Managing Asia

Managing Asia

How this fashion designer won with kids' fashion

Reporting by Christine Tan | Written by Saheli Roy Choudhury
What you don't know about Stephanie Lemaire

Starting an upmarket clothing line for children is a gamble not many fashion designers take but for French designer Stéphanie Lemaire, it paid off.

Lemaire, the founder and CEO of Château de sable, started by exhibiting her small, but growing collection at trade fairs in Singapore before opening her first shop at Tanglin Mall in 2001, in the heart of the city-state's shopping district.

After 15 years, Lemaire now owns four stores in Singapore and Paris and operates another 20 with franchise partners around the world. The company manufacturers approximately 300,000 pieces of clothing each year.

"There is a need in this market," Lemaire, told CNBC's "Managing Asia." "You can do so many things, from baby, girl,'s really fun," she added.

Despite her success, the early days were tough.

"It was a tiny shop, like 65 square meters," she said, describing her first store. "I didn't want to invest too much but I wanted to do a shop." Exhibiting at fairs about four times a month was not enough to run a business.

On the first day at her shop, she made 3,200 Singapore dollars ($2,274.10) by selling around 100 pieces of clothing.

For the first two years, the designer made each piece of clothing on a sewing machine at her home, before finding her first manufacturer in Malaysia.

Photographer | Collection | Getty Images

"It was difficult," said Lemaire for small brands to find manufacturers who were willing to produce low quantities of clothes.

Much of the creative process, in terms of designing the clothes, happen in Singapore but they are now made across China, India, Malaysia, and South Korea. Each country, said Lemaire, had something to offer that spurred her to pick them to set up her manufacturing bases for Château de sable.

"India, for example, is very good at sewing in small details because a lot of women...[have experience] in sewing," she said. China offers quality as many big brands have their manufacturing bases in the mainland.

A combination of labor costs, competition, and the exchange rate have added nearly 20 percent to her production costs in the last two years, said Lemaire. "We are trying to keep a very affordable price [for customers]."

Continuing the family tradition

Lemaire is not new to the apparel business; her grandparents and parents were in the textile industry and Lemaire trained as a fashion designer.

"When I was 11 years old, I said to my parents for my birthday can I have a sewing machine?" she said. While sewing was a skill she picked up quickly, stitching a business together was a completely new ball game for her.

After spending time working in the fashion industry in Paris, Lemaire moved to Singapore at the turn of the century.

Singapore was the right place to start the company because of its location in the region and its ease of doing business, according to Lemaire.

She initially invested 50,000 Singapore dollars to start the company and has since put in around 400,000 Singapore dollars into the business.

Château de sable today makes around 9 million Singapore dollars in sales per year, despite the subdued retail environment around the world. "I'm quite happy we're growing like this, slowly but surely."

Setting sights on China

While Lemaire insists Singapore is a good place to start a business, she has set her sights in one of the biggest consumer markets in the world - China.

"China is a bit scary," she said, referring to its vast size and also the perennial problem gripping brands big and small alike - counterfeit products.

French designer finds a chic spot in child wear

"We have already [been] copied, which is a good sign, meaning the company is doing some good things," she said. "We took a lot of time to find the right partner [in China]."

She plans to open 10 to 15 stores in China, have tie in with department stores, and tap into the country's growing e-commerce space.

Lemaire reckoned the timing was right despite the ongoing economic slowdown in the world's second-largest economy.

Late last year, the Chinese government eased its family planning restrictions to allow couples to have two children, after decades of upholding a strict one-child policy, in an effort to stem the growing problem of aging population in the mainland.

"Chinese people now can have two kids instead of one, which is very good for the business," said Lemaire.

"They love to pamper their babies [and] their kids."

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