March 27, 2003
Kiss and Sell
Bisou Bisou designer Michele Bohbot balances family and big business.
Lead in by a uniformed maid, Michele Bohbot glides into the marbled entrance hall of her Beverly Hills mansion with her long, dark hair swaying and her tall, well-toned body suggesting a balletic athleticism. She wears elegant casual clothes that she designed herself -- loose green linen pants and a laurel-colored ruffled tank top -- and her French accent completes this portrait of chic.
But Bohbot is far from a European dilettante. The 43-year-old mother of seven (ages 21 to 5) is the president and sole designer of Bisou Bisou, a global fashion line she started herself in 1989 that now takes in more than $80 million in annual sales, a figure expected to increase following an exclusive distribution deal with JCPenney. She also teaches yoga at her home, is writing her autobiography and bakes her own challah for Shabbat.
"Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, but when that happens, I try to reorganize and to understand why I am feeling that way," Bohbot told The Journal in an interview punctuated by several visits from her young, redheaded children. "But I am not the kind of person who thinks too much. I just do it and say 'next,' so there is no waste of time. And I enjoy everything that I'm doing, and when you have this philosophy, everything comes more easily."
Bohbot was born in Morocco and moved to Paris as a teenager. She studied philosophy and law at the Sorbonne University, and when she was 19, she married her husband, Marc, who proposed to her four days after they met. It was in Paris that Bohbot got her start in fashion. She and Marc owned three retail stores, which Michele managed. "Each store had its own story," she said. "It was a lot of work, because I was not running a chain or something generic, but I learned a lot of different aspects of the business."
In 1987, the Bohbots moved to Los Angeles, where Marc had a business selling French jeans. The business failed, the
Bohbots lost everything, and Marc wanted to move back to France.
"I didn't want to go back," said Bohbot, who left France partly because of perceived anti-Semitism there. (Although Bohbot calls herself "traditional," Marc is religious and the family keeps Shabbat and kosher and attends services at Baba Sale.) "I liked it here. I liked the blue sky --Â it reminded me of Morocco, and no way was I going to go back to France with less than I had. I said [to Marc], 'If you want to go back, go. I'm staying here.'"
Wanting to secure a place for herself in Los Angeles, and very much wanting her husband to join her in a business, Bohbot decided that she was going to start her own design collection. She knew something about designing, but was ignorant of sewing and the construction of a garment. She also didn't know how to speak English very well. Undaunted, she collected $6,000, teamed up with the main seamstress from her husband's defunct jeans business (who, in a fortuitous move, had negotiated to keep one of the sewing machines), bought some fabric from a retail store, rented space in a small studio and started making clothes. "I was in business without even knowing what I was doing," she said. "I had this woman working with me without even knowing how I was going to pay her."
After three weeks, Bohbot had her first Bisou Bisou (French slang for "small kiss") collection and though, by her own admission, she was a very shy person, she summoned the courage to start hawking the garments to boutiques on Melrose. The clothes sold out, but by that time she was pregnant with her fourth child and was reluctant to continue designing because she knew how much time it would take away from her family. It was a salesperson in a boutique who convinced her to carry on, telling Bohbot how quickly her clothes had sold, and how much the customers loved them.
The secret to her success was in the clothes. "My clothes advantage the body of a woman," Bohbot said. "They are sexy, young, playful and elegant at the same time. Usually they are easy to travel with, and they don't require much maintenance or ironing, because I think it has to be comfortable."
Bisou Bisou became a Bohbot family business. Marc is the chairman/CEO, whereas Bohbot continues to do all of the designing. ("It is so easy for me to design," she said. "I can create 600 styles in a month. I love it. I cannot stop.") Recently, the couple signed a deal with to have Bisou Bisou clothes sold exclusively at JCPenney stores, a move that is estimated to boost Bisou Bisou coffers by some $500 million over five years (JCPenney is manufacturing the clothes).
"I am very happy about this deal, because it gives me an opportunity to dress more of the women at an affordable price," Bohbot said. "The consumer is smart enough to know that she doesn't have to spend so much to wear avant-garde, fashionable clothes." Â