Interview Gino Delmas
Photography Courtesy of Centre Commercial

Shopping Center

Eleven years ago, Sébastien Kopp and his childhood friend François-Ghislain Morillion founded Veja to make sneakers that were environmentally friendly from heel to toe. Five years ago, the pair decided to widen their horizons and create a store/creative space. The result was Centre Commercial, on Rue de Marseille near the Canal Saint-Martin and the Place de la République, an up-and-coming part of Paris’ 10th arrondissement. The space welcomes not only one of the capital’s most exciting and interesting selections of mens and womenswear (and later kidswear), but can also be transformed into a meeting space/melting pot for product launches or events. MAN met up with the founder of a project that never stops being surprising. 

(This piece was featured in our AW16 magazine - January 2016)
How did you come up with the idea for Centre Commercial?

Veja was a quest, a maiden voyage. We launched it with €5,000 each, and it grew organically, meaning we kept our independence and huge freedom. When it took off, we said it would be cool to set up a place that could be the catapult for other projects that seemed fun, but weren’t necessarily available elsewhere. Just by going to trade shows we came across projects, perhaps not as socially committed as Veja, but with a specific viewpoint. The common trait of all the participants of Centre Commercial is transparency of production: they know where they manufacture, without it necessarily being something they make a big deal out of. We wanted a space where we could bring together our commitment to fashion, the environment and the social. Since the beginning we’ve seen it as more than just a store. It’s also a space that can host events, meetings. For us it was the expression of the digital generation, the first that grew up without and then with the Internet. We wanted to find that freedom of expression in a space. 

Which brands have been stocked since the beginning?

Yesterday’s cornerstones are today’s cornerstones. Bleu de Paname, Roseanna for women, Church’s, which is one of the rare brands still to manufacture in the UK. Or Paraboot, an anachronistic old French company, which still manufactures in Grenoble and had completely disappeared from stores. Veja could have cut us from different ethical or social approaches, but in fact there are lots of different types and we wanted to bring them all together in one space. Veja showed it was possible to produce differently; Centre Commercial is a mix of commitments. it’s not a brand, it’s a movement. 

How have customers welcomed that approach?

They’re interested by it. We wanted to mix fashion with a sustainable and socially based approach to create one of the coolest stores in the world. After five years, we’re really happy with how far we’ve come, even if we’re still right at the beginning of the journey. The space has been hybrid since it began. We have organized book launches, such as Julian Assange’s about Wikileaks, or projects like Enercoop, a green-energy company, which is the French environmental project. To create an atmosphere for that we emptied the store, and forced everyone to wear boiler suits and army gas masks. Everyone took the piss and then two weeks later Fukushima happened. Really soon we’re going to have the French launch of Fairphone, a new cellphone made in a more sustainable way. Centre Commercial is a crossroads where we mix people we like and products we love. We’re lucky enough to do what we love – which is a privilege – and when you do things out of love, then it’s hard to go wrong. 

How often do you work on special projects?

It depends on what we love and who we meet. Sometimes three a month, sometimes nothing for two months. Now we plan further upstream, concentrating more on quality. It’s really about who we meet: some people come to see us; others we go and see because we like what they do. We love that, sticking with people, working together in the long term, as well as finding new sources of energy. Everyone involved in Centre Commercial has inspired us enormously, even if they don’t realize it. I really admire each project we stock. I need them. 

How would you describe your style?

I like useful, hard-wearing clothing, quite basic, with few logos. I hate buying trendy things; I love the idea of clothes you can wear for the rest of your life, without getting bored of them. Not the ephemera of a season. We like climbing gear, workwear, military gear. We have reworked that in Centre Commercial. 

Where does the name come from, by the way?

There were two sources of inspiration. Firstly, sociologist Mike Davis’s Dead Cities books. Each chapter is a city, in which he deconstructs the idea of cities that we have. He discusses Kabul, Dubai, Sun City and US cities in a totally unexpected way and explains why these cities are world centers today. For him the city of the future will be a mall. This is because of their panoptic nature – transparent in all senses of the word. They are places where you are permanently filmed and turned into big data. Then there was Bernard Stiegler, a philosopher who has worked extensively on consumerism and the deadening effect of the mall on consumption. How it is a place you go to waste time, so it becomes a leisure space. By giving the store that name, we wanted to say that the future is not inevitable; we are not just victims. The future will be what we make it. Everyone in their own way. We had lots of problems with real French malls that didn’t find it funny at all. We did, though. 

Why did you choose this neighborhood for the store?

