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.
If the internet is to be believed, it certainly seems as though American women can't get enough of the "French Girl" lifestyle, whether that's in their wardrobes, their meals, their beauty routines or their homes. It feels like another article about capturing the Parisian aesthetic pops up every day, to the point that it's become a cliché. Brands which don't even originate in France take on Gallic names to sell.
So one might assume that bringing a real French brand to an American audience would be a cinch. But Sarah Benady, current CEO of BA&SH, knows that couldn't be further from the truth. "No one is expecting you to arrive; no one is waiting for the brand to be here," she explains over an afternoon coffee. "It's such a competitive and saturated market."
And she should know. Not only was Benady part of the team to bring BA&SH, founded by French women Barbara Boccara and Sharon Krief, to the U.S., but she was also integral in taking cool-kid brand The Kooples international. Before that, she began her career in corporate law, which turned out to be tremendously helpful. "As a CEO, having a legal background helps you in your everyday life; you're super comfortable when you receive a contract, you know you have that legal background that can help you every day as well," Benady says. "And not being afraid, also, to work a lot, because as a corporate lawyer, it's one of the fields where you work all the time!"
Obviously, we wanted to know what Benady has learned bringing French brands stateside, but we also asked about how she's able to raise brand awareness in a crowded market and how she finds working in the U.S. different from France. Read on for the highlights.
What first interested you in fashion?
I grew up in Paris. I always loved fashion, but I was not projecting myself specifically working in fashion. I felt I had no choice but to be a doctor or a lawyer, and I went for that; I wanted to prove to myself that I was able to do that. My first job in fashion was as a sale associate for Gucci at Printemps in France, when I was a student. I was studying corporate law and I was working on the side there, and I loved it. It's interesting, because being a sales associate, on that side of the business, makes you also really understand the customer in the field, what the team in the store is expecting, so I think it was very good learning for the rest of my career.
I started my career in New York, actually, 12 years ago, in a corporate law firm; I worked pretty hard to get that job, and after a few weeks I quit. I arrived, and I was living in the East Village with three roommates; two were bankers, and one was working in wholesale for Balenciaga. And every night, I was going back from my corporate lawyer job and asking her how her day went and I wanted to hear about everything. I wanted to know how the buying appointment went, and every day I was more curious about her job than my job.
I ended up asking her when I was quitting my job if she would take me as an intern at Balenciaga. She told me, "No, I won't. But you should maybe think about changing your job and career, because I think that you really want to do what you are passionate about. It's still the early stage in your career, so you should do it."
So I quit, came back to Paris, and took a year to experience different things. I worked for a year at Cartier in Paris and Hong Kong, on the corporate side. I stayed in Hong Kong for six months after to work for LVMH, to work for Sephora, and I opened their first store in Hong Kong. I've been lucky to have that experience, because it was in a very small team. We were four, and I had a lot to do. After that gap year of internship, I decided to do a master's in entrepreneurship at a business school in France named HEC, to make up for my law background. I wanted to be in that entrepreneurial environment.
How did you progress after getting your master's?
To validate that master's in the business school, the last three months you had to shadow an executive, and I had a chance to do that with a program at Printemps, so I came back to Printemps a few years after being a sales associate there. I shadowed the GMM there for three months; I was able to really be his right hand, and I worked with him through the fashion week, through the process of selection in new brands, for the fashion department but also for all of the departments of Printemps. During those three months, I learned so much. I think it was my MBA in fashion, in accelerated terms.
During that period, Printemps launched a new emerging French brand named The Kooples. I was very impressed by this launch, because it was very quickly one of the top performers on the floor of 10 doors. I met the founders — they were still a very small team at this stage, they were 12 people working from an apartment in Paris — and I joined them to develop the brand. I stayed there for seven years and I made a quite a long journey there.
What were you doing with The Kooples?
We were launching a development phase, so developing different markets. I arrived, and as I had this department store background, I started to develop the brand in department stores through Europe, in other places in France with Galleries Lafayette and Le Bon Marché, but also in the UK with Selfridges and Harrods, Brown Thomas in Ireland, in Germany, Spain. Once we saw that the brand was performing very well, we were continuing the development of putting free standing stores and opening in different subsidiaries in Europe for four years. I moved, for The Kooples, to the U.S. five years ago. I replaced the U.S. team that were in place and developed the brand for three years.
What attracted you to come work at BA&SH?
I grew up in Paris shopping BA&SH; it was really one of my favorite brands. Even arriving in the U.S. a few years before, I was wondering why the brand was not here. All of my French friends here kept buying BA&SH in Paris, and we were placing orders through friends when they were coming to the U.S.
