CEO Talks: Y/Project’s Pascal Conte-Jodra and Glenn Martens Gear Up for Growth

PARIS — Y/Project is gearing up for growth under new leadership, with plans to double the number of doors and ramp up its fledgling accessories business, possibly with the help of a new investor.

The Paris-based brand has named Pascal Conte-Jodra chief executive officer, marking the first time it has entrusted its management to an outside executive. Gilles Elalouf, the former advertising executive who founded the label in 2011 with the late Yohan Serfaty, remains president of the board of shareholders.

Conte-Jodra joined Y/Project in May from Mugler, where he was managing director for five years. In New York City, where he was based for more than a decade, he previously held senior positions at brands including Marc Jacobs, Carolina Herrera and Hermès.

“I am delighted to welcome Pascal to our team. His extensive experience and expertise will be invaluable as we embark on the next phase of Y/Project’s development, driving our growth forward,” Elalouf said in a statement.

In an exclusive interview with WWD, Conte-Jodra and Glenn Martens, creative director of Y/Project since 2013 as well as creative director of Diesel, detailed their ambitions for the brand, from plans to launch pop-up stores and boost e-commerce sales to eventually opening its own boutiques. The brand is carried by retailers including H. Lorenzo in Los Angeles, Machine-A in London and Dover Street Market in Beijing and Tokyo.

Within the next five to seven years the duo would like accessories such as its signature thigh-high scrunch boots and wire handbags to account for half of revenues. They also plan to introduce digital product passports as part of the label’s ongoing commitment to sustainability.

Underscoring their commitment to the brand, both hold an undisclosed amount of shares in the company and are members of the board.

Pascal Conte-Jodra and Glenn Martens

Pascal Conte-Jodra and Glenn Martens.

Courtesy of Y/Project

Conte-Jodra praised the “fantastic story” of a label that has won a cult following with its trademark twisted constructions and popular collaborations with brands including Brazilian footwear label Melissa and Jean Paul Gaultier. Celebrities including Hailey Bieber, Rihanna and Kylie Jenner have sported its designs.

Y/Project won the ANDAM Grand Prize in 2017 and was a finalist for the 2016 edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Designers.

Martens paid tribute to Elalouf’s leadership, and said the shakeup, which comes at a period of strong growth, has energized his teams to aim even higher. “It was nice to restructure everybody a bit and to get us out of our classic comfort zone,” he remarked.

Here, the two discuss what’s next.

WWD: You are the first official CEO of Y/Project who is not one of the founders. As someone with experience of working at other houses, what are the key values you identified at Y/Project?

Pascal Conte-Jodra: The key values for me are the genuine creativity of the brand, the innovative aspect, the strength of the designs, and Glenn’s vision on products, fashion and people.

It’s the sense of aesthetic, the values of inclusivity, the permanent innovation, and the styles, which are really on point and are really disruptive.

WWD: And you, Glenn, having been there since the very beginning of the adventure, what do you see as the key values of the brand?

Glenn Martens: Design concept goes first, because that’s how I like the fashion that we’re doing.

P. C.-J.: We have as well the versatility of the product. The fact that — maybe Glenn can talk about it — the clothes can be worn differently across categories and live very well together. But in versatility, as well, you have the inclusivity. The clothes are really made for everyone.

The fun, the absurdity and the opulence was something, as well, that strikes me the most, and it’s how Glenn has defined the brand.

And ultimately, something that I find that’s super interesting for Y/Project in the fashion industry is the advancement of sustainability. It’s something that Glenn enforced since the last four years, having the most sustainable product we can do with the best ethics, choice of material.

G.M.: It was actually fun, because Pascal made me do this brand book when he arrived.

Every single brand has a reason to exist, of course, and we always say design is the first and sole reason why we exist. But then it was interesting for Pascal to do this exercise with us to go deeper into that, and what is the differentiation?

Y/Project RTW Spring 2024

Y/Project RTW Spring 2024.

Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

WWD: What has the experience been like for you in terms of changing the nature of the conversations that you’re having with your CEO?

G.M.: Gilles, of course, is the founder of the company and he recruited me two years into the company, so we’ve been growing in Y/Project together, also knowing that Gilles didn’t have a background in fashion.

So we really learned the business while doing, with all the mistakes that we did or didn’t do, but it was a common growth from really junior to senior.

It has been a few years that we’ve been looking for that CEO who is more specialized in the industry.

Having a professional like Pascal, who has had a lot of experiences in many different houses, brings a lot of weight, a lot of comfort to the teams, and a lot of direction also.

P. C.-J.: I have a lot of respect for what has been done so far. It’s an amazing story.

It’s very organic, it has been done just by the product, by the ability of Glenn and the team to carry the vision.

Gilles is still very involved as the president of the company, and we all together make sure we can bring Y/Project to the next level.

WWD: In some ways, your recent experience at Mugler parallels what’s been going on at Y/Project. During the pandemic, both brands experimented with see now, buy now, and with moving to different parts of the fashion calendar. What do you think now is the right path for Y/Project?

