand over the day-to-day operations to their son. Always a tight-knit family, the founders believed their son was ready to lead Deux par Deux—a company renowned for its sophisticated clothing, vibrant colors and original patterns for babies, girls and boys—to the next level.
Elmaleh has been doing just that. In the year since taking the helm, he has made a host of changes that he believes his generation expects from a children’s clothing company. Those efforts include ramping up its direct-to-consumer (DTC) e-commerce platform, expanding distribution in Latin America, striking a licensing deal for a snowsuit line and developing activewear and baby organic collections to be launched in 2018. Pretty busy for a man who never thought he even wanted to become involved in the family business—at all. “I wasn’t interested in the beginning,” Elmaleh confesses. “I wanted to do anything else that didn’t have to do with children’s clothing.”
With dreams of perhaps becoming a musician or getting into marketing or communication, that’s when Elmaleh’s mother happened to change his career course entirely. Now whether it was by some master plan or just fortuitous fate, no one knows, but the story goes that Diwan, who still retains the title of president and leads the design team (Maurice is retired), handed her then 22-year-old son a side project while he was attending business school. The Canadian chain L’Aubainerie had approached Deux par Deux about producing a private label collection. Already with plenty on her plate, she left the venture entirely in her son’s hands. Elmaleh accepted his mother’s offer, based primarily on the one firm aspect of what he did want to do career-wise: “To be my own boss.”
Elmaleh was methodical in his approach to launching what would become Kif Kif Clothing, a lower-priced, mass market collection. He says he shadowed his mother’s business moves as best he could. “She was really my mentor,” Elmaleh says, adding that having to do everything himself was also a great learning experience. “I had to ship to chain stores, I had to take a course in accounting, and I remember staying at the office until midnight doing invoices,” he says. “It was a huge learning curve for me, but that’s how I learned the business inside-out.”
It turns out the childrenswear manufacturing talent runs in the family as Elmaleh turned that side project into a booming business that later spawned the company’s private label division. Kif Kif, Elmaleh says, taught them how to go about it, and while learning how to make goods more affordable presented some design challenges, some aspects of the business were easier. “We had only one client and we didn’t have to produce samples or hire reps,” he notes. Of course, that had its risk as there is only one client who must be pleased, or else. Fortunately, Elmaleh is the pleasing kind as Deux par Deux’s private label division now accounts for partnerships with two other retailers.
More importantly, the whole experience got Elmaleh hooked on the childrenswear business. He has since only wanted to become more involved—in Deux par Deux and the industry. “It was exciting and it was also perfect timing,” he says. “It was a way of introducing me to the family business so that I could one day take over.”
The company Elmaleh now steers has made its reputation based on creating pint-sized versions of the latest styles (in girls and boys, sizes newborns to 12 years) spotted on the runways and in the hottest fashion capitals around the world. Deux par Deux’s base in Montréal, which is described as a crossroads between North American and European influences, has served as a constant source of design inspiration. It’s a blend of ultramodern yet timeless fashion. A classic black-and-white striped top for girls, for example, is unexpectedly juxtaposed with a jungle print in primary colors. A boy’s pair of plaid Bermuda shorts in muted shades of gray, yellow and black is a sophisticated palette any stylish adult might wear.
Sold to more than 700 specialty stores worldwide, Deux par Deux remains a boutique-driven brand, according to Elmaleh. “That’s really our bread and butter,” he says, noting price points are on the upper end, spanning $30 to $80 suggested retail. But like any Millennial-aged executive, Elmaleh is also focused on expanding the company’s e-commerce capabilities, both with online dealers and its own DTC platform. He considers the project his “baby,” spearheading a five-year plan to meet the wants and needs of today’s consumers. “New parents have new shopping habits; you need to adapt yourself and be up-to-date,” Elmaleh says, adding, “I’m living proof of this trend: I buy my groceries online, my medication on Amazon and most of my clothing on e-commerce sites.” Elmaleh believes that e-commerce is no longer an option, like it used to be 10 years ago. It’s why he believes Deux par Deux, as a company, must have a strong presence online, which requires a strong social media presence as well. “Social media is a way to acquire new clients,” he says. “We have no choice but to follow this trend, because it’s here, and it’s here to stay.”
