In an interface with Made To Pleasure, Le Mill‘s dynamic founder & owner, Cecilia Morelli Parikh opens up on her business model and philosophy.
Cecilia Morelli Parikh, Founder & Owner, Le Mill (Photo: Gaelle Le Boulicaut)
Le Mill makes for any interesting study in Indian luxury retail landscape. While fashion business across the board has been badly affected, it’s amazing how this unique concept store has managed to keep itself up and running. So what’s the success mantra? To begin with, it’s a style mecca, where international luxe labels like Peter Pilotto, Mary Katrantzou, Stella McCartney, Balmain, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga have an interesting dialogue with Indian home-bred labels like Bodice by Ruchika Sachdeva, Shift by Nimish and Eka by Rina Singh under one roof. This clash of contrasting aesthetics and ideas has been the heart of Cecilia Morelli Parikh’s store philosophy. Which brings us to the question – Who’s the Le Mill consumer? What fits into her summer and travel closet? And most importantly, why would she want to shop in India when she’s travelling all the time and can shop abroad?
Le Mill store
Sprawling interiors of Le Mill
I meet Cecilia at the Melora jewellery showcase in one of the industrial hubs of the city and we discuss every burning topic in fashion under the sun currently – the see now, buy now craze, talks of reforms in the runway-to-retail format, the perks of tax refund abroad and the elusive Indian luxury buyer’s demographics. Being half-French and half-Italian, creativity has always been part of her DNA. Ms Parikh has always looked at design as an expression of the self, of function but also of a national mood and aesthetic. Working as a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman was her version of business school. Her mentor Jennifer Sunwoo always gave her tremendous responsibility and was the first person to teach her to look at fashion as a poem of numbers and creativity. Over to the inspiring businesswoman…
Looks available at Le Mill
Indian luxury retail has always been quite complicated. How has been Le Mill’s evolution over the years?
Le Mill has gone through so many different personas. We’re finally sure of who we’re and comfortable with who we are. In the beginning, we wanted to have a mix of Indian and international and then we went to being fully international. Now we’re back to this mix of home-bred and global, and the reason for that is we really tried to listen to our customers and learn from our customers in the last five years. The reason why we’re still around is because we’ve adapted so much and so often until we were confident that we knew who we were and even our customer knew who we were. I think that was really important. A lot of international clothes we buy are for events – parties, even Sunday brunches. The idea is if you’re going to spend on a dress from an international designer, you’re going to spend a little more and you’re going to want someone to see it… And what we have done with Indian designers we carry is we’ve made sure that they’re relevant for day wear. Eka, Shift, Bodice – these are brands, who’re really thinking about – ‘what do I wear in Bombay with heat, smog and the traffic and all of those issues’. And that’s what I love. Mixing these things.
An array of nifty clothing and accessories available at Le Mill
The other reason that we’re able to be still around is that we have really loyal customers. When you buy from Le Mill once, you always come back and that’s been key. We’ve grown our customer base slowly. I tell my team, every time you get a new customer, it’s like a victory for the day because I know that she’s going to come back. I spend a lot of time, money and energy on service. The big differentiation – what we can offer here India vs the shopping experience in Dubai. I’m never going to be able to be Dubai Mall and I’m never going to be able to be Bond Street but I’m going to be able to offer incredible service – whether it’s home shopping or flexible payment terms. When you’re travelling to Dubai or Hong Kong or London and when you come back to India and realise it’s (your purchase) not okay. How do you return? You can’t! These are the things I hope would make a difference in the long run.
Shop this look at Le Mill
Pricing has been a puzzling issue. How have you managed that?
At Le Mill, we keep ourselves on par with Europe. You can go online and check and despite the currency fluctuation, we could be 10 per cent less or 10 per cent above but we’re never more than 10 per cent up than Europe. I have someone in my office, who spends time googling prices at Net-a-porter.com and Matchesfashion.com to make sure we’re priced competitively. The tax refund is impossible to beat, to be honest with you. I would caution people, who’re doing too much tax refunding because now the Indian government has started following people. Theoretically you get that tax refund and you should then be paying duties in India, which nobody does. We’re doing so much by absorbing the import duties already and therefore pricing ourselves on par with Europe, which a lot of other luxury brands in India are not doing. I think that’s making a difference to our sales.
The best feedback I get from the people, who shop at the store is they’ve worn it so much. ‘My god I have got some much wear out of it’. I love that and that’s why they’re coming back because they think these are not empty purchases. The idea of a multi-brand boutique is, it’s curated. That intention in our merchandising is translating to our customer.
Le Mill SS 16: Lakshmi Menon in Balenciaga
Who’s the Le Mill customer?
The HNI (High Net worth Individuals) – the wealthy lady, who doesn’t work, who has a lot of social engagements so needs a lot of clothes. She’s of course an important customer for us. She doesn’t think so much about – ‘Can I get that in London? Can I not?’ She doesn’t have time, she’s probably hosting a work dinner for her husband’s business associates.
