Never has the maxim that behind every great man there's a great woman, been more true than in the case of Joseph - the British brand with 99 international outposts, which is enjoying a renaissance at the hands of three clued-in women.
Fittingly emblematic of the international appeal of the brand, this holy trinity of females is made up of an Italian, a Parisienne and a Brit who hails from Sunderland. Together they have brought Joseph, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, back from the brink of mediocrity and restored it to the upper echelons of cool that it enjoyed during its heyday during the '80s and '90s.
Moroccan-born Joseph Ettedgui had arrived in London in 1960 with his brother Meurice and opened a hairdressing salon on the Kings Road. He had an eye for fashion and a knack for giving women what they wanted. He started to display knitwear from designers he admired - Kenzo and Alaïa in particular - and this was such a popular move that he opened his first shop on Sloane Street in 1972, designed by Norman Foster.
Joseph, with its monochrome leanings, became a mecca for the style minded. A place where they could hang out and shop for their Fashion Week wardrobes. The empire grew to include fragrance and restaurants but, in 1999, Ettedgui sold 50 per cent of the company to French investors. In 2005, Japanese clothing label Onward Kashiyama (which also owns Jil Sander), purchased the entire company. Shifting agendas and priorities during this time meant that the brand lost its focus and the stores lost their magic.
Italian management consultant Sara Ferrero is the mastermind behind Joseph's return to relevance. Interestingly, this is only the second fashion job for London-based Ferrero - after six years as a management consultant for McKinsey & Company she was tapped to take over at Furla where, in less than five years, she tripled the ailing accessory brand's retail figures.
But, as an Italian, she says she was aware of fashion from an early age. "In Italy, unfortunately, we don't wear school uniforms. So from the age of three, there is a competition between the little kids for who dresses in the best way, which is horrendous! And my mother's Australian and she didn't dress me up enough. I ended
up being the ugly duckling. You grow up looking at the way people dress, not in an obsessive way, but it is part of the way that people live, so you grow with this thing about clothes, about the way you're dressing. Especially in the period where I grew up, where fashion in Italy was really the leader in the market."
When I meet her at Joseph's South Kensington showroom, Ferrero has left all traces of the ugly duckling behind her. She is all sleek blow-dried hair, intelligent eyes and lean limbs dressed in black trousers, a plain white T-shirt and a black sleeveless blazer. It's not complicated but it's undeniably chic.
With Furla's impressive turnaround on her track record, she joined the Joseph team in May 2008 and was charged with overhauling the entire operation. "I remember when I lived in London in the early '90s, Joseph was the coolest place to shop. Not only was Joseph creating amazing stores, but you could eat there, you could hang out there. He developed that whole lifestyle approach to a concept store long before Colette or 10 Corso Como," she reminisces.
"I had three phases to my plan. The first was to bring back that amazing curation that Joseph was known for. For this, we hired Alain Snege, who used to be a buyer at Colette. He really was the first instigator of change and the only person that I hired when I started, I really wanted to find someone that had a little bit of that Joseph magic."
Next in Ferrero's strategy was to make sure that the Joseph shops reflected what the brand is all about. This meant refurbishing key stores in London and Paris. "They had become quite safe," she says. "So we re-energised them so that the Joseph customer could go into all of the shops and have a different experience in each one. They sell different collections so that they don't compete with each other. Bond Street, for example, is where we show off the younger designers like Alexander Wang or Isabel Marant, but Fulham Road is where to find the more established designers like Givenchy and Lanvin."
The last step in Ferrero's grand plan was to bring the Joseph own brand into line with the designer collections that it hangs next to. For this, she needed a designer who would "get" it; "get" Joseph and, importantly, "get" what she was trying to achieve with the brand.
Enter one Louise Trotter. A petite
Sunderland-born designer, who earned her stripes at Gap, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Jigsaw, and whose Northern lilt goes hand-in-hand with a strong work ethic that saw her back at work in the studio just two weeks after giving birth to her second child earlier this year.
"My first memory of Joseph was the trousers and the knitwear. That was what everyone came to Joseph for. I remember buying my first pair of Joseph trousers and feeling as though going through a rite of passage, like I've made it," says Trotter who, when we meet at Joseph's atelier in Paris, was wearing what I quickly assessed to be a version of the Joseph monochrome uniform: black leather trousers, a white Tee, a black tux jacket and black and white Adidas trainers.
She is the living, breathing embodiment of the Joseph woman: effortlessly cool, minimal but not dull, busy, smart, engaging and genuinely excited about the clothes.
"When I first started, Sara told me that the Joseph own-brand collections had to be able to stand up next to the likes of [Azzedine] Alaïa and Givenchy." A big ask, especially since, by then, the Joseph own-brand was developing a reputation as a destination for dependable basics, not for cutting-edge fashion. So how did she go about designing the kind of clothes that Kate Moss would wear, without frightening away the Kate Middletons among their clientele?
"It's been a slow process, I'm three and a half years down the line and we still have a way to go," says Trotter. "Joseph is an incredible brand with a unique heritage that we respect and honour. What we've tried to do is not alienate our customers, because we still have our loyal clientele who comes to us for great wardrobe basics and we have worked hard on updating those pieces so that they feel totally relevant. But it's not just about basics anymore, Joseph is equally becoming known as a fashion brand with its own unique hand writing. You know when it is starting to make sense when every
fashion editor is wanting to wear your clothes."
"I think the mistake you can make is change too quickly, and suddenly you find yourself with no customers, you haven't quite attracted the new customer and you've lost your old customers," she says. "So I think it is -
and has always been - important for us to have this be a considered growth. Sara's been very smart in how she's tackled that."