Along those lines, Elmaleh’s goals going forward is for Deux par Deux to adapt, diversify and grow. He is actively seeking out more private label and licensing agreements—a recent one is with Louis Garneau in Québec, specializing in cycling and outwear clothing. “We’re also planning to distribute other brands from Europe and North America,” he says. “Basically, we’re looking to diversify our business while still continuing to grow the Deux par Deux brand.”
What’s it like taking the reins of the family business—comforting and scary at the same time?
You’re absolutely right. On the one hand, it’s great because the whole family is working towards one objective. But at the same time, it’s challenging because my parents are my business partners and I see them every day. Obviously, we disagree at times. But we also discuss it through. The business is the foundation of our family.
How’s business this year compared to last year?
Last year was stable. In an election year, it’s always more challenging because clients are more careful with their budgets. But things have been promising so far for 2017. Already, we have been able to increase the average order from clients in the U.S., so that’s really helped us increase our overall sales.
Anything new your mother has designed catching retailers’ attention?
Right now, we’re trending more chic and fancy for girls as well as boys. And while we take inspiration from all over the place—the Oscar’s, music awards, Hollywood—we’re currently into flashy.
That seems right up Deux par Deux’s alley, no?
It is. Our goal is to always create that ‘wow’ effect. The design process is the most important part of our DNA. For example, we love doing original allover prints and creating unique color mixes. We’re really picky about colors. There’s always a big debate over which shades of gray or which pinks to use. Each season we work off of 15 different storyboards, designing 300 pieces per collection. And while we’re inspired by high fashion and street style, we take that inspiration and adapt it to the playful kids’ universe. That’s what gives it that ‘wow’ effect.
Who are you trying to please first, kids or moms?
Of course, we want to appeal to moms, grandparents and everyone interested in children’s clothing. But our main goal is for kids to love it and make them feel great about themselves wearing our clothes. We do what we do for kids. We want them to wake up and get excited to get dressed, make them feel like clothing can be an expression, that they can be anyone they want to be. If you want to be a superhero for a day, you can.
Why did you add organic and activewear collections slated to launch in 2018?
Parents are more sensitive to organic products these days. As for our activewear, we see how mom is working out with her daughter and kids are wearing that type of clothing more often in general. I think we’ll do a great job in that category. At Deux par Deux, we like to try new things and that’s how the company has evolved for 30 years now. In business you need test new ideas. If it works, great. Then let’s continue and maybe do it bigger next season.
Might ramping up your DTC efforts be considered unwanted competition by your retail partners?
At the beginning, some of our clients didn’t like the idea. But we’ve put rules in place—like the fact that we allow our retailers to go on sale two weeks before us. We respect their businesses and many have told us that they don’t feel like we’re in competition. I believe we’ve created an omnichannel circuit where customers can look at our website and then they’ll often go to stores and shop. It works pretty well, for now. Beyond that, I think retailers shouldn’t be scared of online, rather they should embrace it ASAP. We all need to stay updated and in touch with the new generation.
It’s called keeping up with the Millennials…
Consumers are shopping completely differently than they did 10 years ago. More than ever, I believes it requires having a strong brand in order to survive. Customers who shop multi-brand stores, for example, are looking for special and unique products that aren’t available everywhere. Likewise, retailers are looking for brands that provide that special something to their customers. So our goal isn’t to compete against fast-fashion, rather to bring something unique to the market that reflects our DNA as a brand. We want to be that brand parents buy when they need a special piece of clothing. That’s why it’s very important to understand our target customers—who they are and where they shop—as best we can. There are a lot of parents who spend quite a lot of money on their children to make sure their outfits are on point. Those are our primary customers.
How do you see the retail landscape evolving?
Retail is completely changing, and I think it’s both a challenge and an opportunity. We need to see it in a positive way, be open to the future and go with it. Our challenge is to help specialty boutiques survive, who are not only our clients but our partners in business. We need to develop strategies that benefit both of us. At the same time, we have no choice but to diversify and pursue e-commerce. We need to be available, visible and recognizable to wherever the consumer wants to shop today.
What were some of the best business lessons you learned from your parents?
Persistence and follow your gut instincts. Also, do business with people you truly like and build meaningful relationships.
What keeps you coming to work every day?
A passion for improving the product and the process. My main job is finding solutions to problems. Thankfully, I have an amazing team of 30 employees who, without, none of this would be possible. They are the people behind the success of this company. I need to be there for these people. That’s what really keeps me going into work every day. I’m really passionate about what I do. •