- Vivian Hendriksz |
There are not many brands who can claim they invented something as important, groundbreaking and functional as the modern day underpants. But this is an invention that French heritage brand Petit Bateau takes pride in claiming. It was 100 years ago that Étienne Valton, together with his brothers André and Xavier, heirs to the knitting company Valton & Sons, decided to cut the legs off the 'long-john' undergarments people donned underneath their clothing, thereby creating the first version of the modern-day panty. "The panty was seen as a radical innovation at the time because before then adults and children wore long underwear," explained Patrick Pergament, CEO of Petit Bateau, one of the oldest fashion brands in France. "This innovation happened in a time when women were cutting their hair short and men were shaving off their beards - it was a pivotal time in history when a lot of social changes were taking place, from the way people were dressing and expressing themselves to politics."
The panty was an instant hit, especially among children, and Petit Bateau went on to sell more than 30 million items of its hero "400" panty between 1921 and 1930. Petit Bateau panties are still in high demand today among mothers and children and in honour of one of its best selling products, the brand has created a special capsule collection based on some of its archive panties. Set to launch at a special event at Palais de Tokyo on February 6 and in stores on February 7, the collection includes Petit Bateau's original high-waisted panty in 2x2 rib and its classic panty in 1x1 rib. "We wanted to take the time to celebrate this anniversary because the invention of the panty was really the launch of the Petit Bateau brand. We decided to look inside our archive and take three different types of panties that used to be produced by the brand and modernize these historical panties for our 100-year collection."
Petit Bateau to launch centennial panty collection
In addition to launching its special centenary collection, Petit Bateau also launched an online competition last month, asking its customers to come up with own designs of its iconic panties. "We were extremely surprised by the level of enthusiasm that our customers have for the brand. We received more than 11,000 applicants for panty designs." A special jury which includes Brune de Margerie from Elle France, Bertrand Guyon from Schiaparelli and influencer Elsa Muse, who will also create a panty design, is set to select six winners, who will receive a cash prize and a visit to the company's factory in Troyes, France. This anniversary is particularly meaningful for Petit Bateau because it is one of the oldest brands in France that still produces its own knits and products, which is one of the key aspects behind its ongoing success, according to Pergament. "This anniversary does not only mark the birth of the panty, it also celebrates our own heritage and reminds us that we come from this time in history."
Petit Bateau certainly has come a long way since the launch of its panty, branching out over the years from underwear and nightwear for children and mothers to include apparel for men and women as well as accessories. "Mothers originally came to Petit Bateau to buy pajamas and panties and we are still selling a lot of those products. But we are also selling more daywear. The new mothers of today and grandmothers really like to buy complete looks from us," notes Pergament. Although the French brand is facing increasing competition from fast-fashion retailers, it continues to do well, with business growing steadily each year, according to the CEO. "We hold a strong position in the apparel market for many reasons. One because people recognize us - we are a strong brand because people trust the brand. But this does not guarantee the brand's success." Rather Pergament attributes Petit Bateau's success to maintaining the brands DNA, which includes their roots as a knit manufacturer while ensuring their product offering remains modern, creative and relevant. "We are very singular in the fashion marketplace in that sense because we produce the majority of our products ourselves and selling them in our own stores."
Petit Bateau sets its sights on becoming big in Japan (and China)
It is this singularity which has also helped propel the brand's popularity in Asia. Japan has rapidly grown to become Petit Bateau's second strongest market after France. The brand has managed to double the size of its business in Japan and aims to double it again within the next five years. Petit Bateau also has plans in the pipeline to grow rapidly in China. "We opened our first store in China two years ago and by the end of 2017 we had 34 stores," says Pergament. "We aim to operate 64 stores in the country by the end of next year." Overall he foresees Asia becoming the brand's strongest market within the next five years. The French brand is also growing in its mature markets and aims to open stores in Switzerland, Russia, Qatar, Egypt and the Middle East. For example, Petit Bateau recently opened a new store in Rue des Francs Bourgeois, in Paris, and aims to open its new store concept in its flagship store on Rue de Sevres.
But the brand is not just investing in strengthening its physical retail presence, as e-commerce continues to count for a larger part of the brand's sales. "The e-commerce side of the business has really grown recently - it has more than doubled over the last 4 years." Petit Bateau is achieving double-digit growth through its online channel in nearly each of its markets every year, especially in Japan and Germany. However one of the real issues the brand faces at the moment is how much to invest in retail and how much it should invest in digital. "We clearly see there is a shift in consumption towards the digital space, but we also need to expand our stores. The right mix of stores and digital is one of the key strategies we are working on at the moment. It is important to understand what we should prioritize and how we can convert sales between the two channels." Which is why Pergament is working on fine-tuning the brand’s omnichannel strategy and bringing its online and offline channels closer. For example, in order to help convert sales between their channels the French label is expanding its click and collect services to more of its stores and offering customers to option of ordering items online in store.
Petit Bateau to unveil new store concept in March, 2018
"Mothers, fathers, and grandparents are shopping more and more online so retailers all need to propose a different type of shopping experience to the customers," stresses Pargament. "We imagine Petit Bateau to be a unique brand, so what we want to convey are those two main elements of our brand's story in store. We want to develop something which enhances our customer's experience and conveys our history. At the moment we do not feel like our stores really convey this our customers, so we are working on that," he adds. Although Pargament is not able to share more details concerning the brand's new store concept, other than they aim to unit the brand's online and offline shopping journey into a seamless experience, Petit Bateau is keen to convey the story as well as the experience of childhood in its stores, "which is the main source of creativity" behind the brand.
The brand is also keen on communicating its sustainable guidelines to customers in store, as sustainability remains an important aspect to Petit Bateau. “For a long time, we were working sustainably without even knowing we were doing it. A very interesting a word I learned recently is ‘green hiding’, something which I think we did,” he adds with a laugh. “Of course if you are developing extremely high-quality products, then you ensure you have quality everywhere - so the issue for us is how to communicate to the customers what we do, where we do it and how we do it. We are trying to establish a database of all our products and certifications this year in order to give much more information to our customers.”
Photos: Courtesy of Petit Bateau