Second Time Around: Judith & Charles Make a Fashionable Mark in China

By Marjo Johne

Selling clothes to the world’s largest garment manufacturer is no easy feat, but it can be achieved with the right brand and market strategy.

Just ask Charles Le Pierrès and Judith Richardson, the husband-and-wife team behind Montreal-based high-end women’s apparel manufacturer and retailer Judith & Charles. The firm recently reinforced its international growth trajectory with the opening of a licensee store in Hangzhou, China and its intentions to to launch another store this fall in Wuhan, a city of 8.3 million people in central China.

These moves build on the brand’s success at sealing licensing deals in Qatar and Dubai.

Despite the rapid growth of the brand and its retail network, which includes a bustling online store, Judith & Charles boutiques across Canada and in New York, plus distribution through select North American retailer partners, the path to global markets has not been straight or simple for Judith & Charles.

In 2013, the company’s initial offshore venture began when a customer approached Le Pierrès and Richardson with a proposal to sell the company’s products in China under a licensee agreement. Soon after, two Judith & Charles stores opened in Guangzhou and Wuhan, with the brand advancing further expansion plans for China.

Unfortunately, the company’s growth plans in China were temporarily halted after the couple discovered their firm’s brand values and guidelines weren’t being properly upheld. “This initial partnership didn’t work out,” says Le Pierrès. “We have to protect our brand, and certain rules weren’t being followed.”

The right partners make a difference

Having learned from that experience, Les Pierrès and Richardson have since taken stronger measures to ensure their new licensee partners fully understand and embrace the Judith & Charles brand and its values. Among other things licensees must strictly adhere to the store layout and design aesthetic developed and approved by the couple.

Ensuring local sales staff and other members of the China team truly grasp the Judith & Charles concept is an even bigger challenge, says Le Pierrès.

“Luxury is still an emerging concept for many in China. We have been working hard to educate our staff and help them appreciate that not all clothes are made the same. They need to understand why we choose very select fabrics from Italy, or why particular design elements, like a pant’s flared bottoms, hold special appeal for high-end consumers,” says Le Pierrès.

To address this challenge, Judith & Charles sent two Chinese-speaking employees from its Vancouver stores to train the Hangzhou sales team and personally instil the Judith & Charles corporate culture among the China staff.

China: Challenging environment but wealth of opportunities

Le Pierrès says working within China’s bureaucratic system has also been difficult. He points to reams of documents that must be completed and filed to get goods into the country. On top of that, the Hangzhou Tower Shopping Mall where the Judith & Charles store is located is government-owned; procedures have to be followed to the letter.

“It’s as nice and modern as a mall in Canada, but with 10 times more restrictions,” says Le Pierrès. “For example, in Canada the malls usually give you a 10-year lease; at the Hangzhou mall our lease is only two years.”

Having access to good legal counsel in China is essential, says Le Pierrès. He advises foreign companies act quickly to protect their intellectual property, brand names and Internet domain names – a lesson he and Richardson learned the hard way, after a third party in China attempted to abscond with the Judith & Charles brand name.

“I had to go to court to get our name back,” says Le Pierrès. “Fortunately, the Chinese government recognized that it was our name, and the people who took it had no choice to but to give it up.”

Despite these challenges, Le Pierrès says he and Richardson are excited over the brand’s future in China. Buoyed by the sales performance of the Hangzhou store, Judith & Charles has set a target of 10 stores in China over the next five years and is exploring e-commerce in China as well.”

“There’s a big market for us here; having our clothes tailored in Canada is a big advantage as more wealthy Chinese want to buy products that are not made in China,” says Le Pierrès. “We’re just starting.”

Making it in China: Charles Le Pierrès advice on doing business in China.

  • Choose brand champions. Whether you’re working with a licensee or a distributor, find partners who will work with you to protect your brand identity and values.
  • Export your knowledge, not just your products. Send your best trainers – preferably those who speak the local language – to teach your Chinese sales team about your products, concept and corporate culture.
  • Line up your professional services team. Engage experienced China-based advisors, such as a lawyer, accountant or management consultant, who can help navigate the country’s complex regulatory landscape and bureaucracy.
  • Protect your intellectual property, brand and domain names. Make sure all registrations and applications are in place before you go to China.

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