In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
It’s rare that a store with only two locations (in the same city) gets as much buzz and acclaim as The Webster. Like Opening Ceremony and Colette before it, the chic, multi-brand boutique has become a necessary pit stop for stylish tourists in Miami. Located in a restored hotel in South Beach’s art deco district and merchandised unlike any other store I’ve been to (in a good way), The Webster’s flagship definitely has something special.
And it came out of a special opportunity for French-born Laure Heriard Dubreuil, the store’s CEO and co-founder, who opened The Webster with two business partners — Frederic Dechnik and Milan Vukmirovic — in 2009, at the peak of the Great Recession.
As Dubreuil prepares to open the store’s first location outside of Miami — in Houston this November — we spoke about making the switch from merchandising to buying, how she got The Webster to take off at a difficult time for retail and the importance of Art Basel to her business.
How did you first get into fashion? Was it something you were always interested in?
I wanted to become a nose originally, the people that create fragrances. I started doing some internships in some fragrance companies and with fragrance creators and I realized it’s such a slow pace; it takes like three years to create and launch a fragrance, whereas in the fashion industry, every two months you have a new collection. I was attracted by the pace of the fashion world and the rhythm and that’s how I decided to go to FIT to learn more about merchandising and then I started with an internship in New York and I met with Nicolas Ghesquière, the designer of Balenciaga at the time, and he hired me and I worked with him for several years. It was such an amazing experience and I learned so much from him and I worked for Saint Laurent with Stefano Pilati as a merchandiser and then I decided to move to Miami and start my own business and I fell in love with Miami and it was an amazing opportunity because there was Art Basel bringing this amazing crowd to Miami and there were no multi-brand fashion stores. It’s so close to New York, with the cold winters, and it’s close to South America, Latin America.
What did your jobs entail at Balenciaga and Saint Laurent? How did you use that experience in opening The Webster?
What I loved that was very interesting is, I was the link between the creative studio and the stores — the retail stores but also the wholesale stores and in different areas of the world. I was gathering all the information regarding the sell-throughs and the requests and what each store was lacking or was selling really well and it was very interesting to see all the differences in the markets, compared to what was happening in the creative studios in Paris. That’s what was helping me also because I really respect and admire and love the creative process, but I also know how to adapt it to my market.
Was opening a store something you'd always dreamt about or was it just an opportunity you took because it came along?
It’s more an opportunity that came. But, I had to get the business experience to know what I wanted to do and what was the path, and I couldn’t have done it earlier. [The experience of working for other brands] helped me so much. I had lots of responsibilities in my previous jobs at such a young age and I learned so much. It gave me the wings to continue on my own.
I know you had business partners when you launched. What was your role in getting the store open in the beginning?
I am the CEO and founding partner; at the beginning we were very few people so I was involved in every single part of the business and my biggest part was the concept and the decoration and the interiors, and to create the soul of The Webster. The biggest time-consuming part, which is very recurrent, is the buying process. This is a very big part of my job for men’s and women’s between New York Fashion Week, London, Milan, Paris and pre-collections.
It's interesting that you went from the merchandising side to buying. Was that a difficult transition? What's your approach to buying?
Even if I wasn’t buying [in my past jobs], I was on the other side, with the sales team, so I knew the whole process and I knew already what the stores were requesting from the brands I worked for, so it was a very natural and organic process actually.
I curate every single piece and I love every single piece and I go with my instincts. What is really, really important is that it’s timeless. That's the way I wear my clothes: I love them and I want to keep them and wear them over and over again. It can be super fashionable and trendy pieces, but not pieces that go out of style after two months or you wear it once and you don’t want to wear it again. Of course, there’s the influence of Miami and the weather and you want more cocktail dresses and lightweight fabrics and colorful prints. But I buy also for my clients who are coming from everywhere in the world and are shopping everywhere in the world, so it’s important to get things at The Webster that you don’t find anywhere else. I work hand in hand with the designers I carry to come up with exclusive pieces, so we design capsule collections together, or let’s say there’s a shoe I like, so we do it in an exclusive color for The Webster.
