As seen in - Inside Retail
Interview with Jo-Anne Hui-Miller for Inside Retail
Local sleepwear brand Papinelle has seen a rise in sales of its loungewear as Australians have worked from home. The brand has also launched a range of chic silk face masks for non-medical use. Here, founder Renae James discusses catering to the post-pandemic customer and the brand’s slow and steady growth over the years.
Inside Retail Weekly: Papinelle has actually thrived during the pandemic.
Renae James: It’s been amazing! I think the growth we’ve had has been very controlled. I never wanted to grow too quickly, but it has made us take our time to realise our potential. This has just been extraordinary. I think you can get really distracted by other things, but we’ve spent the last two years really focusing on product. I think you go through phases where you take your eye off different things, but the product’s amazing and it’s definitely flowed through to sales.
Prior to [the pandemic], online and in-store had been growing rapidly for the last couple of years. But during the pandemic, we took some hits in our major overseas stores like Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, but it was fortuitous because things really picked up here, especially online.
IRW: Sleepwear and loungewear are your staple products too. I feel like they’re both having a moment right now.
RJ: Loungewear is part of people’s wardrobes more so now than ever, now that people are working from home. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think people are enjoying working from home. In our office, people are going to permanently work from home a couple of days a week. So, loungewear is just part of people’s working attire now.
IRW: Do you think it might change your product mix in the future?
RJ: It won’t shift our focus. For us, the key things are comfort and great quality and it has to always look good. I think people may make different [wardrobe] choices if they’re on a Zoom call. They might not wear something revealing [like a nightie], but they might throw a cashmere-blend jumper over the top, so it will be comfortable and still look great.
In winter, a lot of our knitwear can double as loungewear and you can even wear it out as well, like our jogger pants. We launched a waffle jogger pant and long-sleeve top and we sold three months of stock in four days! It’s just what people want right now – they want to be comfortable but still look stylish. It’s not what people might think as sleepwear with crazy animals or big polka dots. Our sleepwear has never been that – people want something more chic.
IRW: I think in recent years, sleepwear has definitely become more fashion-forward.
RJ: The number of new customers that are coming to us every day is extraordinary and our sleepwear has definitely benefited from what’s going on. Sleepwear is having its moment in the sun right now. Usually in a department store, sleepwear is put in the back corner, but it’s being pulled forward. It was on the homepage and main banner of the Nordstrom site during the pandemic! It was quite amazing. They don’t even do that for Mother’s Day!
Once you’ve experienced great loungewear or sleepwear, you can’t go back.
IRW: How do you think the pandemic will change fashion?
RJ: Before the pandemic, our focus certainly was to consider [sustainability] in everything we did. From an eco-perspective, we removed individual plastics and used recycled fabrics and natural fibres where we could. During the pandemic, it shifted to healthy textiles, and now we’re looking at microbial fabrics that don’t hold onto germs. We’ll always think about the environment, but now health is something we have to consider.
From a manufacturing perspective, a lot of people were ground to halt when China went through COVID-19 and that obviously impacted the flow of product into Australia. We’re well-thought-out and our seasons are very clear, so it didn’t impact as much as it would have for the fast fashion brands. But you hear a lot of the reverse happening, where fashion brands cancelled orders, so there was a lot of product left in China or Bangladesh. It wasn’t that they were unable to get the product!
We’ll always think of better ways to do things that have less impact on the environment, and now we’ve got this added focus of being anti-bacterial and considering people’s health, even down to the dyes we use.
IRW: Tell me more about these antimicrobial textiles and what they do. What are they made of?
RJ: When you’re sick, you spend your entire time in pyjamas. If you’re unwell, you just want to be super comfy, you don’t want your clothes to sweat or harbour bacteria.
There are a lot of fibres out there that are resistant to bacteria. There are some like bamboo that are naturally resistant, then there are treatments that aren’t harmful, but they’re more medical-grade. We’re more interested in finding natural alternatives, but there are also things like putting an aloe vera treatment on fabrics – it holds moisture on the skin and it’s a beautiful breathable fabric. We’re looking into them at the moment. We also found a soybean fibre that’s super comfortable and good for the skin. They’re all in development and blended with fabrics that we know work, like modal or cotton.
IRW: A lot of brands began manufacturing face masks during the peak of the pandemic, but now, it’s becoming a fashion item. Tell me about your new range of face masks.
RJ: We were conscious not to make anything medical-grade, because we didn’t want to take away from the resources that were needed for medical face masks. For us, it was about looking into the future when travel reopens. That’s our main goal – we wanted to offer something for travel that’s breathable, washable, biodegradable and falls into the loungewear category. We use leftover silk remnants to make them.
Medical-grade face masks are made in factories unique to that purpose. We didn’t want to interfere with that production so we used our own factory to make them with fabric remnants. In our face masks, we popped a pocket at the front that allows for a single-use medical filter insert, should they become available later on. The mask is washable and reusable.
There’s quite a bit of red tape surrounding importing face masks at the moment. We did them quite early on and managed to get them here in the early stages of the pandemic. The rules do seem to change frequently though, so we hope to get another delivery soon as the first delivery has just about sold out.
