Fran and Julia Arazi—the mother-daughter duo behind Pastourelle, LLC., maker of namesake special occasion wear—share an optimistic forecast for the dress market, believing firmly that not every day must be a jeans day.
For many people the prospects of finding a dream job remain just that: a dream. That’s what makes Fran and Julia Arazi living their dream job all the more noteworthy. Not only are they doing what they love, designing special occasion wear for the company’s growing portfolio of brands, they are doing so as a family-owned and operated entity since launching in 1987. Julia, in fact, grew up in the business, serving as her mother’s design muse throughout her childhood before joining the company full-time in 2010 (eventually earning the role of creative director).
“People ask me frequently how it is working with my mom, and it’s just wonderful,” Julia says. “We just get along so well, and we have so much fun collaborating. Even on the weekends we’re sending pictures back and forth and talking through ideas. Business has always been such a big part of our relationship in our family, and I couldn’t be luckier.”
“I feel exactly the same way,” Fran says, noting they could count on one hand the number of times they’ve had an argument. “We’ve had just a great relationship from the time she was a baby. That’s one of the aspects I love most about our business: I get to work with her every day.” Of late Fran credits her daughter for introducing the thought processes of the next generation, guiding where business needs to go to please Millennial-age parents. “She’s a vital part of our business,” Fran says. “Not to mention her creativity, which she tends to downplay.”
That business consists of four special occasion lines (Pastourelle, Pippa & Julia, Marmellata and Laura Ashley) and two about to be launched: the company’s first foray in boyswear, Little Brother by Pippa & Julie, and Pastourelle by Pippa & Julie. The boys’ collection will debut at Nordstrom this holiday season following a teaser introduction on the company’s website in August. “Little Brother is something we’ve been throwing around for years,” Julia says, noting, “A brilliant buyer in the infants’ department at Nordstrom helped us get it going.” The new line, available in newborn, infant and toddler sizes, features adorable sets and no separates. “We have a few special occasion pieces for holiday and one specific for Easter, but generally it’s outfits for those days when grandma’s coming for a visit or a first day of school,” Julia says. “Something to look nice.”
In contrast, the new Pastourelle by Pippa & Julia collection will hone in on classy yet casual styles for girls. Julia says the casual shift is a sign of the times and builds off Pippa & Julie’s introduction of casual styles over the past few years. “We’ve been lucky to have loyal customers who love our more casual offerings,” she says, adding, “We’ve become a year-round business, but we felt we could better serve that market with its own label.” Launching in August at Nordstrom, Julia adds that introducing a new tier enables the company to also expand their price range. “It just feels like the right time,” she says. “As we have more and more of a direct relationship with our customer, it’s important to make sure we’re serving every need of the parent that’s buying our labels.”
Going forward that will include the introduction of new product categories under the current umbrella of brands, Julia says. While it’s too early for specifics, she envisions the Pippa &Julie stable of brands becoming more lifestyle in whole. It may even include opening stores, as well. “Ideally, we’d like to open a couple of brick-and-mortar locations, just to set the scene for our customers,” Julia says, noting it might happen within the next five years. “There’s something to be said for having a store where you can have an experience,” she adds. For her part, Fran is undeterred by the massive store closings of late as the company entertains opening a few flagships. It’s just how she operates. “I’m used to going against the general trend,” she says. “We’ve always done that.” From day one, in fact. “I started by showing the line myself, and almost every retailer said, ‘You know, we really don’t need any new vendors,’” Fran says. But that never stopped her from pushing ahead. “One by one, we’ve been able to convince retailers to give us a try,” Fran says. “We’ve always worked against the grain, and opening a few stores possibly will be no different.”
