Alexie Lavanchy, beyond fashion
Fashion is everywhere. So often, we associate fashion with creative ready-to-wear garments. But it can sometimes go far beyond that. Alexie Lavanchy's exceptional career is living proof of this fact.
Starting with a degree in fashion design and pattern-making, with her final year specialising in marketing, her wealth of experiences and unusual CV show that success is rarely found by following the straight and narrow. For Alexie Lavanchy, her Esmod studies still help her take a curious and unique eye to the projects entrusted to her. An eye for fashion, of course.
Planet Esmod: What do you remember of your years studying at Esmod?
Alexie Lavanchy: I started at Esmod in 1997. When I finished high school, I was a bit lost, I didn't really know what to do. I tried to study law, probably under the influence of my mum at that point. But I realised that it was not at all right for me. My dad said to me that the only time he saw me concentrated was when I was designing clothes. Because back then, I was sewing, well, hand-sewing, at home.
The biggest thing I had learnt from my entire education was that the career you choose should be something you like, because you spend so much time doing it. So, I visited various fashion schools on their open days and at the time, Esmod seemed to me to be the best option because there was a pragmatic side to their approach to fashion. It wasn't just all about creating. I didn't see myself being a great fashion designer. My abilities and limitations in terms of creating were quite clear to me.
P. E.: But don't we all get interested in fashion mostly for the creation aspect?
A. L.: For me, it was more the operational side of things that I was interested in. The fashion of everyday appealed to me. It even comforted me, to a certain extent. And when I was at Esmod, I had the opportunity to meet other students who are still my friends to this day. We have all had very different paths. I made extraordinary friends there, who I am still close with now.
At this time, I also moved out of my parents’ house. I had already taken out a student loan and I also had to work to pay my rent. It wasn't easy, because studying at Esmod is quite intense. I had a lot of classwork to do at home, so that meant staying up all night on a regular basis. At the time, I also worked in a restaurant as a waitress. That was particularly difficult in my last year. But my marketing professor really encouraged me not to give up.
P. E.: In your final year, did you land your internships straight away? How did it happen?
A. L: I did my first internship at Galeries Lafayette, for the department store's own brand, in the merchandising department. They were just starting to digitise, using software like Illustrator. A new unit had just been created with a merchandising team, to bring the new collections to the entire Galeries Lafayette network. Having got in the back door, I was keen to stay, so I applied. But at the time, to get any job at Galeries, it was mandatory to work in-store first. They offered me a job as a corner manager in Boulogne-sur-Mer... It wasn't really for me.
P. E.: So what happened?
A. L.: I refused the offer. And while I kept looking for a job that was right for me, I survived through working in restaurants. And it was actually through working in restaurants that I found my first real job in fashion design at Kookaï Lingerie.
P. E.: How can you appeal to an employer when you are just starting out?
A. L.: With regard to students who have recently graduated like I had, I would say get some professional experience, plain and simple. I had already learnt about the work environment through working in restaurants, and I had developed my skills in organisation, quickly responding and communication in a professional context. Even though my new job was totally different, I understood the professional milieu and the high standards that you needed to have. That meant I was probably more mature than the others, in the end.
P. E.: What was this first job as a fashion designer like?
A. L: I was an assistant designer and collection coordinator. So I was mostly responsible for collections of show samples. These are the first collections that come out of studios, that are used by sales reps to show to their retail clients. Some garments will be selected for sale. Others will obviously be dropped. Commercialisation is a sort of product test. At the time, Kookaï Lingerie was a license of Princesse tam.tam. This allowed the brand to go into mass distribution, shopping centres, etc. Of course, it wasn't necessarily the same materials and requirements as Princesse tam.tam, but the cuts were exactly the same. We developed the collections with a designer and I was in charge of mini-production and particularly sourcing materials with different international suppliers. I stayed there for a year, and then I started to get bored. And I can't work when I'm bored!
“My studies at Esmod allowed me to refine my taste, my sense of aesthetics, design, image... In the digital, social media era, this kind of training is essential.” Alexie Lavanchy.
P. E.: What did you do next?
A. L.: During all that time, I had not completely stopped working in the restaurant industry. On weekends, I managed a bar in the Bastille area of Paris. So I was working two jobs that year. I was exhausted and lost as to what I really wanted to do as my profession. So I decided to ditch everything, I quit all my jobs and I went overseas.
I started with a month, not too long and not too far away, in Scotland. It should be noted that, at the time, students who went overseas by themselves did so via an organisation like Erasmus. But I went totally independently with nothing but my backpack. In Scotland, I found small gigs as a waitress, au pair, etc. I continued in Amsterdam for another month. Then, I decided to go to Australia, for two months. In Melbourne, there was a fashion festival where I did a bit of modelling. Then, I worked in a bar. It was a great experience to learn to understand myself better and be more open to other cultures. But after a while, I wanted to go back to France and face the question of what I was going to do with my life. When I got back, it was once again the restaurant industry that saved me. It's an industry where you can find a job overnight...
P. E.: But your fashion design studies would not have been particularly useful there, right?
A. L.: No. But then again, you talk with people, you make connections. One day when I was at the restaurant, I met a woman who told me about a project she was working on. It was a project based around femininity, for a cigarette brand. I asked her if she would like to read my final-year Esmod thesis about women and female emancipation through fashion. She suggested that I drop by her branding agency so she could show me her work in more detail. There, I discovered an amazing world that I didn't even know existed, the world of agencies that specialise in brand strategy. Right then, an assistant was leaving the agency. So I became the assistant to the creative director and junior project manager. It was a small branding agency, Brand DNA, which doesn't exist anymore. But they had a big, trendy client, Swatch, and other watch brands like Saint Honoré Paris and Guy Ellia, as well as a bath linen brand called Hamam. We worked on brand positioning, brand promises and developing communication tools, including even developing a boutique or corner.
