• Entrepreneurship

Tips from women entrepreneurs: Philippine Janssens on succeeding in fashion

Women now account for nearly a third of all entrepreneurs in France. We met with three of them, including Philippine Janssens, founder of her eponymous brand of tailor-made women’s pants. What are the milestones in her career as an entrepreneur? What tips would she offer to aspiring entrepreneurs?

You have a flare for entrepreneurship and a love of fabrics and fashion—does that run in the Janssens family?

I don’t know if genetics plays any part in sparking the urge to start your own business, but it’s true that I’ve been surrounded by entrepreneurs ever since I was little, starting with my father, who worked in real estate development in Auvers-sur-Oise, and my mother, who opened the haute couture fabrics shop Janssens & Janssens more than 30 years ago. Fabrics and fashion seem to run in my family’s DNA, since my grandmother always worked in this industry, notably for Givenchy and Saint-Laurent

It seems as though your future was all planned out…

Not at all! As a child and teenager, I didn’t have any interest in pursuing a career in fashion. I even wanted to be a surgeon when I was little. After a preparatory year, I enrolled at ESSEC planning to work in the hotel industry. That’s when fashion captured my interest, almost unconsciously. I saw the couture designers start disappearing one by one, unable to withstand the rise of ready-to-wear, while fabrics workshops and stores also closed up —my mother’s store is the last one in Paris! I noticed this decline, just as consumers started demanding higher quality and more personalized products. So, I thought there was an opportunity there. At 24, after fashion school at the Académie Internationale de la Coupe de Paris, internships with master tailors and an 80 years old pants tailor of incredible expertise, I decided to launch my own company specialized in tailor-made pants. 

How did you go about starting your company?

I watched the industry and conducted a study among 1,000 ESSEC alumni about their fashion purchasing habits. It revealed one lesson that caught my attention—on average, women visit six stores before finding the right pants, and instead of finding the best pair they always buy the least bad option. They settle. So, I decided to adapt my offer to women’s current expectations—style, high-quality fabrics and fast turnaround. 

I created a tablet app for recording measurements that makes patterns immediately and sends them to my partner workshops, all located in France. Three years later, I have my store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris, a concession at Le Bon Marché, 1,500 regular customers and an exceptional loyalty rate of 70%. I knew what to expect when I started out. But you never know how much work it will take until you are in the thick of it.

you never know how much work it will take until you are in the thick of it. 
The biggest strength of small businesses is the speed of response. We can test, adapt and change with ease.

It sounds like a smooth journey. Did you encounter any setbacks?

The short version does sound a bit like a fairy tale. Things get a little less glamorous behind the scenes, because even when you are surrounded by entrepreneurs, starting your own business forces you to face many procedures, risks and questions. I started out and managed everything on my own, with my nose to the grindstone. I was young and I still lived with my parents, so I could devote all my time to my business. In retrospect, I think it would have saved me some frustration to join a network right away and get tips, information (about financial support, for example) and a broader perspective. 

What type of support did you receive?

Three years after starting my company, I had trouble reaching the next step. That’s when I got in touch with the Women Initiative Foundation headed by Martine Liautaud, who coached me for a year and a half—during regular sessions of one and a half hours devoted to a specific topic (cashflow, finances, organization, etc.). Martine’s mentoring, kindness and outside perspective boosted my confidence and enabled me to structure my company.

You also took part in the BNP Paribas Wealth Management Women Entrepreneurs program, correct?

Yes, in July 2018—40 women from 14 countries met in Stanford, in the United States, for a week of high-level classes on marketing, finance, business strategy and more. Aside from the quality of the lessons, the week gave us a chance to interact with women entrepreneurs from all backgrounds and to build strong connections. I’m still in touch with three of them, including an American woman who runs a communications agency in New York and who helped me build my comms strategy. It’s a crucial part of developing my brand outside Paris and pursuing my company’s growth. Thanks to the BNP Paribas Wealth Management Women Entrepreneurs program, I met some extraordinary female entrepreneurs. I know I can contact them at any time. Whenever I send them an email, they get back to me within two days!

As a woman, did you encounter any specific difficulties in creating your business?

Being a woman never seemed like a handicap to me, even though I was rejected nine times before securing my initial funding through my bank partner. But the trouble arose more from the industry I wanted to work in, fabrics, rather than the fact that I was a young woman. But, as luck would have it, the person who put together my financing plan was a woman. Whether you’re a man or a woman, what matters most is your project’s quality, viability and innovation capacity. What difference can you offer? How can you set yourself apart from the competition? Those are the questions to ask! They are also one of the keys to success, too. 

What advice do you have for other women who want to start a business? 

I don’t have any magic recipe for success. Because there isn’t one. But I did learn several lessons from my experience. First of all, your concept and project have to resonate with a need—you always have to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and think about the best way to satisfy their needs. Next, don’t get carried away by your project. It’s important to take time to question, adapt and improve it along the way. Finally, support is essential—support from family and friends is a strong driver for an entrepreneur, and professional networks help accelerate your activity and keep you from making mistakes. 

No one can do everything. It’s important to surround yourself with complementary skills in technology, finance, etc.

How does the future look to you?

Today, while my business is in the growth phase, my priority is still to structure my activity while thinking about growth drivers, boosting the brand’s notoriety and offering my customers new garment services—in a way, continuing to innovate. One thing I’m most proud of is helping to maintain this expertise in France. I’m always happy to learn that a partner workshop can hire someone new because of my orders.

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