Throughout Fran’s eclectic career (one that has spanned working on Wall Street, followed by a lengthy stint as a psychologist and then finally a designer and corporate executive), Fran has consistently defied the odds. It started with her first-paying job as a clerk at a Maritime Insurance brokerage. The then high school-aged Fran fibbed about her age to land the gig. But her dream has always been to be a designer—one the she set out to pursue at Syracuse University until she took a detour and switched majors, earning a degree in psychology. She went on to run a successful practice, that is until her daughter Julia came along. Then her feelings changed—literally. “I was just so emotional,” Fran says. “Everybody said it was hormonal and I’d get over it, but I kept crying, which was more from happiness than anything.” Nonetheless, overly emotional psychologists are about as helpful to their patients as surgeons who have a fear of blood. The tough exterior Fran once held to help solve her patients’ problems softened upon becoming a mother. “I took their problems very much to heart,” she says. “A therapist cannot be very helpful if she’s crying about the patient’s problems all the time.”
Fran needed a new line of work and her recurring dream to become a designer resurfaced. “I’ve always had an interest in becoming a fashion designer,” she says, recalling an “autograph book” she had in elementary school that included keepsake prompts like, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” to which she penned, “fashion designer.”
But where to begin? Following the birth of her daughter, Fran had received many beautiful layettes. She admired the soft quality of the cotton and the beautiful fabric designs. Feeling inspired, she decided to lend her hand to layette design and her company, Giraffa, was born. “I had no idea what I was doing—no idea, whatsoever,” Fran says, noting that the first order was shipped out of her basement where her father had built a small “warehouse” of hanging racks and a little packaging room. Soon after the first shipment, however, Fran received a call from a customer—one she still does business with today—asking for a reorder. “I was completely hooked at that point,” Fran says.
The rest, you might say, is Pastourelle history.
Just how did designing layettes lead to a successful career as a special occasion designer for girls and, soon, boys?
Fran: I became inspired by certain fabrics and couldn’t help envisioning how they would look as beautiful dresses. After a little experimentation, the girls’ special occasion line Pippa & Julie was introduced (in 1987), which is named after my daughter and the title character of a Robert Browning poem. It was all cotton knits, very comfortable at the start. The response was positive. Several customers expressed how much their daughters loved wearing their Pippa & Julie dresses for their balance of comfort and style. But trying to design, sell and ship two lines proved too difficult. My layette line was just more important to the business at that time. So we put Pippa & Julie aside after about five years with the plan to start designing dresses again when the time was right.
Which was when?
Fran: Around 2008. That’s when we relaunched dresses, as well as our own girls’ manufacturing company, Pastourelle, LLC. The company became possible through a new financial partner who infused the capital we needed to make the business much bigger.
How’s business this year?
Julia: Our Pippa & Julia business has been particularly strong. It’s a brand that continues to resonate more and more with our customers. Working closely with Nordstrom and to some extent with Dillard’s has really helped. There’s definitely a Pippa & Julie girl, and you can see it in our fan base. Laura Ashley has also been performing well. In terms of licensing, there’s very few brands we could’ve worked with that we would’ve enjoyed as much as that one. It’s just so iconic. How do you say no to taking on that license? It’s a name people know, and in times when people are hesitant to spend money, they go back to things they feel comfortable with and have loved for a long time. Laura Ashley has that resonance. Marmellata, which is more of the strict special occasion brand of party dresses, has also been performing well this year.
And that’s despite an overall shift toward casual fashion. Why exactly has your company been able to defy this trend?
Fran: There’s still a demand for special occasion wear. People have special moments in their lives that they want to celebrate, and they want to be dressed properly for them. Not every day is a jeans day. I think the casual versus dressy is bit cyclical, as well. In all the years I’ve been in this business, dressy has been important at times and less important at others, but it’s always been there. What we try to do is simply be the best at whatever end of the spectrum the trend is leaning. When people are buying less dressy, they are still buying our dresses, which we are able to infuse more casual aspects into the designs.
What are some notable special occasion trends of late?
Fran: In our labels and Laura Ashley, there’s a focus on natural fibers (particularly cotton) and certainly for spring. We’re also noticing this year that there’s a lot more of that in other segments of the market. Another divergent trend that has a dressy look is long skirts, either tea-length or ankle-length dresses. Special occasion dresses have gotten very special, and now we’re incorporating a lot of cotton to make for sweet, wearable dresses that look comfortable and are easy to wear and care for.
