Founder of Kilometre.Paris
Interviewed on October 17, 2017
Kilometre.Paris, founded by fashion journalist and creative director Alexandra Senes in Paris in 2015, is a clothing brand that celebrates the idea of travel. It started with a limited quantity of 19th century vintage dress shirts and now offers an array of merchandise including inspired dress shirts and accessories. Each piece features hand embroidered imageries that represent different travel destinations. Kilometre.Paris products can be found on its website and at selected retailers from all over the world.
What is your background before founding Kilometre.Paris?
I have been a journalist, and I continue to say I am a journalist. I still write stories for publications sometimes. I was the founder and editor-in-chief at French magazine Jalouse from 1998 to 2006. Then I left to start my own creative agency Société d’Alexandra Senes, where I worked as an art director and consultant for brands and projects such as Hermés and Pakistan Fashion Week. I also wrote a book about Paris called Le Paris du tout Paris. Most recently, in 2013, I was appointed by Hearst to edit the French Harper’s Bazaar, but sadly it was suspended after a year.
After the aborted mission with Harper’s Bazaar, I was wondering around a flee market one day, thinking about what was happening with the media. Randomly, I saw a woman selling some white vintage dress shirts. I had no idea why but was immediately attracted to them. I asked how many she had in stock, and she said around 400, and I told her to sell all of them to me. I just had an intuition. I think there should be something to do with them. As someone who always wrote stories on blank pages, I thought I could fill in the shirts. I had already been wanting to start a fashion business for awhile but was never ready to jump into it. Because of this “trouvaille”, I decided to pursue it!
How did you come up with the name and concept?
Actually, in 2012, I had an idea of t-shirts with words of travel destinations and their corresponding GPS. I went to see Sarah Andelman at Colette. She really loved the concept, and she said she would sell and support the brand for a year if I would create the collection. So I just did the t-shirts as a one-time project since I was still a full time journalist at the time. I was really happy to be sold only at Colette, so I didn’t even talk to other shops. The name of the line was called Kilometre, so when I officially launched the brand four years later, I used the same name. I liked Kilometre because it is a distance measurement, and it is both French and English spelling. The DNA of Kilometre is travel. Fashion travels, and at the same time, people who travel wear and discover fashion. Although some brands have incorporated travel themes, such as Hermés and Louis Vuitton, there isn’t a brand that only celebrates travel. Meanwhile, the souvenirs sold at tourism offices are tacky and not fashion.
How did you come up with the logo?
I had a logo for the t-shirts we did for Colette, but it wasn’t well thought of at the time. When I looked at it again, it felt outdated. It was not easy to change the size to fit all platforms. I then worked with graphic designer Clep Charuet. She suggested many logos, and I fell in love with this one. Many fashion logos are rectangular and black and white so that they look luxurious. The round logo is like a dynamic cycle. I also changed the name from Kilometre to Kilometre.Paris. It not only shows that it is a Paris brand but the name is also the website URL. “.Paris” was previous only available to the government, but suddenly some brands were allowed to buy the domain. Having Paris as part of the name is also more coherent with our idea of travel. Some people have also told me that the logo looks like a stamp on a postcard. It is good that people can see it that way. Postcard stamps make you want to travel.
How did you design the website?
I want people to get lost on my website, unlike the three-click rule for other e-commerce sites. You can check out the destinations, the blogs, and even video interviews called GPS (Gens Particulièrement Sympathiques or Great People Society). Right now the blog does not have enough content, but I hope to hire a journalist to write for the blog soon. The idea of the website is to reflect chicness and spirit rather than expensiveness and luxury. The website is in English not French because Kilometre is an international brand. I would love to have the website in French as well, but I don’t have the budget for it now. We have a web designer based in Russia who works for us and charges a monthly rate.
Tell me about your production process. How did you source your suppliers and manufacturers?
The old pieces that I found at the market are embroidered in Mexico so that they can directly embroider on existing shirts and not cut them open. The inspired pieces are made in khadi, which is hand-woven cotton in India. It is a super beautiful cotton that can get old and withhold multiple washes. Poor people in India wear them in their villages and pass them from generation to generation. My friend introduced me to Bapan who is our head of embroideries. He then introduced me to a village that makes khadi. Patrick Stephan, who is our designer, introduced me to Prakash in Mumbai. Bapan and Prakash don’t work with the same materials and don’t have the same skills. Prakash works more on none hand-woven cotton, while Bapan with hand-woven cotton. They also embroider with different techniques as well.
