Do It Right: An interview with Mark Chamberlain of Le Coq Sportif

Do It Right interview Marc Chamberlain Le Coq Sportif The Daily Street 01

Words: Alex Synamatix
Photography: Alex Synamatix

With several brands doing well off the back of the retro running book in footwear over the last few years, and the sneaker culture boom in general, one that has seemingly risen from the ashes is Le Coq Sportif. Mention the name or show the logo and there’s still a chorus of outcries of disbelief, often relating them back to that person’s school era, but mention it in the more clued in, sneaker obsessive circles of the UK and you get a real buzz of excitement. An acknowledgement that something exciting is happening – the rooster is returning to it’s former glory.

Having been owned by a licensee in the UK for 17 years, Le Coq Sportif has had what will most likely be later referred to as a “dark era”. Yes they will have made money, but they definitely didn’t make a good name for themselves. It also came at the cost of their footwear. From the mid ’80s to the mid ’90s Le Coq Sportif was on a roll when it came to footwear, especially in running, but after that period it as good as stops. Thankfully for us fans of the brands past and all of us who love sneakers in general, the brand is free of this licensee and back doing it’s own thing. One main thing has been building a new team for the UK and sat very comfortably near the top of this team is Marc Chamberlain. Having been at size? for 10 years prior to this job, working as their Head of Marketing, it’s fair to say that Le Coq Sportif is in the right hands.

We sat down with Marc to discuss the changes in Le Coq Sportif, where he wants to take the brand and why attention to detail is paramount.

How long have you been at Le Coq Sportif?

Just over two and a half years. Basically it was held by a licensee in the UK before and that agreement had come to an end, so I came in to work on brand repositioning and that kind of evolved into a Head of Sales job. With just over two and a half years, we’re really now starting to see the fruits of our labour.

How does the brand look back on that seventeen years under the licensee? To me, it was a pretty quiet period for the brand it seems.

Well we’re quite lucky where we deal with people like yourself, where you operate at the top. Le Coq Sportif was working at the bottom. Their key customer would have been people like JJB Sports, so we came in to kind of bring the brand right back to the top. I think 20 years ago it was fine, where you had different licensees in different countries doing different things because before the internet came along those things never crossed over, but as time has progressed, what someone is doing in one country could easily be seen in another country.

Thats an interesting topic you’ve touched on there. What kind of effects has the digital era and blogs and the general speed of information had on brands such as Le Coq Sportif?

You know, it’s instant. We operate at quite a premium point now in the UK; we don’t do any discounting, we don’t deal with any discount chains, but all it takes is for one of my customers to see a shoe that they’ve bought in Columbia for half the price before they’ve received it and all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. Everything is very instant. Like I said, it didn’t matter before because people never really travelled so much and the internet wasn’t out there. Now, within 30 seconds you’ve put a picture on your blog or tumblr or Instagram. Friends of mine were putting pictures up of fake Le Coq Sportif in Barbados and @ing me and within minutes I’d seen it and I was able to send it on to our people in Paris and say “Have you ever seen this?” and no one had ever seen it. It’s ridiculous.

I think it’s good. If you look at any of the brands, Adidas especially had big licensing issues and especially in South America where those guys were going off and doing whatever they wanted – it was good for some things because you got some really interesting colours and material makeups on shoes but you also got some really weird stuff coming out. I think it’s good that this change has come around, so everything comes in line. There’s no point in me doing all this work in the UK, working with people like Footpatrol or Oi Polloi or Hanon or Crooked Tongues only to see the same product that I’m selling to these guys appearing at a discount chain in Portugal. From my perspective, it’s good that it’s all aligning.

When you started at Le Coq Sportif the brand was in a very different place in comparison to where it is now. Has that been a hard change to execute and how far into your plan for the brand are you?

Umm, we’re quite lucky that the team we work with in France are really receptive about how specific our market is. You’re probably not aware, but in France we’re a vulcanised brand primarily. We’re bigger than Converse in France. That’s what we’ve been doing, that’s where we’ve been making money. We came in and said “We can’t do that. We’ve got Converse, we’ve got Vans, we’ve got Fred Perry. We don’t want to come in and be cheap and can you really be that unique on vulcanised projects? Not really. So where do we come as a unique selling point?” It was always going to have to be retro sport because for me there’s 3 or 4 key markets in the world; the UK being one of them, the US, Scandinavia and probably Japan. These markets really respect retro sport. It’s something we really fiend after. We were always going to have to take a different approach in the UK, so coming back and not raiding the catalogues but looking back and seeing what we’ve done in the past and we found the Eclat, and it was a shoe where we still had the moulding for it and stuff like that so we were able to bring it back and it’s really gone from there.