P. E.: Was it easy to find your place as a fashion designer in this company?
A. L.: Like all small agencies – there were 8 of us at the time – we all did a bit of everything. As well as managing client projects, I was also in charge of events management for the agency. This developed over time with fantastic events like the 20th anniversary of Air France Madame or the 100th edition of Air France magazine. I worked with graphic designers, photographers, designers and architects. I learnt many things and I matured professionally while working in the field. I worked there for 6 years. It was my first big professional experience...
P. E.: Why did you leave?
A. L.: In 2007, the agency closed. Having been laid off, I took a moment to do a skills assessment. I was a bit reluctant at first. I was very happy with the job I had at the time. But it revealed to me that with the qualifications I had, I didn't feel very comfortable applying to new agencies or job ads. It made me want to undertake further studies, through a work-study program.
P. E.: So that's what you did?
A. L.: Not straight away. I first worked freelance for a few Brand DNA clients that I had kept and for the trend consulting agency, Peclers. That's when I became sure of what I wanted to do. I enrolled in a Master of Marketing and Communication at communication and journalism school Celsa, on a work-study basis. It was exciting! Going back to school when you've already worked is very enriching, because you can get some perspective on your own experience, through the knowledge and methodologies you acquire. Afterwards, I worked for a time in a research institute, in their research and innovation department. We had to produce a presentation for Axa Banque on the concerns of French people towards new banking services. Our conclusions were supported by a review of the literature, expert interviews and qualitative consumer research. At the same time, I was also going to trade shows like Maison&Objet for décor and lifestyle and SIAL for food and beverage, and writing reports. It was exciting to dive into other sectors.
P. E.: But you still ended up coming back to fashion?
A. L.: A bit, but with a more open mind. At Peclers, I worked in the research and prospecting department, which is in charge of breaking down big social and cultural trends and defining the insights of tomorrow. It's about predicting how consumer values will evolve over the next 3/5 years and responding, through creative scenarios with the creative teams. I worked on projects for clients like Bouygues Immobilier's corporate foundation. It meant thinking about the future of housing, of cities, etc. These were big contracts, with an entirely different dimension to fashion, but just as interesting. At Peclers, we firmly believed in “cross-fertilising” sectors, that is, looking at how sectors can influence each other in their innovation process.
P. E.: So how did you end up working at Swatch?
A. L.: I came to Swatch through my network. I had been working for Peclers for a long time and I felt like I hadn't tried everything out yet. You can never try out all the possibilities available in a trend consulting agency! But I was also a bit frustrated by working so far upstream on projects and never seeing them come to fruition.
I had kept a strong connection with the director of my former agency Brand DNA, who now worked at Swatch. I sent him my CV, just to have his opinion, and two months later, he told me about an opening at Swatch France in the marketing department. I went in for the interviews and I got the job. I knew the product well, having worked on trends for them a few years earlier. Swatch is obviously a watch product, but it's also and above all a fashion accessory. Coming from Peclers, I had a lot of references at my disposal and when I arrived, I pitched them a breath of fresh air for the brand in France. As I had a good understanding of trends and creation from my fashion design background, I was even able to describe the collections and their inspirations to the sales teams, to give value to the creations in terms of semantics and merchandising. But I've also worked on communication, with customer newsletters and setting up communication campaigns for TV, print, cinema, digital, etc. It's a very comprehensive role. When you're a subsidiary, you can have a 360 degree perspective on the brand and that is super interesting.
P. E.: How have your studies in fashion helped you during your career?
A. L.: My initial studies have been useful throughout my entire working life. They taught me to always stay alert, look at what's going on around me and draw inspiration from that. "Cross-fertilising” sectors, like I mentioned before, can be a key element of innovation. I am always staying informed about trends, in fashion, design, and beauty, but also in communication, retail, etc. This is something that I have really instilled in my teams. Because that is how we can reinvent ourselves, innovate, and find new ideas.
At the trend consulting agency, my fashion design studies allowed me to speak the same language as the creative teams. I knew their references. I didn't come from a business school, so I am always thinking about aesthetics and the product. And within the consulting department at Peclers, words and iconography were just as important as the kind of examples that we chose.
P. E.: What do you want to say to students who are currently at fashion school?
A. L.: Don't think that the jobs that come from your studies will all be in fashion. There are plenty of other sectors that can make use of your specific skills. Stay open and talk to other people, sometimes it's all about who you meet! Above all, don't close any doors. You have no idea of the range of jobs that exist. My profile today means that I can bring a whole other vision, while speaking the same language as people in fashion and understanding the subtlety of their requirements.
P. E.: And if you could do it all again?
A.L.: If I could do it all again, I would probably go to Sciences Po. I would work harder at high school to be able to get in! But now, I am very proud of my path and I am very proud of what I have done, my experiences, and even of having done fashion before. I think I have acquired a certain agility in the way I work and adapt to each situation.
I think that if I had gone to business school, I would have been moulded by a system that is not right for me. My studies at Esmod allowed me to refine my taste, my sense of aesthetics, design, image... In the digital, social media era, this kind of training is essential. Having this uniqueness, this double qualification, that's what makes the difference. In a time when companies must reinvent themselves and innovate, it is essential to be able to include people with “atypical” profiles in your teams. It's a true source of wealth!