How did you decide the price?
Pricing is a big problem for us because everything we do is super expensive. The old pieces are currently priced around $2800 and the inspired pieces $750. I would want to price them around $2000 and $500, but it is just impossible. The cost of embroideries along for the old pieces is €500, plus there are transportation, tax, etc. Shops also add a large mark up. If I only sell directly to customers on our website, the price would be a lot less. The fact that the collections have been sold well at multiple shops shows that there is the demand for the shirts in spite of the price, so we could maintain the price. Our customers understand that hand-woven, hand-embroidered shirts are worth the price, and when we see a simple white shirt from a luxury brand sold for $800, we don’t feel as bad, because we offer so much more.
BUILDING THE TEAM
What were you looking for when you hired your team?
I look for people from all over the world because I am curious to learn different cultures, and it is interesting to work with diverse people. For example, an intern from Nashville helped us on the Nashville shirt design and travel guide, and an intern from China helped us look for shops in China. Because it is a startup, there is always a place for someone, whether it is the creative part such as design and writing or the operation part. But I don’t want someone who is only working on logistics. I want that person to be involved in many different tasks. I need people who are flexible and can juggle with different tasks.
As the founder of a fashion brand, you actually don’t do any of the design by yourself. How did you find designers and make sure their design could meet your expectation?
People think I am a fashion designer, but I call myself a conductor. Every year in June, I go to three design schools to scout young talents, for the magazines I worked for or my clients before, and now for my business. The three schools I go to are École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, Penninghen, and École cantonale d’art de Lausanne (ECAL). People coming out of school have ingenuity and naivety. They are craving to learn and build something. Whether I work with them for six months or three years, I can always get something out of their creativity.
A really good talent is wanted by a lot of companies. How did you convince that talent to work for you instead of an established company?
The first person who took the risk is Appoline Risser. She went to Penninghen. She wanted to intern for the magazine I worked for, but I told her that I would start my own brand in six months. I asked if she could do 20 drawings of destinations for me. She immediately loved the project because she could really expand her creative horizon. She was wanted by a lot of big brands at the time but decided to devote six months and really invested in Kilometre. What people see in a small brand is the relationship between them and me. There are no hierarchies or middlemen, so their drawings would always be seen. It also allows much quicker decision making process because we started with only three people. They can do so much more here. We offer this flexibility, and they need to learn to adapt their design on different types of products.
How did you finance the company?
I started with my own savings of €50,000. No banks would give me loans. I was actually €10,000 short, and I asked my bank to give me a loan. They refused. I literally told them that I would sleep here and become a hooligan until they agreed to help me. It was also very hard because I had to prepay for the production before the shops pay me, and I couldn’t cut costs because of the high quality. I did not have any investors, but at some point in the future I would consider of bringing in one.
How do you market your brand? Especially since your brand has such an international presence.
The shops do a lot of marketing for us and push for our brand. We also do a lot of pop-up events. For example, we did a dinner in Tokyo and windows for Selfridges. I travel to these cities to promote the brand and meet the customers.
What about PR?
We do PR in house. At the beginning, I wrote to a lot of press, and some reached out to us. Now many people would reach out to us and request our press kit.
How did you do when you first launched? Barneys was the first retailer that bought the collection, but unfortunately it dropped the brand. Why is that?
We are grateful that Barneys bought our very first collection, and our collection debuted at the same time when the Chelsea location opened. We were given a display area and treated the same way as other big brands. To be honest, we didn’t know why Barneys dropped the brand after one season. Sales were good, and we met the sell through agreement. We never asked them, and the buyer who worked with us left, so we don’t have a New York presence anymore. But now we are approached by so many other stores. I think being sold in places like Sunroom in Austin is just as, and maybe even more, exciting.
How do you manage the competition with other similar brands? Did you do any competitive analysis?
No we didn’t. We had to ignore that. Otherwise we would freak out and lose time. Right now, we need to concentrate on design, quality, and deliveries. I believe the market is big enough to share.
I meet people and read. I learn a lot from my team. I wake up at 6am and just inform myself on everything from 6am to 10am before I officially start my day.
Figuring out import and export. We had packages stuck in customs and got charged a huge fee.
I can reinvent myself everyday.
In the fashion world, you need some money to start. It is an expensive business. There are just costs that you can’t kill.