Importing and distributing an overseas product might sound like an easy way to get started as an entrepreneur, but there are many who have tried and failed, and who will attest to the challenge involved in making it happen.
There’s the marketing of an unknown product to consider and relationship-building with both producers and retailers, not to mention the minefield that is importing. But in spite of these challenges, there are those who get it right, like Jocelyne Philippe, exclusive importer of the Bensimon fashion label to South Africa.
Drawing on past experience
Donning the Bensimon clothing label she’s brought to our shores, Philippe is the picture of cool, casual French chic. But beneath the style and sophistication lies a hard-nosed businesswoman with a wealth of fashion industry experience who’s determined to make a success of the brand in South Africa.
After working in various positions for major brands like Levi Europe, Billabong Europe, Polo, Ralph Lauren Paris and Lee Cooper Paris, Philippe took the leap into starting her own business when she opened a Bensimon boutique in Biarritz in her native France.
“Although the Bensimon brand is well known in France and Europe there was nothing like it in Biarritz, which is an up-market weekend destination on the west coast of France – much like Knysna. I saw a gap for the brand and approached Bensimon to secure the rights to open a shop there,” she explains.
Securing local market rights
When her husband was relocated and she moved with her family to South Africa, Philippe sourced a top-end manager to continue to run the French store, which she still owns. But it wasn’t long before she started looking at the South African market with a similar eye for opportunity and realised that Bensimon would fill a gap here as much as it has done in Europe.
She explains: “Bensimon is a ready-to-wear lifestyle range of stylish clothing and accessories that is based on casual comfort and an easy, understated style. The range is known for the quality of the natural fabrics it uses, which include silks, linen, wool and bamboo material.
It targets everyone from children right up to 60 year-olds so it has enormous scope. The prices reflect the quality, but they are not outrageous.” With a strong conviction that the South African market would be receptive to such a brand, Philippe set to work conducting market research and putting together a business plan, strategy, figures and a proposal to take to Bensimon in Paris.
Excited about the opportunity that South Africa presented and confident in Philippe’s proven ability to make their brand work, the company awarded her exclusive importing rights.
Gearing up, getting out there
This is when the work really began in earnest. While Bensimon might be well established in Europe, local boutique retailers (Philippe’s first route to market) had to be sold on the idea of stocking it. This meant an exhaustive round of cold calling and relationship-building – in the middle of a recession, arguably not the best time to be punting an up-market fashion label.
But there were things working in her favour, as Philippe explains, “Fortunately, there is a story to be told about the brand, which was started 25 years ago by the Parisian Bensimon family. This, together with its success in Europe, made selling the idea easier.
And because the brand is new, boutiques felt that stocking it would give them a differentiator,” she says. In a relatively short space of time, Philippe went from zero to 20 retail outlets in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Drawing on importing experience gained while working for a Belgian garden and outdoor company when she first arrived in South Africa, Philippe contracted a local importing and logistics company to manage the many challenges of importing. “There is so much red tape and you have to get someone who knows exactly what they are doing,” she advises.
Building awareness, looking ahead
She also hired High Pitch Media to build awareness of the brand in the South African market. “In a short space of time, they’ve gained Bensimon exposure in local fashion publications such as Elle, Cosmopolitan, Glamour and Marie Claire,” she says. Retailers report that sales are picking up and the brand is gaining traction.
“My next step is to open a boutique for the brand, and to take on a business partner with local fashion industry experience,” says Philippe. It’s early days and Bensimon might be a brand you haven’t heard of yet, but Philippe is working furiously to change that.
“I think I got into the market at the right time. There is increasing international interest in the South African market and we’ve established a foothold for Bensimon before the flood of other brands arrives. There’s still much to be done but the future’s looking good,” she says.
JBSA Fashion Consulting
Player: Jocelyne Philippe
Contact: +27 11 513 3000