P. C.-J.: We present the collection during men’s, but we have the fashion show afterwards [during women’s], which is kind of a unique thing.

We continue with two seasons a year. We’ll see what the future holds, how things are going, but it’s enough.

For now, we believe that that’s a more sustainable growth plan. It’s something that delivers a long shelf life to the product, while being very pertinent.

G.M.: One of the reasons why we decided already before the crisis to go back to just one collection per season is that our designs are very developed and take a lot of time. We’ve got an independent studio doing everything in-house.

P. C.-J.: The wardrobe that Glenn creates can last a long time — you just need to mix and match it.

It’s respecting what has been developed in the past, for the team, for the consumer, so when you buy a piece, it’s not obsolete the next day, and I found that fascinating.

WWD: Do you think the brand’s Evergreen sustainable collection’s share of global sales should be increasing?

G.M.: It’s already quite a big chunk.

WWD: How much does it represent?

P. C.-J.: A little bit less than half of our sales.

WWD: Is that a good level for you?

P. C.-J.: Yes.

WWD: In recent seasons, you’ve played more with the Y/Project logo. Can you talk a little bit about that?

G.M.: It’s not big branding — it’s all tone-on-tone and distressed.

We like to play with it. I mean, I can. When there’s a logo, there’s also a twist.

It’s a very eclectic brand, according to silhouettes. Not every single person can be Y/Project: that’s the whole point of the brand. We are not really pushing an army of people, we are creating individuals.

WWD: How is Pascal’s arrival going to help you to better balance your workload between Y/Project and Diesel?

G.M.: It is not changing how my time is spent. I think what I’m just happy about is that I have less stress when I’m not in Paris, because I know it’s in good hands.

Y/Project Snap Off boots

Y/Project Snap Off boots.

Armando Grillo/ of Y/Project

WWD: What are some of the big strategic objectives that you would like to set for the brand going forward?

P. C.-J.: It’s really securing, ensuring, improving all the operational aspects and developing the ready-to-wear brand and to put it really on the face of the world.

Today, Y/Project is a global brand. We have ready-to-wear, we have shoes, we have bags, we have leather accessories such as belts, we have hats, and we have jewelry, so we have all those categories and of course, down the road, accessories will be as well an important topic for us.

We are essentially a wholesale-driven brand today. Ten percent of our sales are made through e-comm, so for sure, we’ll be focusing on all the digital aspects of our brand: the ability to sell our product, the type of product we need to sell online, learning about our consumer as well. That will be very, very important and down the road, in the midterm, testing retail aspects through pop-ups.

For me, the best thing will be learning the customer, getting our own customers to understand who they are and what they want, and what they like about the brand.

Then in terms of sustainability, that’s very important, to be compliant as well with all the digital passports and euro regulations.

G.M.: It’s going be a big job, if you think that 50 percent of our product is already fully sustainable. We have very high sustainability standards and sustainability is a journey. Every season, the standards get higher.

WWD: What is the purpose of the digital passport?

P. C.-J.: It’s for consumer information. It will be able to relate to the wholesale consumer so we can have a direct contact to them. For ownership and authenticity as well, that will be something that we’ll be looking for, and all the transparency and traceability.

And the last part will be all the communication aspect, just being able to expose Glenn’s vision to the world.

WWD: What is your target for the number of doors you would like to have within the next three years?

P. C.-J.: We have 150 department store [accounts], with 200 doors [in total]. For example, a Nordstrom can have five doors. Ideally, we’ll be more than doubling those numbers and we’ll be increasing the depth, going deeper with key partners, within the next two years.

We need to work with our current partners because they know the brand.

So it’s just working with them, being able to serve them better, being able to increase as well their buy and the importance of Y/Project within their buy.

WWD: So you would be at 400?

P. C.-J.: Exactly, including accessories, yes.

G.M.: You need doors which have the love, the passion for the brand to be able to present it very well on the sales floor, and I think we’re very lucky that we have a very big engagement of people who are very true to us and love us, and who actually are able to do this in a very good way.

It’s just a matter of now going deeper.

WWD: What percentage of sales do accessories currently represent?

P. C.-J.: It’s a small part, let’s say around 10 percent.

WWD: And what is the target?

P. C.-J.: In the long-term business plan we wrote, close to half, within five to seven years.

G.M.: I think it’s maybe also a bit my mistake, to be honest, because my looks are so extreme and so wild and we get overwhelmed by the look.

Accessories are often a continuation of that look, while maybe in other situations, it’s really about the bag.

I’m very proud of the few bags that we have. They’re very beautiful. There’s like the wire bags you can play with. The shoes are also very, very visible, but they’re always part of the silhouette.

Melissa x Y/Project court boot

Melissa x Y/Project court boot.

Courtesy of Y/Project

WWD: The boots obviously had a massive moment.

G.M.: We are also distributed at Melissa. The crystal shoes, I think, are very well linked to the brand DNA. It’s just that we have to find a good price point. Of course, I’m very difficult in doing just the basics.

