colette's co-founder on how to create a cult store like no other

As Colette celebrates 20 years in the biz, i-D France meets one of its founders — the discreet queen of the Parisienne scene, Sarah Andelman — to find out how she keeps it relevant and what's changed since it all began.

29 March 2017, 4:10pm

On 213 rue Saint-Honoré, a few steps away from Place Vendôme and the Tuileries garden, you'll find Colette, one of Paris's most iconic stores. London has Dover Street Market, Milan has 10 Corso Como, and Paris has Colette: an emporium of all things cool, where you can buy a silk sequined Thom Browne dress for over €10,000 and a super kawaii gadget for just a few; where you might bump into the likes of Drake, Pharrell, Rihanna, Kate Moss, or the store's most loyal customer, Karl Lagerfeld.

In 1997, Colette Rousseaux, a former tradeswoman from Sentier, and her daughter Sarah Andelman, a graduate from the Ecole du Louvre and intern at Purple Magazine, decided to bring art, fashion, design, music, and street style together under one roof, and the rest is history. 

Twenty years later, an average of 1,000 people walk through Colette's doors each day, with that number growing to 4,000 during fashion week. It's a temple devoted to consumption of fashion's finest, and since opening its door has distributed over 8,600 brands — quite often discovering and supporting the next generation of talent in the process. Palace, Adidas, Gosha Rubchinskiy, OAMC, Comme des Garçons, Delfina Delettrez, Sies Marjan, Simone Rocha, Thom Browne, Edward Bess, and the like sit alongside tech, limited edition books, sweets, and a famed water bar with over 100 different varieties of water. Here, we meet Sarah, to discuss two decades at the top. 

What's it like for you thinking back on 20 years of Colette?
Everything has changed since 1997. Nothing big used to happen in Paris at the time, not even in terms of fashion. Here, Saint-Honoré used to be a real no-man's land. Our project immediately attracted interest because the idea of mixing totally different products was a novelty. People were curious about what we were going to do. There were many London and New York brands that didn't have a selling point here. I believe we came at the right time. Of course, we were criticized by some who said, "It won't work, it won't last long." I didn't directly hear the criticism, these kinds of things always come through other people. We were so focused on growing and the right choices that we didn't pay much attention to that. Even though we had quickly captured the attention of the press, it all didn't happen straight away. It took us time to attract foreign customers, who preferred to do their shopping at Dior, Prada, or Gucci and didn't see the point in a multi-brand store. 

What were the first brands that you distributed?
From the beginning, we've distributed streetwear. From day one, we sold the likes of Reebok Furys and other trainers like Adidas, Nike, New Balance. We also sold A Bathing Ape T-shirts, then Supreme. We had some Prada, Comme des Garçons, Paul Smith, and also Hussein Chalayan and Alexander McQueen: we went to London, it was the most exciting place in fashion at the time. We sold young fashion designers like Jeremy Scott and Bless. It was always important for us to mix everything up, not to have corners for specific brands but to mix them all when we dressed the mannequins. At the time, we used to change them at night, Tuesday evening used to be a sleepless night of transformation. Then we changed it to Sundays because it was healthier than spending an entire night awake during the week!

In fashion you often hear, "It used to be better before." What's your view of the evolution of the fashion industry over the last two decades? Do you feel nostalgic about a specific period?
No, not at all, apart from maybe the 60s and the 70s like everyone else. Of course, it was exciting to watch Alexander McQueen's fashion shows, to follow Marc Jacobs's first steps, to watch all those brands emerge at the turn of the year 2000, but fashion design is in good shape today. Ten years or even five years ago, no one could have predicted what is happening now at Gucci with Alessandro Michele or at Balenciaga with Demna Gvasalia. Who would have imagined that Christopher Kane was going to make Crocs? I would never have imagined these sort of products would be in Colette! That's fashion, it's never without surprises. Everything is allowed. Sometimes I can feel nostalgic about some designers who are still around but who don't have the same strength as before. That's why we recognize the immense power of designers like Rei Kawakubo and Junya Watanabe, who always manage to reinvent themselves over the years.

You're known for being discreet. Your mother recently said to the New York Times, "unfortunately it is impossible to live hidden nowadays." How do you feel about the exposure of social media and the loss of mystery that it entails?
Everyone shows what they want to show. I often think about Martin Margiela: would he be able to have that invisible side today and the same success that he had back then? There would surely have been someone shooting backstage at runway shows, for example, who would have taken his picture and shared it on social media. Some paparazzi took photos of Daft Punk's face and the photos were published. I always used to refuse to have my picture taken, but that took so much energy that I stopped. It's not because I have a problem with my face but it is because I don't see any point in showing myself. The ones that truly matter are the designers that we present here, not me!

You're always reinventing Colette, and the way you select and present work calls to mind the way an exhibition curator operates — how do you describe your job?
There is definitely a curatorial element to it because each product is selected individually, and the place it will take in relation to the other products is carefully thought through, whether it is a little gadget or the clothes of a young fashion designer on the first floor. I don't play one role or another, I put my hands into everything, I can't limit myself to one thing — what I love is designing the invitation for the next exhibition, discovering a new designer, finding a new T-shirt brand… etc.

Is the concept behind Colette something that can work elsewhere?
For us, Colette is a place rather than a brand or a concept. It is a particular world, we are a small team — a hundred people or so — who want to do things well. We are too committed to it to be able to manage another store or to delegate the task to other people.

Last week Vetements announced its decision to leave Paris for Zurich. What's your opinion on the Paris of today?
There has been a shift over the past decade, with department stores breaking new ground as well as galleries, restaurants, and even the press, with fanzines for example. We've felt the effects, but we're not really reliant on foreign clientele. I believe fashion design is still alive in Paris, I see lots of young designers coming through. Fashion will continue to be shown in Paris.

Which new designers are you watching closely?
I really liked the latest Jacquemus collection, a brand we don't distribute yet. We're selling Victoria/Tomas, JOUR/NE, Jourden, Sies Marjan etc. The goal is not necessarily to be the first to spot new talent, we always have to remain consistent with our global offering. Knowing that there are no rules, I would not systematically buy the collection of a designer we've already distributed. I look at every offering, that includes brands I might have ignored in the past. Our collection is flexible. Sometimes we make mistakes and we correct them. We mostly work instinctively. When it comes to clothes we look for a certain standard of quality. Simone Rocha, for example, has quickly created a very complete collection. The designer's idea must be thought through. We have some responsibility towards young designers. In order to distribute a designer, we must see real potential, we must see beyond the first collection. We can't wear a designer bare and then ditch them. 


Text Sophie Abriat
Photography Noah Kalina

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colette 20th anniversary