We make it clear online and in-store that our face masks are not medical, but they’re designed for travel or daily use. It’s not been the demand that I imagine Chemist Warehouse gets, but they’ve certainly sold much better than I anticipated. We wanted them to be a bit chic, so they’re made of black silk.
I think face masks are going to be in everybody’s lives from now on, especially as travel reopens. I think people will choose to travel with a mask, at least initially.
IRW: How has Papinelle been faring overseas?
RJ: We’ve experienced continual growth. Since we made the decision to enter the US market, nearly two years ago, that’s been phenomenal. We started in 25 doors at Nordstrom, then 75 the next season, then the following season, we were in all doors. The sell-through is amazing, we sell out every single season. Then we were approached by a couple of other retailers in the US who were also amazing, so we launched our own online store there, following that momentum.
We’ve chosen to focus on just one market outside Australia at a time – it’s not something where we want to go on to Europe and then on to Asia. It’s a step-by-step process for us. We just opened our second store at Commercial Bay [in Auckland]. It looks amazing – the store itself is so beautiful. [Co-owner] Nicki Kelly designed it alongside an amazing interior design agency called Wonder Group in New Zealand. This one’s got an elevated look, with materials like brushed brass, aged glass, soft-pink plaster and a high-gloss lacquer.
All our stores have a dusty blush, which pulls you straight into the dream-like world of Papinelle. It’s familiar, soft and edgy, feminine and visually beautiful.
IRW: There are some businesses that are all about opening stores here and overseas. Why is controlled growth so important to you?
RJ: It’d be easy to just scale it out and open more retail stores and grow revenue that way, but it was never what I wanted to do. I wanted to make sure every risk we took was calculated, so that’s why I say it’s been controlled. It would be simple to say ‘yes’ to everything and different overseas opportunities, but then we’d require loans and have higher exposure to risk. I’ve never been interested in that myself, so we carefully controlled it. Now it’s getting to the stage where we know what works and the more knowledge you have, the less risky it becomes.
IRW: Is it important for you to stay on the smaller side as a business?
RJ: I don’t think size is what inspires me. It’s just authenticity. As long as the brand stays authentic, it can get as big as it wants. As long as it has the same morals and ethics that we’ve carried the way through with our same customer service and it stays true to what we’ve built so far, the world’s our oyster.
IRW: A lot of people have predicted less focus on physical stores in the future – and that was before the pandemic. Now, there’s an even greater focus on e-commerce.
RJ: Bricks-and-mortar stores are a beautiful showroom and a way to represent the brand and now, they need to always facilitate the online business. I want to make them places where you can exchange things easily, you can try something on, then you can go and buy it online. As long as physical stores give the online store the tools it needs to work and vice versa, then they can work well side by side.
Growing the online store is definitely a focus for us. That’s where there’s continual growth and we have the physical stores to facilitate that. They’re a beautiful representation of the brand. I don’t discredit them; they’re great especially in new markets like New Zealand, where people can come in, touch and feel our pyjamas, know who we are, what we look like and smell like, then become customers for life.
IRW: What has the reopening of your stores been like?
RJ: It’s been lovely – it’s been different for every store. The Chatswood store in Sydney is in a shopping centre which comes with its own set of regulations and different times. Our store in Leura has a small boutique feel and it’s not in an area that’s massively crowded, so we haven’t needed to deal with security guards to limit the number of people coming in. It’s been a lovely, refreshing reopen and people are so excited to be back in stores.
IRW: Pre-pandemic, Papinelle did some great collaborations with designer Karen Walker and illustrator Megan Hess.
RJ: We’ve been working with Megan Hess for a few years. She’s just amazing and what she draws is so on-brand for us. It’s such a luxurious, aspirational brand. That was exciting and she comes with her own enormous fanbase. I think people recognise and love anything she draws. It’s been an honour to work with her. She’s a delight to work with. It’s something I hope we can continue to do for a long time. She’s just recently released a new children’s book so we did a kids’ range for that as well.
Karen is obviously an iconic designer. The thing that was so fantastic about working with her was how different her style is to our own, but how well they work together. It was such a step outside for us in regards to colour and print. But it sold so quickly and again, she’s got her own amazing customer base that really aligns with ours, so it was a very successful collaboration as well.
We don’t collaborate with people freely – it’s not something we do frequently – so when we do it again with someone like Karen, it means that it was amazing. Karen came up with the prints and colours and it was very Karen Walker in its vibe. There was one print with crazy animals all over it – three-legged cats and dogs with three eyes – then everything else was coordinated with that print. We did it in high-end silk and high-end cotton as well as a $79 boxer and tee set, so we could offer it to as many people as possible. It consisted of 15-20 different styles and it sold out really quickly – we’ll broaden that in the next year.
IRW: What are some of your plans for the year ahead?
RJ: We’ll continue to focus on the areas that we're showing such big growth, our online stores in Australia, New Zealand and the US. Obviously, the thing that excites us most is product, so we’re really developing things that people will love and make sure that it’s the comfiest and best thing for the planet that we can do.