P. C.-J.: It’s as well the ability of the company to absorb and support such development. Developing a full line of accessories — bags, shoes and others — we need to have a certain size of team, we need to have certain means to be able to develop, so this is what we’ll be implementing in the future.

Just for example, the shoes, the snap boots, we received 15 that were expensive — they’re close to 3,000 euros — and we sold them out in 48 hours.

G.M.: We never went from the classic branding, the classic things like, “What is the answer to the market?”

Thanks to Gilles, we created this kind of very eclectic and super creative brand because we had that freedom, because we didn’t have the weight of merchandising in the past. I think that’s also why, for example, the bags and the shoes, very often they’re “It” items, because we never really went for the direct answers.

WWD: How do you plan to finance these ambitions?

P. C.-J.: A lot of investors are knocking on our doors, so this is what we are discussing with Glenn and of course with Gilles, what will be the best way together, but that’s for sure one of the needed paths.

We need to see what would be good for the company and of course, I think that influx of investment and key strategic partners would be very helpful as well.

We are obviously looking for a minority [investor].

But down the road, and I’m not Gilles, we’ll see what happens. But it’s just a matter of having the right partner at a certain point.

Y/Project Men’s Fall 2022

Y/Project men’s fall 2022

Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

WWD: You have partnered with brands such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Melissa, Fila and Ugg. What will be the role of collaborations going forward?

G.M.: They’re always going to be there, but they always come to us.

We don’t look for it, and we only accept the ones which can give us a product which is not in line with what we actually can do ourselves.

I only work with collaborations that are really products that I would like to have to put on top, a little cherry on the cake.

WWD: Obviously, with Diesel, you’re speaking very much to Gen Z. Do you see Y/Project as an older sister? Or should it be speaking to Gen Z as well?

G.M.: We have a lot of engagement with the younger generation. I think it’s fantastic and every single brand wants that at the end, no?

But they’re very different brands. I mean, Y/Project is about structure, it’s about construction. You have to have love for fashion. You have to understand tailoring.

At Diesel, you don’t have to love fashion especially. At Diesel, you have to love the lifestyle.

WWD: Can you give any indication about Y/Project’s sales performance?

P. C.-J.: For the last almost three years, we doubled sales every year.

We have a very good traction. It’s a good feeling when you have a showroom and you have a lot of new prospects coming in and saying, “Oh, we really want to have Y/Project on board and we love you.” And sell-throughs are quite impressive, actually.

WWD: You mentioned 10 percent of sales coming from e-commerce. Would you like to see that percentage increase?

P. C.-J.: I would love to have my [direct-to-consumer] sales increase, all the e-comm sales increase drastically, to have a direct contact to our consumer. Of course, it will be always serving our wholesale partners, but I do believe that we are still at that size where everyone can grow, wholesale and D2C.

WWD: What would be a nice share?

P. C.-J.: Down the road, by the plan, close to 30 percent. That would be a nice share. Everything will be growing at the same time.

G.M.: Obviously, we love our wholesalers and we love our partners, but it’s always the expectation of a brand, isn’t it? Your direct sales as a designer or as a house, that’s really when you can reflect exactly how you want the clothes to be seen so I think for me, it’s also quite important to push that more.

WWD: Are you working on revamping your e-commerce site?

P. C.-J.: Yes, that’s something that we’re already discussing and seeing how we can implement and evolve that. We’re already implementing small steps and within the next year, I think, the platform — not the aesthetic of the platform, nor the way Glenn wants to display — but the technological aspect, the ergonomy, the checkout, all of our systems will be improved.

A Y/Project retail installation

A Y/Project retail installation.

Courtesy of Y/Project

WWD: You mentioned doing pop-ups to get to know your customer. Eventually, would you want to have your own stores?

P. C.-J.: Down the road, yes, of course.

G.M.: I mean, we have the world for it.

He made me do a whole set-up already also. I have a lot of homework with him!

P. C.-J.: Yes, we have a concept, a roadmap, it’s just a matter of being able to roll it out and to make it happen. And again, it’s a matter of resources and priorities.

It’s step by step, testing, innovating and pushing the company and the fashion forward. But yes, down the road, our goal will be to have retail stores, that direct point of contact, like a Y/Project full, immersive store where we can know our customers, we can exchange with our customers, where we have fun — something very Y/Project, very Glenn. 

WWD: Would Paris be the logical first location for opening a store?

P. C.-J.: We’ll be testing our pop-ups across the globe but yes, Paris, for sure, the U.S. for sure. Now is it New York or L.A.? Let’s see. Asia, it can be from Seoul to Shanghai to Tokyo.

We have a lot of requests, a lot of partners there. And ultimately, the last one would be London. We have a big chunk of our sales as well in the U.K. Actually, a quick math would be 30 percent Asia, 30 percent the U.S., 30 percent Europe and 10 percent U.K.

It’s a matter of structuring, finding maybe the good partners, the good investor that is knocking on the door, and let’s see how we can carry on the story and bring Y/Project to a new high.

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