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Fashion for the real world

FASHION Gigi Moda has found incredible success in the US in the six years since it started. Its founder and creative director Francine Wathelet shares the secrets to her success with Jack Yan
Photographed by Jonathan Ivan
Modelled by Quintana Quinor
Wardrobe styled by Alan Montes from the Wear the Future showroom
Make-up by Natalie Wertheim
First published in the June 2021 issue of Lucire KSA




Jack Yan is founder and publisher of Lucire.


Francine Wathelet, one half of the Gigi Moda ( label that she set up with her husband, Laurent Hebbelinck, has been steadily getting noticed for their brand by a growing following of Americans. Based in southern California, having made the journey across the Atlantic to take a chance on the us market, Gigi Moda’s aim is to bring Italian chic to women of all ages. The fashion may be described as ‘coastal chic’, something reminiscent of both an Italian summer and a Californian lifestyle.

Without the pretence of so many other labels, the staples offered by Gigi Moda have a simple promise: that they are comfortable, and they are made with sustainable textiles and quality manufacturing in Italy. Everything is hand-dyed and handmade.

After six years, Gigi Moda has found itself in over a thousand boutiques in the US.

Wathelet has spent her adult life being an entrepreneur, and her CV’s early entries are varied. ‘I am from Brussels and I have always created and managed companies since I was 21,’ she recalls. ‘At 21, I created alone my first commercial promotion and merchandising company, with clients such as Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, L’Oréal, Kodak, Saab, Volkswagen, Martini & Rossi, and Master Food.’ There was also a cleaning service with over 250 employees that she ran with Hebbelinck. By 2012, the pair were ready to sell up and seek a new life in the US.

‘After having sold five successful companies in 2012, my husband, our eight-year-old son, and I arrived in San Diego in 2013, and we opened two clothing and footwear stores with a very sought-after selection from all over the world—babouches from Marrakech, jewellery from Genève, oversized bags from Ibiza, and clothes from Paris and Milan,’ she says. The footwear store, Zia Ka, Inc., continues, while the couple divested another venture in food to focus on fashion, as that resonated with the public.

‘With my husband, I started the Gigi line to meet ongoing demand from customers who had their own boutiques, yet liked our original selection of European clothing in our store. We had a selection unlike anything you could find in the LA fashion district,’ says Wathelet. ‘By creating Gigi Moda, we wanted to make accessible clothes that combine style and quality materials. It is important that the creations reflect the client’s image and reflect the best of herself.’ Novelty helped with the new line, with new styles and colours arriving each month, though Wathelet stresses that it is not done in the vein of fast fashion, where quantity trumps quality and sustainable practice. ‘Fast fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world,’ she notes. ‘It’s cheaply sold, at the expense of workers at the other end of the chain. We are proud to work with Italian factories that respect their workers and have good working conditions.’

It was a must for her to be environmentally responsible. ‘This movement is focused on ecological awareness and action in favour of a better world, to which I am very attached. I’m completely supportive of taking those essential steps such as recycling, buying second-hand and other practices. But above all, sustainable fashion begins when the fabrics are created, and that is what our label is about. Therefore, we prefer natural materials such as linen, silk and cotton, and work with natural dyes.’

Wathelet explains that they had to establish themselves by adapting their design approach to us tastes. There is a skill to anticipating the demand for each design. Her advice is to ‘Constantly question yourself and never give up.’

Examining Gigi Moda’s current range, it’s evident that Wathelet and Hebbelinck’s approach is to offer designs that look youthful, but can be worn by older age groups stylishly. The cuts are flattering, and soft, comfortable forms are the order of the day, with satin, linen and silk proving popular. Colours are largely calming, with light blues, pinks, turquoises and lilacs, though buyers will find plenty of variety. Larger sizes are available for all designs. But, perhaps importantly, Wathelet knows her customers live in the real world, not the pages of a fashion magazine. If anything, not having formal training in fashion has allowed her to keep an open mind to the market. It is about being real, and realizing that many women want to dress simply and stylishly, and be comfortable doing so.

Now with a team of 20, Gigi Moda researches trends and anticipates what the public will next go for.

Her own role is very hands-on. ‘I take care of the day-to-day management of the business. I also like knowing about all aspects of the company I supervise and help the order department, I work on new styles, fabrics, and colours. I talk to marketing and customer service every day. It is important to know and be able to help in all parts of your business.’ As part of Gigi Moda’s promotion, the company has actively sought social media influencers, and those with popular blogs or Instagram accounts may be eligible to join their programme. With one study by HypeAuditor finding that 45 per cent of Instagram accounts are fake, Gigi Moda treads carefully, not making its promotional programme a blanket one, but where collaborations are approved by its team.

The pandemic has made things considerably tougher, with both the us and Italy being particularly affected by the spread of COVID-19. Wathelet explains, ‘Italy has suffered enormously, too: their factories were completely shut for several weeks. Nevertheless we were able to meet our customers’ demand thanks to our keeping a large inventory.

‘Air freight has increased considerably, a cost that we didn’t want to pass on to our customers. Our prices haven’t increased.’

She has been as good as her word: a casual glance at the Gigi Moda retail range (see sees tops and blouses retailing from US$66 to around the US$100 mark, while dresses begin in the eighties and head up to the US$145 region. Some impressive leather handbags pass the US$200 mark, reasonably priced given the hand-made construction and quality. The notion of getting something conscientiously made without spending big sums clearly draws customers to the brand.

Wathelet has noticed a shift in consumer tastes, too, with the pandemic. ‘Customers want a more casual collection, more comfortable clothes to stay at home while keeping in style!’ she says.

As economies open up thanks to vaccine roll-outs, and with Wathelet and her team keeping a careful eye on consumer tastes and needs, Gigi Moda looks set to have a more certain future, having weathered a tough year. •






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