In March 2010, Joseph Ettedgui sadly passed away and, later that year, he was followed by Snege. In searching for a fresh pair of eyes to help direct the new Joseph vision, Ferrero enlisted the skills of French stylist and fashion consultant Marie-Amélie Suavé - the third member of this over-achieving girl gang.
"When Alain died, I really felt that we needed someone else to help us and support us, to really push us out of our boundaries," says Ferrero. "I think we are quite good in doing what the market wants, and what the customer wants but we really needed something that is much stronger to express in an extreme way what we are trying to say. Marie-Amélie is amazing, she has an amazing eye, amazing knowledge and it's been very good workingwith her, both for Louise and for myself. To not stop when everyone is telling you 'that's too much' - that's probably when we want to go further."
Suavé, a style icon to fashion insiders, started her career as an intern at Vogue Paris in the '80s, assisting on shoots with Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton. She left in 1997 to pursue a career as a consultant because she wanted to work with designers in creating clothes that she would want to photograph and wear. She single-handedly took on Trussardi and has been working with Nicolas Ghesquière during his tenure as creative director at Balenciaga. Most recently, she has been appointed to the role of senior fashion editor at W magazine in New York.
But this return from the safe (yet reputation-endangering) waters of comfortable basics hasn't come about solely because the shops have smartened-up and the clothes are cooler.
A succession of kill-for-an-invitation parties over the last few years have added to Joseph's rediscovered allure among the style set and opinion makers. Karen Elson sang an exclusive set at the Westbourne Grove shop; Pete Doherty performed at the Avenue Montaigne store to launch a jewellery collaboration between him and Hannah Martin that was being exclusively sold at the store; and there have been private dinners hosted by fashion luminaries such as Katie Grand.
"I think Joseph's latest fall collection has been one of its strongest in recent years. The brand has certainly got its mojo back and is back in the conversation in terms of the being a 'cool' fashion brand," says Harper's Bazaar's Gabriele Hackworthy, whose first memory of Joseph, like most women, was an obsession with a pair of trousers. "They are becoming famous again for the building blocks we all need in our wardrobes - a great silk shirt, a fabulous tailored pants suit, an investment coat. Joseph's own brand strength is offering women a cool modern urban wardrobe. Their ranges always include beautifully crafted, highly designed basics on par with the best luxury brands in the world but at an accessible price point. The current collection mixes perfectly with my designer pieces from brands like Balenciaga and Givenchy and I love that I can walk into any Joseph store and know that I will find pieces that are completely on trend, fit well, are well made and won't send me into bankruptcy."
For Joseph's autumn/winter 2012 offering, all of this collaborative creativity has resulted in a collection that throws military references into the mix with muted country plaids and statement pieces in animal print - with a smattering of studs for added rock 'n' roll edge. It's the kind of collection that has enough edge to be worn by Rihanna but - broken down - there are pieces elegant enough for royalty too.
So far, the results speak for themselves. Sales on Joseph's own-brand collections are up 24 per cent since Ferrero initiated her plan in 2008; and within the next 12 months, 10 new international Joseph stores will have opened their doors, with a further 50 stores expected to open in the next three years.
Ferrero's plan is working and Joseph's talented female trio is showing that success can be achieved even when living between two cities (London and Milan for Ferrero; Paris and London for Trotter; and New York and Paris for Sauvé), and even as mothers of very young children.
"The great thing is that you can have it all if you don't feel guilty," says Ferrero, whose three-year-old son was born after she turned 40 while at Joseph. "If you know that [work] is what makes you happy, and that your baby is much happier if you are happy; and that it is about quality time, not just time, it can be incredibly rewarding. Definitely, for me, it has been the best journey of my life."
Motherhood for the first time after the age of 40 is an experience that Ferrero shares with Trotter. "All my adult life I've been very much about my career. I always thought, 'oh I'll have children but I'm not really sure when'," says Trotter. "And then I hit 40 and, you know, all of your friends are like, 'tick tock'. Sara was very much a role model for me in that it was the first time I'd ever seen a woman having a child, doing her job and still being in control. I think it really gave me the courage to believe that I could do it."
It's a role that has changed the way that both women work. Trotter continues, "[Motherhood] makes you a lot more decisive about things. I used to procrastinate a lot more on things. [As a mother] you can't procrastinate, you don't have time to, so it makes you a lot more decisive and more aware of your time. Before, I would sit in the office until whatever time and think 'yeah, yeah I've got all this time to do this', but now I have to make a decision because I need to get home and bathe my kids."
And this creative assertiveness has impacted on the way that she designs. "What I want from my clothes today is different from before. I get up early every morning, spend time with my children, go to work and then often go on to dinner. I need clothes that can take me from day to evening and that still look good. I think this is very much in line with the Joseph girl. So it's not only changed my attitude from a time point of view, but how I design and fit the collection."
Ferrero and Trotter both agree that motherhood is a game-changer. So when the birth of Trotter's son disrupted plans for Joseph to make its catwalk debut at London Fashion Week for spring/summer 2013, it was an obvious decision to postpone the show.
The next big news is the launch of Joseph's long-awaited e-commerce website. Scheduled to go live in October, the site has been designed to have the same sleek, pared-back minimalism that the stores are known for. "We have arrived [online] after everyone else but we have finally arrived," says Ferrero of the site which has been expected imminently for years. The site will initially sell only Joseph's own-brand collections but it will be the first time that it has all been available in one space.
Then, after the e-commerce launch, we can expect a fully-fledged fashion show from Joseph at London Fashion Week come February 2013, which will undoubtedly put the brand firmly on the radar for anyone who might have missed its masterful return to fashion's fore. Expectations will be high (Trotter says that she will feel as if she is "in London Fashion Week naked") but, with this triumvirate pulling all the strings, it's sure to be a hit.