Rue de Marseille is my favorite street in Paris, the one where I feel most at home.There are hardly any cars, and each time I walked down it, I would say, “I’d love to live here”. I didn’t look anywhere else. I knocked on every door. There weren’t any ads. It took a year and a half. It was a whim, but it was important for me. Everyone told us, “This neighborhood is rubbish; it’s dead”. Back then, they thought we were mad. But I thought that was a good sign. [Laughs] 

How does the project work?

The goal was to create a space in which people would realize that you can build collaborations and bridges. It takes an insane amount of energy. The team only really found its balance about a year ago. We had to find the right blend of ambition for the different projects and people. Which is normal for a project that’s so complex. Since then, it’s been incredible. 

Who manages buying and the selection?

I’m less present than 18 months ago, but before that I was there way too much; I did nearly all of it. Today, Nicolas, the store manager, and I work together, which is great. I look after the overall selection; I try to keep the machinery well oiled. It’s difficult to have a store when you’re not present, but I spend a few hours every Friday morning. My favorite part is seeing the project grow, see the team grow (we’re now eight), as well as the inherent quality of the brands and the close relationships we’ve built up with them. They’ve become partners. We like working with big brands that have lost their credibility and making them relevant again by selecting the 10 percent of their collections that are amazing. They often don’t agree; they don’t believe in it, even if it works. It’s funny how much it can influence them, though. 

Can you tell us about Centre Commercial Kids?

We had lots of young parents, customers of the store who wanted the same stuff for their kids. When there are 10 of them, then 100, then loads, you think, « why not? ». One day I was having lunch with Vanessa, who works in the store, and I saw she had a copy of Milk in her bag. I said, « It’s funny you read that magazine when you don’t have kids ». She said, « I totally love kid’s fashion ». So I told her, « OK, let’s do it ». Kids exists partly because of her. I gave her the project, she controls it, and it’s going really well. It’s even easier to find sustainable stuff for kids. It’s a new world for us, but after two years, it’s on track and doing really well. 

How do you bring together digital and bricks-and-mortar?

The site is completely integrated into Centre Commercial and is important in terms of turnover. We put a lot of work into it. It’s the same project. One nourishes the other and vice versa, all the time. It’s like the two wheels of a bike. I love crappy metaphors! [laughs] 

How does a brand get your attention?

It’s a gamble. I realize that the success of a brand is 50 percent about the products and 50 percent the person running the project. 

Do you go to trade shows?

I go to all of them. We have our regular stops and then we discover things, even if that happens less and less. We’re lucky to have lots more information thanks to the Internet – everything is available on a global scale – but surprises can happen with something interesting. You don’t need to have five a day, though. We wouldn’t have the space anyway. 

How do you see MAN/WOMAN in terms of other shows?

It’s completely in tune with Centre Commercial, in the sense that we share lots of brands. Lots of brands that we’ve stocked have gone onto MAN afterwards, and lots of MAN brands have ended up in Centre Commercial. We are in sync with the show’s team : we’re looking for the same kind of brands. It’s more contemporary than lots of other shows, fewer big brands, more smaller ones, but fashion’s creative heart is here. 

What do you expect from a show?

A show’s role is to be a guide, a courier, a connector between brands and their potential customers, stores. We have such a wide range that we’re happy at all shows. We always find interesting things. 

How has the market changed since you began?

The mainstream went online about five or six years ago, which is why retailers are suffering. But I really believe in quality, from added value to risk-taking. The Internet has turned things on their head. We’re talking a lot about the uberization of the economy, but fashion was uberized before anyone else: lots of sites have popped up and many retailers haven’t been able to survive this global competition. This has forced multibrand retailers to have a much stronger vision. 

Are there changes you see influencing the market?

Fast fashion is boiling over. People are tired of paying for stuff that’s cheap but bad quality. It doesn’t last. With Veja, we were in the first wave of “environmentally friendly” brands. And now we’re seeing the second arrive, much more strongly. The collective conscience about what clothing is and how it’s made is far stronger than it was. That rose with the Rana Plaza accident. People now understand that there are consequences to buying such and such a brand with its bad manufacturing practices. 

What’s next for Centre Commercial?

We have loads of projects, but we never talk about them before they’re done. We’ve done 30 percent of the journey, and done it well. It’s now up to us to continue doing things as well as that, and even better. We first had a local impact; then about three years later a national impact; then a global impact, with customers coming from Canada, the US and South Korea. It’s an interesting time. Either we become over-ambitious and expand into NYC or Seoul, which I think would be a mistake, or we concentrate on doing what we do well in one place, Paris. I think we’re leaning more towards the latter vision. We try a lot of things and we mess up half the time. We’re not better than others, but we love creating things, being where people don’t expect us, where even we don’t expect to be sometimes. That is what’s fun.

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