What strikes me about the store when I walk in is the merchandising. Everything looks so beautiful and exciting on the racks, and, interestingly, you don't group everything by designer.
I’m extremely in love with merchandising. When I select the pieces, I kind of have them all in my head and that is the way I make them work. I’ll see a top that’s one brand and think, oh, that would be perfect with the pants that I bought somewhere else. That’s the way I do my own styling, with mixing and matching the brands together and that’s something that I’m very happy and proud of because I have so much respect from the brands that nobody’s asking me that they want their brand to be separate from the other ones. They actually love the way that I merchandise, because it gives a different point of view. Also, I think it’s easier for our clients because they already have some suggestions for how to style the pieces together. And we change it all the time, to go back to the timeless aspect, we pair things you can dress up dress down, and try not to take it too seriously.
How did you find the building and why did you decide to open in that part of Miami?
I fell in love with the Art Deco architecture, which is unique [to that area] in the world, with the pastel colors. With the beach on the water, it is just incredible, and I wanted to preserve that and I wanted to restore one of these buildings and make it even more historic than it has ever been. The Webster is the original name of the building; it was The Webster Hotel in the '30s and it’s one of the landmarks of South Beach and of Miami. It made sense to do our flagship in such an institution and such a beautiful place that's so special and unique.
From finding the building to opening, how long did that take?
It took a long time because I did a lot of renovations and because of the whole permitting process, so it took like two years. I had a temporary store down the street on Collins in the meantime, one building for women’s and one building for men’s. It was good because I could start clienteling.
What was the biggest challenge in opening the store?
The biggest challenge is that, because the renovation took so long, I opened at the peak of the recession. Also, a big challenge was for people to come to South Beach and come to The Webster for shopping because there wasn’t any high fashion shopping habits in the area. It was [challenging] for people to find The Webster and also to understand that The Webster was actually a store, but that’s what also makes it so special and kind of like a secret place, so it worked both ways, but I think the economic surroundings and having the recession at the opening... it wasn’t the easiest time.
How did you spread the word and get people into the store?
Art Basel was a big help because you have this extremely refined and sophisticated crowd of artists and art collectors and galleries coming all at once to Miami and coming to The Webster and then spreading the word. That was amazing because they were spreading the word worldwide among extremely refined artists.
What is your day-to-day life like now? Are you traveling between New York and Miami a lot?
I travel all the time. I have to say the quality of life in Miami is incredible because the weather of course and the sunshine and I love to swim. When I’m in Miami, I swim in the morning and then I go to the store and I always have so much to do when I’m in Miami, from running the operations, working with my team, and now we have the Bal Harbour location, so I’m going between the two locations and I usually leave the store after it closes. It closes at eight, sometimes even later if we have some clients, so I leave the store then and then I like to have dinner outdoors, enjoy the nice weather as much as I can.
Right now you do e-commerce through Farfetch. Do you think you'll ever launch e-commerce on your own?
Yes definitely, it’s something that I’m thinking about. I’m very happy with Farfetch right now, but yes, I will do my own e-commerce as well.
You're about to open a store in Houston — how did you decide on that city for your first location outside of Miami?
I have a lot of clients from Houston who were asking us to open closer to them and also there’s not many multi-brand stores there as well, kind of like how Miami was at the time, so it makes sense. The climate is also very close to Miami, even though they have a winter.
Will that be your strategy for opening stores in the future — cities that don't have a lot of multi-brand stores?
It depends; for sure I want to open more locations no matter what. I don’t know yet, I’ll see what other opportunities come around.
And lastly, any plans to launch an in-house line?
Yes of course, that’s something I’m thinking about as well. But right now I’m very busy with The Webster and I love also collaborating with the brands I carry... but why not do my own one day?