Then there’s the working woman – she’s younger and doesn’t shop that often but maybe she has an important function that weekend. And then there are consumers coming from second and third tiered cities to Bombay and are not confident of shopping abroad because they’re not getting the service. She’s not been considered a client when she goes to Harrods or Selfridges. She’s maybe looked down upon over there and feels comfortable shopping in India. That’s the customer we need to think most about and nurture as much as we can over here in India.
Lakshmi Menon in Balmain for Le Mill SS16
‘Fundamentally, India is not investing enough in their winter wardrobe.’
Spring today looks like fall and vice versa. Do you agree that fashion is increasingly becoming trans-seasonal?
When we are shopping fall winter collections and ordering them for the store – 50 per cent of the assortment in the showroom is disqualified from our buy because it’s too heavy. Ninety per cent of what we have at Le Mill is very lightweight. At the store, I have a surplus of cotton and linen dresses that women can wear in this boiling heat. I think about that a lot. Also, a lot of our customers are travelling. The worst thing about living in India is – ‘OMG, it’s December and wonderful here in Bombay but I have to be in London for the weekend and don’t have a coat’. Fundamentally, India is not investing enough in their winter wardrobe. It’s a shame because when they get to London they are not making the same fashion statement they’re making at home. I think about ‘buy now, wear now’ constantly. That’s fundamental to what we do.
Unlike when she goes to London in May and buys a year’s worth of clothes, which I find a bit concerning. We think a lot about the fabrics. I also feel that whatever she’s buying from us, she should be able to keep it for 10 years. I don’t believe in discarding garments. I believe in nurturing the clothes and finding them again eight to 10 years later, kind of falling in love with them all over again.
Dress by Stella McCartney and bag by Chloe
‘Saint Laurent Fall Winter 2016 show was a commentary on immediate consumption fuelled by social media’
What’s your take on the newly-proposed runway-to-retail format? Brands like Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and Burberry have opted for it, however, Paris hasn’t been open to it.
Chanel won’t do it ever because there’s so much R& D that goes into it. If you think about the whole production chain – it would mean we as buyers have to commit to clothes six months earlier, which would be possible, if fashion took a six-months break. Alexandra Shulman (British Vogue editor) suggested that we take six months off, close our stores, close the magazine and do nothing. Recalibrate. It’s good for some brands but not for all brands.
I think that the fashion industry needed to be disrupted but I don’t think everyone’s going to do it. I think everyone’s going to watch and learn from each other and there will be some sort of a middle ground. I don’t see Chanel doing that for sure. I also don’t understand why it’s such a problem for people to have to wait for six months before they receive something. I’m a bit disconcerted of immediately getting what we see. At Saint Laurent Fall Winter 2016, (Hedi Slimane’s last show) – they had no music, bright lights and models walked in carrying numbers like they did in the ’50s. That in itself was a comment on how we immediately want something we see on social media.
Even on my Instagram, I have stopped instagramming from the showrooms because I feel that let’s instagram what we can get right now, how we can consume currently. What we see on the runway is influencing what we want to wear but that’s continuity, that’s logical to me. This obsession with consuming – I don’t endorse it.
‘I’m inspired by everyone and everything around me’
You’re half-French and half-Italian. How much has living in India and Indian aesthetic rubbed off on to you?
India has influenced my style because I love jewellery. I never loved or wore jewellery until I moved to India. I feel naked if I don’t leave house without some sort of jewellery now. My style is constantly changing. Obviously, I love fashion. I’m inspired by everyone and everything around me. But I’d say jewellery is the biggest influence from India on me.
Lakshmi Menon in McQueen for Le Mill SS16
‘Fashion may have slowed down a little bit and what’s happening at Balenciaga is a testament to that.’
Having attended fashion weeks around the world, what have been your key learnings?
The best thing about fashion week is meeting other people from the industry. Otherwise, you’re thinking about marketing, you’re concentrated that way and you’re living in the bubble. When you go to a fashion week, you sit with a merchandiser from Turkey or a buyer at Saks and you share ideas. The woman is universal – she may have her eccentricities in Turkey, individualism in India, which I find inspiring. I am always inspired by clothes. The industry had gone through a bit of a slump and I am really interested in the idea of fall winter – this idea of return to the garment, understanding how important the garment is as opposed to…
Fashion may have slowed down a little bit and what’s happening at Balenciaga is a testament to that. This show was incredible. I didn’t love the runway show and then I saw the clothes in the showroom – it was couture done in a prêt way. I saw this oversized denim jacket – it was stitched in a certain way that it can be worn as an off-shoulder jacket. It really fit as an off-shoulder piece. Demna Gvasalia is transforming the garment and he’s making the garment about the attitude. It’s brilliant and it’s fundamentally Balenciaga, if you go to see. What Cristobal did, that’s what Demna is doing. Intellectualism is coming back into the industry – which is much-needed after a period of frivolity or overindulgence.