Julia: There’s also been a trend of having dresses with more embellishment and interest in the skirts. Embroideries are so popular right now, as they are in women’s. They’re a very significant part of our line this season.
In addition to being on trend, any other factors contributing to the company’s success this year?
Julia: It’s Fran’s designs. They’re special, and each piece is unique. Every collection is designed, piece by piece and what speaks to her. I think that craftsmanship naturally attracts consumers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been shopping and I’ve seen kids pull our dresses off the rack and parade around while hugging them. There’s just something about our designs—they’re made with love and passion. That translates at the retail level.
Fran: We have a wonderful team. Everybody works so hard. It’s mostly (70 to 75 percent) women, and I think that working in a woman-owned business has been very validating and important to our employees. We really work well together. People who come here generally don’t want to leave.
Julia: We also strive to be a service-based company, making sure that everybody who we cross paths with feels taken care of. We’ve created a community in our office and want that feeling of inclusion to extend to our customers.
What is the biggest challenge facing the industry right now?
Julia: There’s so much product available and access to it right now. When people are shopping online, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether something is of quality or if it’s just easy to access and cheap. Also, a lot of brands are doing a little bit of business while consumers continue to demand lower pricing. That’s not a sustainable business model for too long.
Fran: There are environmental concerns to consider, as well. What’s good for us and the planet long term. Although retailers and wholesalers want to sell as many goods as possible, as quickly as possible, we have to consider what’s good for our children’s future and even our grandchildren’s futures.
Speaking of selling as many goods as possible, how have your retail partners been coping with Amazon’s growing dominance?
Fran: I’m surprised at the level of conversation we are having with our buyers about business overall. It’s not just about what the top-selling items are. They’re thinking in a much higher gear now. They are looking at ways to keep their store brand relevant. The thinking is not just limited to upper management; it’s people at every level: buyers, analysts, salespeople, etc. It’s really encouraging to see that. Similarly, we feel it’s important to provide our retailers with as much collateral as possible. That has become a big focus for us. A large part of Julia’s job is managing our photo shoots that show our dresses as they live, not just in static form. We would like to project as much of our experience here to the world outside, so that they can get a sense about what we do.
Julia: When you look at how retail is evolving, we talk about experiences and extra value that we can provide to our retail partners. For example, we’ve been doing a lot of in-store events and making sure to add that kind of extra value to them. Anything we can do differentiate the experience from shopping online, in a good way, and make people leave the convenience of their house we help with. I think that approach definitely speaks to the future of department stores.
That said, you launched an e-commerce site for Pippa & Julie at the end of 2015. How has that been performing?
Julia: We designed it to create a halo around the brand online. It’s really allowed us to create more of the culture on the web of what Pippa & Julie is about. And since we launched, our sales numbers are way up with most of our retailers. It has enhanced their businesses. We’re certainly not trying to undersell our retailers. We started as a wholesale company, and we plan to continue primarily as one working with our valued retail partners. That’s where our loyalty lies, first and foremost.
How do you see retail evolving over the next five to 10 years?
Fran: That’s the big question…If any of us had the answer to it, we’d be rich!
Julia: You have a generation of youth that has access to, not just fashion, but art and ideas in a way that we didn’t have when I was growing up. That’s why we’re determined to be as transparent as possible. We want to our customers to know all about us and thoroughly understand how are clothing is made. For example, where, the types of materials, our sustainability efforts, etc. We will be introducing new programs soon that help in that effort. With any luck, that will beget a generation of conscious, smart shoppers that will want to buy beautiful items in the best way possible.
Fran: Along those lines, I love that people increasingly feel free to make what they wear their own. Some of my favorite pictures on our Instagram feed are little girls wearing our big fancy dresses with sneakers or Dr. Martens—making the look their own. I love when fashion becomes individualized, and I only see that trend growing stronger in the years ahead.
Julia: Making a look your own is also good advice for any store or brand to follow. Keep it special. Whatever is special about your brand or store, be that and don’t try to be other people’s brands or stores.