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Exclusively digital until now, AZ Factory will operate a pop-up store in Paris that will straddle the fashion weeks for men’s and haute couture — and foreshadow what Alber Elbaz’s start-up is morphing into.
The 3,500-square-foot space at 16 Rue de Minimes in the Marais district, open from June 21 to July 8, will be part specialty store, part showroom, part brand incubator and part cultural curator, elaborating on the serial collaborations initiated in the wake of the founder’s passing — with designer Thebe Magugu the first “guest amigo” and Esther Manas the second.
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Magugu’s collection for AZ Factory will be on sale, Manas’ will be shown to buyers and press, while a third amigo, recent fashion graduate Cyril Bourez, will unveil 35 one-of-a-kind looks interpreting iconic Elbaz designs via upcycled vintage Americana: Hawaiian shirts, sports jerseys and the like.
Courtesy of AZ Factory
Down the road, AZ Factory might even consider investing in some of the talents it brings in for projects, which would make it something of a mini conglomerate within Compagnie Financière Richemont, which forged a joint venture with Elbaz in 2019. The start-up unveiled its first fashions in January 2021, centered on smart fabrics and with storytelling, problem-solving and entertainment embedded in design, distribution and communications.
Disclosing all these new developments in an exclusive interview, Richemont executive Mauro Grimaldi called the pop-up “a tactile experience of what we want to do with AZ Factory in the future.”
Since joining AZ Factory last January, Grimaldi, a strategic adviser to Philippe Fortunato, chief executive officer of Fashion & Accessories Maisons at Richemont, has been fine-tuning and elaborating the strategy and business model, which retains Elbaz’s central idea of “smart fashions that care” launched via product “stories” rather than collections.
“We want to support independent creativity,” he said. “I think it’s something very important for all the big groups in luxury.”
Grimaldi, who was previously CEO of Printemps International, said AZ Factory is planning about six product stories a year with guest creatives, and it already has collaborating amigos lined up through March 2023.
While its first three guest creators qualify as young designers in need of support and help at a critical juncture in their development, AZ Factory is widening the profile of creative partners it will invite. These could include:
Well-known, seasoned designers who may be at a turning point, or a bit out of the spotlight, as Elbaz was when he forged the JV with Richemont
Recent graduates and high-potential students from well-known fashion schools
Left-field creatives not directly related to fashion. For example, AZ Factory already conscripted Italian DJ collective Club Domani from renowned Milan club Plastic for music creation, and possibly a merchandising project down the road.
All the guest amigos will find benefits analogous in some ways to fashion prizes, only offering an entire ecosystem — a design studio, atelier, marketing muscle and communications channels — all the team members recruited by Elbaz before his passing.
Grimaldi noted that Magugu and Manas “loved this exchange with strong professionals and the possibility to work with a wider team than they’re used to,” he said. “We offer them financial support… We produce and finance this collaborative collection, and we distribute it through our website and other platforms such as Net-a-porter and Farfetch.”
AZ Factory also organized a showroom for the Magugu collaboration and sold it into an extra 30 specialty stores, including Selfridges, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
Courtesy of AZ Factory
“There is such a huge curiosity and interest for new designers,” he enthused about the retail reception.
“From a consumer point of view, we would like to become a beautiful e-shop where you can find collections that are unique,” Grimaldi said. “So we are moving from being a brand to a tool to support, finance and distribute collections.”
He noted that some creative amigos could become a recurring part of the AZ Factory offer, while others might be one-offs. “Each collection will follow a different trajectory,” he said, noting that product stories would likely reflect a diversity of price points, and some will be distributed in only certain parts of the world. “We really operate with the eye of a retailer.”
Grimaldi noted that visiting designers could stay longer than one season, or even attract investment from AZ Factory.
“We only consider brands or designers with which we can potentially create a long-term relationship. And we start with a one-shot collaboration in the same way in which a retailer selects a new brand to carry, thinking of the long term, but perhaps ends up buying it for just one season.
“Each of the projects we are doing, potentially, they can become long-term ones,” he added. “We have values in common, which are Alber’s values, and from there we start.”
“If we succeed in financing, and distributing a certain number of emerging brands, this could become for sure a profitable activity,” he said, drawing an analogy to successful multibrand showrooms with a strong curation of brands and business outcomes.
The pop-up gives further clues about AZ Factory’s cultural and esthetic universe: Participants include stylist and photographer Maripol, who will display Polaroids and jewelry, and hit the decks with her son; Milanese ceramics studio Atelier Brume; jewelry designer Marion Vidal, and fragrance house Sous le Manteau.
“We love this idea of keeping the [AZ Factory] project as a kind of ‘mutant’ entity that adaptS itself to different situations,” Grimaldi said. “It can bring the group new energy, new inspirations and new different angles to continue to analyze what is happening in fashion.”