When I met the founders, I knew I wanted to join them. They are two women, Barbara and Sharon, and they created the brand 15 years ago. They were so visionary. They created a brand that was for women by women, with a very, very strong woman environmental spirit within the company, which was absolutely not the subject 15 years ago in France. They were very much a pioneer in that sense. When I met them, and one of them also had a lawyer background and decided to to switch into fashion, I just loved their energy and it spoke to me immediately.
What has your experience of bringing French brands into the U.S. been like?
It's interesting, because when you bring a foreign brand — in this case, it was French brand — the first thing you have to know is that the market is not waiting for you. Then, as a foreign brand, when you arrive in the U.S., you have to work, I'll say like three times or 10 times more than a local brand, to get awareness, to get people to try your product, and to understand your brand.
I had people ask me, "Do you change the product for the U.S.? Do you change the advertising campaign?" And the answer is, "Absolutely not." We want to keep that. We want to keep that strong Parisian spirit. And then, we feel that if American women come to us, it's also because they're attracted by that.
It feels like American women, especially, love this idea of a Parisian fashion brand.
We noticed it. We don't necessarily play on that. The logo of our brand — a lot of French brands had Paris or something, and we definitely don't play on that. It's part of our DNA.
What does your day to day look like in your current role?
Every day is very, very different and this is what I like the most. Yesterday, I spent most of my day in our retail stores, speaking with our retail staff, looking at how the new collection was looking in stores. I had lunch with one of our digital partners to think about how we could implement new strategy for e-commerce. Tomorrow, I am visiting our logistic partner to think about increasing the site of our logistic platform here in the US. This afternoon, I have a pricing session with the team for the market, and Friday, I'm meeting with Nordstrom, so it's super different. But this is what is exciting, too. You're never bored.
How are you raising brand awareness?
Two different things: First, yes, we use influencers. We have our digital marketing strategy, and it help us a lot, actually, in the U.S. to speak to a community that was very similar to our community in France, and to find who might be the representation of that community here and it worked well. But our best communications strategy has been our customer. We are a bit customer-centric.
We opened our first experimental store in Nolita; it's a store where we implement a lot of things. For customers, we have a yoga class, we do their baby shower if needed, we do their bachelorette party. Every Friday, we close the store for two hours and we have what we call the the Dream Closet, and we offer [to loan] for free to our customer any BA&SH pieces that they would like to borrow. It's a way for us to have a very close interaction with our clients, and they are our best ambassadors.
What do you think your biggest challenges are in your current role?
Brand awareness is definitely the most challenging part, because once people get to know the brand — I will even say that once people get into the fitting room or receive something at home and try the brand — we know that the job is almost done. So the most important thing is how to make them realize we're here. And it's not easy — I think most people don't even know how to pronounce BA&SH. [laughs] A lot of time, they're asking, "Is it 'Bash?''Is it B-A-S-H?"
What is your favorite part of the job?
With no doubt, it is the team and working with the people from my team, helping people grow in their career.
Did you find there was any difference between the work culture in Paris and the work culture in New York?
So much. [laughs] Really, like, a lot. I remember my first day in The Kooples office, I was waiting for lunchtime, and wanted to get lunch with other people in the team. I was like, "Hey, let's go have lunch." And everyone was looking at me and saying, "No, we already ate in front of our computer. What are you're talking about? We have no time." I was like, "Ah, okay." There is so much cultural difference here; the vacation time, it can sound like a small thing, but in France, the minimum vacation that you can have is five weeks. It's the legal minimum. When I arrived here, I was surprised, because I feel that people work very differently.
In Paris, even if the French people have a reputation of working less, I think it's absolutely not true, because they may work less, for example, because they have more vacation, but they would work very hard the month before the vacation, because they know they have those vacation days, and they will be 200% committed to make things happen before their vacation. They will truly break during that week and then come back refreshed.
But then, strangely enough, I think it will be difficult for me to work in France again. I love the pace also here. I love the fact that people are answering [emails] very quickly, and that you can have a lot of things happen in 24 hours.
What do you look for in people who want to join your team?
I look for leaders and people that are autonomous, that are not afraid to make a decision, with whom I may be able to have very strategic discussions, and that will also tell me how to do things and propose a lot of things to me. I've been a CEO twice in my early thirties, and you cannot know everything about anything, so you need to work with people that know their job better than you do and that will make you learn something.
What is something you wish that you had known before starting your career?
Things take always more time than what you expect them to be. I'm going to open a store next month in Malibu, and I learned to never trust a contractor, to never trust that things can happen in a minute. [laughs]
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
I wish I could always be working in an environment where it doesn't feel like working, to always be so passionate that I'm super excited to go to work every day — even more excited to go back home to see my kids, but excited to get to go to work the day after. Having the opportunity to continue to work for brands or in a role that makes you feel that way and at the end, doesn't feel like working, so it doesn't feel that I want to retire any time soon.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.