By Ani Manoukian
Next to wine and cuisine, fashion is where good taste has to be in harmony with the Rhone Valley’s beauty. Close to the city of the Romans about 10 miles south of Lyon, two Armenian families have set up their headquarters for thriving businesses that have distinguished them as leaders in the fashion world.
As crowds basked in the hot July sun along the French countryside to watch the Tour de France, the Manoukians and the Kelian brothers were busy preparing for the 1991 summer and fall fashion seasons. The Manoukians specialize in designing separates and the Kelians in shoes.
Alain Manoukian, a small, energetic man with a cherubic smile, heads the establishment bearing his name. In the past 15 years, more than 300 “Alain Manoukian” stores have opened in France and another 150 in other countries throughout the world. Jumpers, tee-shirts, jackets, trousers and skirts, all bearing the Alain Manoukian trademark, have become so popular that even the French telephone company has printed phone cards with the brand name on it.
The nerve center of Alain Manoukian’s operations is the palatial 1850s chateau situated on acres of rolling green lawns at Tain l’Hermitage. His creations blend the classic with the flamboyant, but always remain distinct. While chatting with the noted designer in his plain, white office, we learned the secret of his success: Manoukian’s claim to fame is his ability to combine a keen sense of fashion with business acumen.
Alain introduced us to his Belgian wife Danielle, an attractive blonde, who assists him, along with his parents, in operating the $140 million business. “She takes care of the designing part of the business,” said the proud husband.
A day earlier, French television crews had filmed the Manoukians for a documentary on couples who operate large businesses together. According to statistics, not many couples survive the trials and tribulations of working so closely together. “I must admit it’s not easy,” said Danielle. But the Manoukians’ success proves they are the exception to the rule.
For Alain, the most sacred part of the chateau is the chapel adjoining his office. Prominently displayed are reproductions of Etchmiadzin and His Holiness Catholicos Vazken I. Manoukian’s establishment was the first in France to send four planeloads of relief supplies to Armenia immediately after the December 1988 quake and Alain visited his homeland in January 1989.
Asked about the possibility of starting a business in Yerevan, Alain said he has opened a shop in Moscow, the first privately owned business there. “I also have a team (of Armenians from France) in Moscow studying further expansion, but Yerevan, I’m afraid, is a long way off,” Alain said.
Alain Manoukian’s autumn-winter 1990-91 catalogue features a dazzling mixture of European country designs with elegant cuts and oriental color blends that come under stream lines of Angelina, Militaire, Moderniste and Byzance. His clients are from widely separated cities of the world, including Lisbon, Tokyo, Moscow and Memphis. Manoukian’s original creations have a charm that appeals to all.
In the Angelina collection, the fragrance of autumn permeates the design of the jumpers, featuring floral embroideries. The matching shawls and gloves enhance the rural motif. The soft colors of the cardigans emphasize the feminine touch. The Militaire collection for men features dual-colored vests and the classic cut of the trousers make them attractive and elegant at the same time.
The Byzance collection seems to be of Armenian origin. The colors are like the autumnal reflection of an Armenian countryside, with V-neck cuts and gold embroidery that add charm to any figure. Moderniste collection is for the young at heart, featuring short skirts and matching blouses.
Alain and Danielle Manoukian are the proud parents of two. Their son David, 15, speaks Armenian fluently, and daughter Seta, 18, is expecting to join the business soon. Alain, the son of an immigrant from the Middle East, said, “I am pleased that, through my shops, I am able to perpetuate the Armenian name.”
Both Alain Manoukian and Stephane Kelian (Keloglanian) are companies that are listed in the Lyon Stock Exchange since the mid-1980s. Manoukian owns 31 percent of his firm’s stock, while Kelian owns 38.8 percent of his firm’s stock.
Stephane Kelian is a name that every fashion-conscious person would definitely recognize. Shoes, and more specifically, exquisitely handcrafted ones, are the specialty of Kelian Brothers. Their factory is across the river from the city of Romans, in Bourgde-Peage, France.
We were warmly greeted at the door by Stephane Kelian, 48, the tall, suave proprietor of the $50 million enterprise, whose stylish creations are displayed in the windows of boutiques in Paris, New York, Washington, London and most European cities.
“I carry out the strategic orientation of the business; I am not an expert on style,” Stephane admitted. He went on to explain how he helped develop strategies to improve the business. One of them, put into action last year, resulted in a 50-percent increase in profits. Kelian introduced two new brands of shoes this year – Miss Maud and Mosquito. The latter is in the lower-price range, aimed specifically for the younger clientele.
“Accessories, which include handbags, belts, jewelry and perfumes also are featured in our shops,” Kelian said. “But the key to our success is the handcrafting skill that goes into our shoes.”
Stephane’s brother, Gerard, is responsible for the beautifully styled footwear produced in the Kelian plant at the rate of 1,600 pairs a day.
For the past 34 years, Gerard has supervised the production, designing and training of employees.
Stephane, the youngest of three brothers, said his parents wanted him to become a doctor, but thing turned out differently. In a 15-minute television documentary about the Kelian family’s success story, their 85-year-old mother closes the program by saying, “Turk, you tried to kill us, but look – my children have made it!”
The Manoukians and the Kelians have made an outstanding name for themselves because they have the key ingredients for success – confidence in themselves and confidence in their products.