In all honesty, the progression of the brand in the UK for me has kind of come very quickly. It was a hell of a lot of ground work; we said no to a lot of people to make sure we were on the right shelves in the right shops, but now it’s come real quick and that’s been helped massively by the Tour de France as well. It’s the third biggest sporting event in the world, it’s the biggest free-watch sporting event in the world and with that you also get another consumer base which hasn’t experienced Le Coq Sportif since the ’80s. It’s like a sneaker consumer; they wouldn’t have experienced it at a JJB or Sports Direct level, so a cycle of consumers is coming in, quite affluent, you know these guys are spending 2 or 3 grand on a bike and we’re now tapping into this sport. So between what we’ve been doing with re-activating retro product and what we’re doing on cycling, these two things have really helped. The Tour de France is starting in the UK next year – a big buzz for us. This year’s the 100th edition of the Tour de France and we’ve got a returning champion, Bradley Wiggins. Last year was our first year; Bradley Wiggins won. This year; 100th edition, we’ve got a returning British champion and it’s probably going to be Chris Froome from Team Sky leading it. And next year we’ve got starting in the UK, so we’re pretty happy with how this is going.

Do It Right interview Marc Chamberlain Le Coq Sportif The Daily Street 02

To go back on something you mentioned a second ago; in regards to the focus in the UK on retro sports, lead by running when it comes to footwear, why did you select the Eclat to champion that return for Le Coq Sortif?

I think it’s a great shoe. I’d love to tell you that there was a scientific theory behind it! I mean they’d done the shoe about 5 or 6 years prior and it hadn’t worked because they hadn’t followed a process. When we launched the Eclat in the UK, we did the first shoe with Footpatrol, we did some colours at very limited pairing, seeding seeding seeding – putting it on people’s feet. That level of the market can only absorb so much product at one time, so we were slowly feeding product into the marketplace and the Eclat is a great shoe; every one we showed it to liked it. It’s very mid ’80s. The fact that the D-ring system on an Eclat in our catalogue is called a “speed lacing system”?! I love shit like that [laughs] – thick, thick sole units for shock absorbance. For mid ’80s technology, I think it’s got it all. It’s such a versatile silhouette as well. We’ve moved it from nylon into mesh and suede, into full perf suede and now into full premium leather.

The attention to detail when retro-ing the Eclat was really on point and you keep mentioning these archived catalogues. Is that attention to detail something that you see as a crucial part of rebuilding the brand?

I think for me personally, if you’re going to do it, do it right. Sure there’s certain things you can improve, that might be the way you’re applying an upper to a midsole, but over all the way you make these shoes should be how you were back in the day. The only changes you should be making is to improve the durability of the shoe itself. Ultimately we still use real suede and leather, we’re still making these as we would have done in the day. For me it’s very particular, down to points like logo application or what was the note underneath our woven tongue label. [Picks up an all leather Eclat]. We didn’t have the original reference when we first did the shoe, that’s why the tongue label was different. Now we’re able to get it back on there and you even get this message [points to script on the underside of the tongue label] “Our pledge to you is we always design to provide superb comfort and wear for the foot in action”. That’s from an original and I think that the guys at the very top will always appreciate stuff like that. When we tried it first, this logo wasn’t embroiled properly [points to logo on side panel of Eclat], it didn’t have the ® and I was like “Come on man”, it’s stupid shit but I think it’s needed. Original stickers on the foot bedding, they’re the real nerdy details that I get excited about, so I like to think that other sneaker guys are gonna get excited about it too.

Definitely. Talking about sneaker fans getting excited, Le Coq Sportif have a healthy heritage of running silhouettes, especially from the mid ’80s to the mid ’90s and a lot of sneaker fans aren’t aware of this. Why do you think this is?

One thing the licensee did in the UK was they primarily worked in apparel, so there was a massive void in the UK when it came to Le Coq Sportif footwear. It’s interesting because Le Coq was always an apparel brand. When it started in 1882 it was an apparel brand and it wasn’t until the ’80s that we made shoes. I have seen some of the stuff from the late ’90s and it’s that stuff that’s not ready to come back yet. There was a lot of people who were moving into more technical product which now looks very cool, like the Nike Air Max 97 or something, which has stood the test of time but some of our stuff is just a little bit crazy. It went more into leisure wear, more into hiking wear, that side of stuff so I don’t think we’re at the point at the moment where the world is ready for those shoes to come back, but you’re right with the ’85 to mid ’90s – we were producing new running silhouettes every 6 months, doing them in one original colour and then updating then, updating them and updating them. So we have a series called LCS R, LCS R 1000 is actually a shoe we’re bringing back in Fall/Winter, but there’s an 850, a 1200, a 1400, there’s a whole series of these running shoes that just kept getting better. So yeah, an amazing 10 years. I don’t know if that was just one designer or what, but yeah.

There’s plenty to feed off from your archives, but will Le Coq Sportif be releasing any new silhouettes at any point?

