La Vie en Rose lingerie chain targets Victoria’s Secret — on its own turf

The Montreal-based retailer is indulging in some southern comfort, planning to open its first three U.S. stores this fall.

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Add Quebec lingerie and swimwear chain Boutique La Vie en Rose Inc. to the list of Canadian retailers looking to strike gold south of the border.

Montreal-based La Vie en Rose is planning to open its first three U.S. stores this fall, the initial step in a long-term expansion strategy that could one day see the family-controlled chain operate 400 American locations, chief executive and owner François Roberge says. Store openings will focus on the U.S. northeast, as evidenced by the leases La Vie en Rose recently signed in Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.

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The Quebec company’s U.S. push comes as lingerie giant Victoria’s Secret & Co.’s market dominance ebbs in favour of hipper brands and lower-priced rivals, including Walmart. Victoria’s Secret, which operates more than 800 U.S. stores, said in November that 2023 net sales probably dropped as much as three per cent — a second straight annual decline.

“Now is the right time to look at the U.S.,” Roberge, 61, said in an interview. “We’re financially healthy, we have no debt, we’re running out of room to grow in Canada, and we think people in the U.S. are looking for an alternative to Victoria’s Secret. I’ve always seen the Victoria’s Secret machine as being unbeatable, but in the last few years they’ve lost market share.”

La Vie en Rose has a long track record of operating abroad. After setting up shop in Saudi Arabia in 2004, the company now runs franchised stores in 20 countries — including Egypt, India, Iraq, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

“What they’re doing is quite astute,” said Charles de Brabant, executive director of McGill University’s Bensadoun School of Retail Management. “They’ve had success in 20 countries, so it makes sense for them to take a crack at the U.S. now.”

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Roberge, a 43-year retail veteran who has managed the chain for almost three decades, says focusing on smaller U.S. cities will allow La Vie en Rose and its sister brand, Bikini Village, to gain a foothold in the world’s biggest clothing market at a lower cost. Each new store represents an investment of about $800,000, the CEO says.

Unlike La Vie en Rose’s existing international outlets, the U.S. stores will be corporate-owned, meaning the company will pay for all capital expenditures. Local franchisees typically foot the bill when La Vie en Rose sets up shop abroad.

“Staying close to the Canadian border gives us a better chance of success,” Roberge said. “We will focus on the northeast, from New Jersey and upwards. These are cold-weather states, just like Canada. But we won’t be present in the very large markets. We won’t be in downtown Manhattan. We’re looking for midsized places like Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo or Portland, Maine — cities that are close to Canada. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the road to find the right locations.”

Many foreign retailers “have taken a beating by being too aggressive in the U.S.,” de Brabant said. “A gradual approach isn’t as risky.”

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La Vie en Rose’s U.S. stores will be located inside malls and power centres, Roberge says. There are about three times more shopping centres in the U.S. than in Canada, which gives the company plenty of options, he says.

“In the next three years, our goal is to open three or four U.S. stores per season, or up to eight a year,” the CEO said. “When we’ve figured out the recipe, we’ll ramp up to 30 to 40 stores a year. Over time, we can easily target something like 400 stores in the U.S. But we must be patient and choose the locations well.

“I’m very confident,” he added. “I’m the only retailer that offers bras, underwear, sleepwear and a large assortment of bathing suits. I have merchandise for the entire year. This is good for cash flow, and it keeps my sales teams active.”

A man wearing a pink ribbon holds patterned nightwear from a store rack.
“Now is the right time to look at the U.S.,” says La Vie en Rose CEO François Roberge. “We’re financially healthy, we have no debt, we’re running out of room to grow in Canada, and we think people in the U.S. are looking for an alternative to Victoria’s Secret.” Photo by Pierre Obendrauf /Montreal Gazette

It’s fair to say La Vie en Rose has come a long way since Roberge, his wife and his brother-in-law bought the business in 1996. At the time, La Vie en Rose was a struggling retailer with about $11 million in revenue and several consecutive years of losses. Today, it has more than 4,500 employees, 280 Canadian locations — including 95 in Quebec — and 110 overseas stores. It’s aiming for sales of $600 million in 2024.

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Overseas growth is a priority. La Vie en Rose last year opened its first three stores in India — a country it sees as the ideal springboard for an Asian rollout that will extend the retailer’s footprint to Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia. By 2028, the company wants to triple international sales and add 100 locations globally, boosting its overall store count to about 500.

Local partners — such as Dubai-based Apparel Group, a key La Vie en Rose ally in India and the Middle East — are a vital part of any expansion drive, Roberge says.

“You need a local player who is active in retail and already has a good network,” he said. “I like to open stores, but the partnership will only work if we’re both making money. When we don’t find the right partner, we wait.”

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Even as he plots expansion on multiple continents, Roberge has begun thinking about an exit strategy. Two of his three children work for the business, and the CEO says he plans to make way for them by the end of the decade.

“I want us to remain a family-owned company,” Roberge said. “When I turn 65, I would like to hand the reins over and become chairman. This would be my last big achievement. I have two children in the business, so I’m thinking about making them co-presidents. Today they have a lot of responsibility. They sit on the board. It’s important to let the next generation do their thing. When I’m 65, I will have spent 47 years in retail. When an entrepreneur spends too much time at the helm, he becomes a danger to his company. At some point, you need new blood.”

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