One of Europe’s top clothing brands is branching out in Belgium and the goal for its founder, former French rugby star Franck Mesnel, is clear. Franck, the only player from his country to play in three World Cups, has just opened a branch of his highly successful Eden Park clothing firm in Waterloo.
Those familiar with the brand will not be disappointed – it features a range of classy but informal fashion gear, reflecting a mixture of different influences.
When I met Franck at the opening, he was immaculately dressed in a brown suede jacket, silk scarf and trendy Italian shoes – the epitome of French chic.
Eden Park already has 15 branches in Belgium and has a presence in three Inno department stores. He said he chose Waterloo for his latest venture largely because of its location, declaring: “It is a nice town with what I would call the target audience. It is all about being in the right place at the right time, and I think we are doing that with the latest addition to our portfolio.”
The new outlet joins an ever-expanding ‘Eden park family’. It is present in no less than 36 countries, including mainland China, a market Franck is particularly keen to develop with the aim being of having 45 shops there in the next four years.
Such ambition fits in perfectly with the business model he has cultivated since launching Eden Park in 1987. It is named after the stadium in New Zealand where, that year, France lost the first rugby union World Cup, a game he played in.
He explained how the pink-bow logo design of Eden Park, still evident on the clothing in his new shop, harks back to the days when he was part of a team backline at Racing Club de Paris, known as ‘le showbizz’ for their high-profile stunts. They would take to the field in fancy dress, sometimes wearing pink bow ties for big matches.
Fast forward to 1995 and a playoff game between France and England for third place in that year’s World Cup, which heralded his retirement from his international rugby playing days, and he realized it also provided what he described as a “wake up and work” moment.
He said: “The guys I played with back then were really the last of the amateur generation. I realized that, while I could play rugby at the weekend, I had to wake up on a Monday morning and either do my studies or go to work.”
Despite there not being much obvious overlap between the blood and thunder of international rugby union and chic French clothing, he insists there are sport lessons for his business. “There are many similarities between rugby and business – you need motivation in both,” he observed.
Franck, who played for France 56 times in a nine-year international career, said: “I have to be under pressure in my business life; I am built like that, and sport gave me that feeling. Even back then, I (and quite a few other rugby players) were quite fashion conscious. I was always conscious of my appearance so, for me, the link between the rough world of my sport and fashion was not as distant as you might think. I love colour and design and wanted to do something that involved this.”
So, knowing all about rugby jerseys, he and his colleagues realized they had hit upon what they wanted to do with their new bow-tied fame. “We made the jerseys of just the right quality, stitching and weight – of 340g I remember,” he said. “Our mascot was the Pink Panther, so we chose this pink colour for our bow-tie logo.”
In 1998, the firm was chosen as the official supplier of the French team’s formal wear. The first shop was opened in Beirut. “Ironic that, given that it is a long, long way from Paris and has no rugby traditions,” reflected Franck.
Since then, the firm has expanded beyond its French and rugby roots into other parts of the globe and into other leisure clothing and accessories areas. It has not been all plain sailing and Franck readily admits to “some failures”, notably the store he opened in central London which, perhaps surprisingly, did not take off.
Even so, Eden Park now boasts a global turnover of some €59m with around 200 ‘points of sale’, 80% of them franchises (as is the case with the new branch in Waterloo).
Years ago, Franck found himself with a career choice to make between becoming a pilot or an architect. He plumped for architecture and this led to him going on to fashion and a hugely successful life away from rugby. To this day the 51-year-old retains a passion for flying (helicopters) and is hoping the new Eden Park in Waterloo will be the same soar-away success as the rest of his career.