We’ve got some stuff in the pipeline. I mean don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you’re gonna see us going up against Primeknit and FlyKnit and Lunar and stuff like this, but there are still some technical features of some classic running shoes that are relevant today so I wouldn’t be surprised if we brought out something new. We still make a performance basketball shoe for Joakim Noah. That’s something we still do specifically. We still make rugby boots for the Wallabies in Australia. We still do other performance products. Running isn’t something we’ve tapped into yet, but at the moment I’m still quite happy to play with retro. Le Coq Sportif has got a massive sporting heritage anyway. Tennis we’re really famous with Arthur Ashe and Yannick Noah. We did basketball shoes, trail shoes, all this sort of stuff so we’ve got a lot to go on.

Do It Right interview Marc Chamberlain Le Coq Sportif The Daily Street 03

You seem to be selecting your collaborations very carefully at the moment, teaming up with some of the best names in the UK and around the world. What do you look for in a partner when making that selection?

For me, and I’m fortunate enough to have some involvement in the decision process, we’re a humble brand, we’re not chucking money all over town so we’re very selective. We want to work with people who understand how important Le Coq Sportif is. I’ve worked here for nearly 3 years and I love the brand. I’ve learnt so much. Our first collaboration was with Hanon in the UK, we did a tennis shoe, then we did Footpatrol and we’re now lucky enough to have come back and do a second with Footpatrol and we’ve recently worked with Sneaker Freaker, these are all people who massively appreciate the brand. They know there’s more than one sports brand out there doing this stuff. But we’re also at the same time very conscious not to overdo the collaboration process. We’re all aware that there are certain brands out there that are releasing new collab projects every week and you end up kind of diluting. We still want the idea of a collab with Le Coq Sportif to be something quite special, something quite treasured. It’s still why the pairage is pretty limited; the Footpatrol shoe we released recently was only 300 pairs. We still want limited, good quality projects.

Talking of quality, something that appears evidently very important to Le Coq Sportif is the quality control on everything. For example the vinyl decal on the window at the Footpatrol Eclat launch party or the packaging of the sneaker boxes and presentation of everything inside. The attention to detail is quite phenomenal. Why do you think this is so important and especially in regards to a brand who is trying to shift its public image?

Well, for me, it comes down to everything. If you look at a garment label, we use a really good quality of card. Our business cards, our letter headed paper, our shoeboxes like you said. Everything. If you skimp out on one thing you risk tarnishing your name and someone not liking it anymore, but we have a very dedicated team in France who work on all of this. As you can imagine, Le Coq Sportif is effectively the national brand of France. The Gallic Rooster is the emblem of France, so we work for an amazingly proud team who won’t let bad product go out. If something doesn’t reach QC, it doesn’t go out. We’re lucky that they share the view that with things like shoeboxes and anything it comes down to, we always put in maximum effort. That’s why we have a showroom like this. I don’t want people to walk into another dusty office. I’ve walked into dusty brand offices; they’re not impressive. We re-lace every shoe when it arrives from the factory. My boss has a really good phrase; “You can’t make a bad shoe look good, but you can make a good shoe look bad”, so we’ll spend 2 days re-lacing every display shoe in the showroom so that everything looks at it’s optimum. The quality is so important to us and especially in the UK because of where we came from before, when we were not a desired brand, so we had to change a lot of people’s opinions, a lot of buyer’s opinions. When we handed over a business card, it had to look like we meant business. When they walked into the showroom, it had to look like we meant business.

The first ever Le Coq Sportif flagship store has just opened in London. Why have you decided to open a store?

Yeah, that’s the first one we’ve ever had. It’s extremely important for us and another point to show people how serious we are as a brand. In the past year we’ve opened in Milan, Barcelona and London, these are key fashion cities around the world and we need a location to house our entire collections. A retailer will only ever come in and cherry pick what they like, so they’ll never buy a whole range. It’s a good time for us to be able show customers what we’re doing and the full width of a collection. So it’s really a great canvas for us to show what we’re doing. And also to show people some stuff they’re not maybe so familiar with from us – we make a really great women’s performance range for cardio and stuff like that, so we can house that in the store. We make really good Portuguese made products in footwear, so we can house that in the store. It also gives us a little Le Coq Sportif hub in London. We’re not going up against our retail partners; we love the fact that we get to work with people like size? or Urban Outfitters so we’re not going to go up against them, but at the same time we need to have the platform to show consumers the whole width of our collections.

Where do you aim to steer the brand over the next couple of years?

I think, from my point of view, retro running is a big trend at the moment but I’ve been in this industry long enough to know things come in waves. We’re perfectly equipped to handle the retro running boom, we’ve got x amount of silhouettes we can bring back if we want, but at our own pace. I think that when the trend changes we’re gonna be there, ready, waiting to see what comes next. We’re more than equipped to go at that. The next stage is probably to get people more familiar with our apparel. We have really good retail partners in people like Harrods and ASOS and Urban Outfitters. We sample nearly all of our apparel in France, an hour outside of Paris. We’ve got an amazing research and development factory; our original factory in Romilly-sur-Seine. We develop all of our samples there which can be European produced. We’ve still got a lot of stories to tell with stuff like that.

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Special thanks to Beth at Tea & Cake PR and Marc for his time and insight.