Imagine this. A quaint little home tucked in a quiet corner of a European country owned by a young girl who loves bright colors, feminine prints, and pretty decor. You’re probably thinking of Vienne in France or the Brussels countryside or perhaps Santorini. Now can you picture something like that in the heart of Dubai?
Coralie Francois, didn’t just visualize something like that in Dubai but even brought it to life four years ago with her fashion boutique concept store Maison Clad. Originally from Belgium, Francois started her career in Dubai as a fashion buyer sourcing the Balciaga’s, Stella McCartney’s, and Alexander McQueen’s but soon realised that ironically, there is a visible gap in the fashion offerings, in the fashion capital of this region.
“After working in fashion and luxury in Dubai, I realized that there is a big appetite for fashion, but you mainly have luxury and fast fashion and there was a gap for a category in the middle”, she said. “When I came to Dubai I was a little lost in the big malls etc. and was looking for something a bit more authentic, like a boutique you would find in Europe. And with that idea is how I launched Maison Clad 4 years ago”.
Valued at AED 4million today, the concept has certainly taken off as Francois has managed to expand to 4 stores – one in Vida Hotel Downtown, two in The Collective by Ripe, and another in the Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi – in the last four years.
“I started with aed10,000 just for the first collections, which was put up as a pop-up in a corner in the Vida hotel. We ended up doing 4 pop-up stores there and after the 4th one, we never removed the store. I borrowed AED40,000 from a friend as I needed a bigger collection and a bigger investment for the store too. The store was successful from the beginning itself so after two months I was able to pay my friend back. And now with the profits from the store – a margin of 50-60% – I buy new collections every month”, she explained.
Hotels for retail
It’s not uncommon or even new to see small retailers opening shop in hotels. We’ve seen some of the major hotel chains partnering up with small fashion boutiques, supermarkets, art galleries, and souvenir stores to enhance their value proposition to the tourists and their hospitality guests. When asked about why Francois chose hotels over malls to open her stores, she had a few reasons including cost, relaxed customer experience and most interestingly, parking.
“I am a small business so I need to think smart. We would have a lot of competition in the mall as well as a lot of costs, if we were to set up in a mall”, she explained.
“I also wanted my customers to feel at home when they visited my stores. In the stores we have in the hotels, we also have restaurants so I can offer my customers some coffee or they can come with a friend and get some lunch together and have a “girly experience”. So I chose the hotel because it allows me to have a smaller space, it’s more cozy and convenient with no parking issues, which is a huge problem with the malls here. I don’t want my customers to waste time finding a parking space or walking 15 minutes to find (or miss) my store”.
Online yet personal
Despite being in hotels where tourists, international visitors, and temporarily staying guests have better access to the store, Maison Clad’s concept attracts more repeat and loyal customers instead of the one-time shoppers.
“90% of my customers are loyal customers who live in Dubai and come to us regularly. The tourists are definitely a plus for us but they are not the customers that made Maison Clad. I also go to every single store of mine and know all of my customers and I keep that in mind while buying the clothes from wholesalers”, she said.
Given the emphasis she puts on meeting people personally and creating a bond with each of her customers, the lockdown period did pose it’s unique challenges to her business model. However, she used the 3 initial months of Covid to take her business online, diversify her product offerings, and get more flexible with her business model.
“March, April and May were very challenging as I wasn’t online before the pandemic – I only had physical retail stores. During the lockdown, I decided to launch the website and by May we were able to sell everything online. We had the same kind of service and offers that we had in-store online as well. After the lockdown I noticed a lot of women were wearing sportswear and needed more homeward collections. So in July we launched Maison Clad sportswear in a corner in the Collective by Ripe”, she said.
Apart from that, she even started reaching out to her customers and offering her services in their homes. She was turning her shopper’s homes into stores and trial rooms. “We are also bringing our collections to people’s homes and trying it with them if they allow me inside their homes. Even now I book appointments with my customers to do the styling at their homes”, she said.
With four employees, four physical stores, one website, and an operation that is seeing a 50% sales growth year-on-year, Coralie Francois is all set to redefine the boutique fashion landscape of Dubai in a humble yet eloquent way.
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