JAC by Jacqueline Conoir, is a Canadian fashion forward brand that tailors to the career woman, defined as a combination of Italian sexy, French feminine flare and North American cool. JAC has become a reference point for fashion trends in the Canadian and Chinese market. An overnight success with 30 years in the making.Designer and Founder, RozeMerie Cuevas has opened 110 stores in five years and is now planning to open 20 more all over Canada. Looking back she never thought she would end up in China, let alone build a fashion empire. “I knew I wanted JAC to be global, but I never imagined this was going to happen”. That is the power of doing business in China, but more than that, it is the power of JAC.
JAC lives freely, leads by example, loves life, projects success, inspires, empowers action, and knows what she wants.
Photo Credit - JAC
Did you always know you would become a fashion designer ?
From the age of 12, I have always sewn my own clothes. My mum passed away when I was five and I didn’t like where my father brought me shopping, so instead I would just cut into fabrics and make my own. The name, Jacqueline Conoir was originally my mothers’. She’s Parisian ; the inspiration for the french feminine flare of the collection.
What was your first experience in the fashion industry ?
I was 18 years old, my cousin told me I should do a fashion show. It was happening at the “it” night club in Vancouver. Richards on Richards. I arrived with my clothes in garbage bags, all the other designers arrived with rolling racks and their beautiful pristine garment bags. I had never done a fashion show before, so I spent most of the time in the bathroom, hugging the toilet bowl. That’s when I overheard some ladies talking about my designs. “They were saying “oh did you know the girl who designed the black and white scene was just 18 years old. She’s so talented”.
In that moment I thought, you know what ? I’m going to become a fashion designer. The next day I pulled myself out of my university classes, I looked up fashion schools in Paris, I got into ESMode which was the top school. I worked three jobs for a year, saved up enough money for tuition and my rent and went off to Paris. I finished a three year program in two. I came back to Vancouver at age 23 and opened up my first boutique.
The first Jacqueline Conoir store was established in 1986. We designed power suits. We gained traction [that way]. Then we evolved into coats, sweaters, and so on. The next 15 years, that’s how we did it. We had become an icon in the West Coast and we did really well but at a certain point a lot of the manufacturing facilities were disappearing, so we were faced with a big decision, either we shut down our store or move to China for production.
In 2010 I was sitting in my favourite restaurant, Chamber, in Vancouver. There were two ladies beside me and they were chatting about the Jacqueline Conoir brand and they didn’t know that I was next to them and they said : yeah, I love that brand it’s so great! I love it, it’s perfect for my mother. And I thought : what! What are you talking about, it’s not just for your mother. The truth was is that I started at 22 and 25 years later, the collection had grown with me. So I decided to re brand to JAC by Jacqueline Conoir. I gave her back her personality and that became Italian sexy, North American cool and french feminine flare.
In 2011, after I created the JAC brand, I knew that I wanted to go big. I knew I couldn’t do that by myself. I sought out a partner, the partner that happened to come across my office was Bruce Lee and his wife, Jane. At first, they passed on the offer but then I realized that our manufacturing companies were all gone, so I re approached them and said, you don’t need to be my partner but can you manufacture for me. In China they’re used to 1,000 units per piece. I didn’t have that, but they said we’ll try, we’ll do it for you. Let’s see where it goes. We prepared the JAC brand to show to their collection of buyers. The reaction was really good. After that trip, we decided to become partners. That was five year ago now.
Within four years the brand opened 110 stores. From North to South, East to West. “We have stores in Tibet, in Mongolia, In new District and in Shenyang. It performs equally as well everywhere. We have won numerous awards. We just won designer of the year in Hangzhou. Our sales are in the top 20% of AAA department stores and now the plan is to go back to Canada full throttle with 20 new stores.”
Photo Credit - JAC
Have you reached a specific market, based on the styles that you brought in ?
When we came four years ago, we were one of the few people who really brought a real European North American look. At that time I remember there was this specific Chinese style that was not at all what we were doing. Before, the fashion here was very embellished, super charged, very colorful, very feminine styles. JAC was totally different, it was for the boy-girl. Very clean, and not at all embellished. We focused on natural fibers which are great for sustainability, they’re healthy for your body, and breathable.
Photo Credit - JAC
Did you have a pivotal moment in your career that you experienced in order to grow to where your brand is today ?
I think in the lifespan of a career, you go through many ups and downs. When you’ve gone through a challenge and you get through it, that’s one step on that ladder. All those challenges become building blocks to the power behind you. If you don’t give up, it doesn’t happen overnight, [but] you realize that you’re stronger than you actually thought you were. When the decision came for me to go to China, I was ready. I was strong enough to take on the most enormous challenge of my life. It wasn’t just the language barrier, but also the cultural differences, and a totally different business culture.
In what ways have you noticed the difference in business culture ?
[In Canada] we are much slower, we think about thinking about making an appointment. We analyze a lot, we want to be sure before we get in, we are very cautious and very careful. It takes us a long time to do a lot of things we want to do. When I’m in Vancouver coming from China, I feel like everything is in slow motion - which is a great thing because it gives you a certain type of lifestyle. It’s very leisurely. When you’re in China, you’re full on, all the time. I’ve had meetings in the back of my car, driving to the airport on the way to another city to do the opening of a boutique. Every moment of the day is available for business. It doesn’t matter if you’ve clocked out at 5 o’clock, if someone calls you and says “are you open to having a meeting this evening at 7 o’clock” with a key buyer you want to connect with, you will do it. Same thing with that buyer who would never think “oh I can’t bother her in the evening”. I’m in Hangzhou right now, let’s get together. If you adapt and latch on to this speed, you will gain success. Rather than being super cautious, they just try things, they don’t think about it too long. No one is afraid to try and fail. Because they know if they try three things, two or three of those will succeed maybe one will fail. We also have a numbers game here, there’s a lot of people. So whatever you try, there’s a big audience for it. I do notice more and more, focus is being placed on being more creative [here]. I think the future will see a lot more original designs coming out of China.
What keeps you motived to keep going and growing after having accomplished so much already. Do you ever take a second sometimes to think “wow I built this” ?
It’s so interesting, I think my whole career I’ve always woken up every day and I’ve done what I loved to do. I’ve been very lucky that my husband has been supporting what I love to do my whole life. So I’m very grateful to him. I think when you do what you love, the rewards just kind of happen. They flow towards you.
I always knew that the brand was going to do something big. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what but I knew that we were going to be a global brand. I think the key is if you really believe in something, you will make it happen, regardless. You might not know how but if you have that end goal, everything you decide to do and everything that you do, will get you to that end goal. You also need a little luck. JAC was lucky to have met the right partner for the China market.
Looking back at your journey, what advice would you give yourself then that you know now ?
Understand business. When I came out of design school, I was a designer, I was not a business person. There’s two ways to be a designer and be successful you’re either a designer with a business partner, or you’re a designer with a business background. You cannot survive the design industry as an independent designer without someone focusing on the business.
Jane and Bruce Lee, were introduced to us so we created a relationship. Initially they were just going to manufacture for us. After creating a relationship, we became partners.
Photo Credit - Retail Insider
Why did you choose JAC ?
Bruce : Seven years ago, we were thinking about the future. We wanted to be more international. We wanted to have partner from outside of China. [We were thinking about] finding a good designer, or a brand - and we found a designer and a brand together, that was the best.
Jane : it was a perfect match.
Bruce : We wanted to have an international brand. It’s not difficult to manufacture clothing, but it’s not easy to create a brand with a soul. We wanted the culture, the soul of the brand. A brand with a story, and an international background, not just a registered name overseas.
Jane : At the very beginning, I thought this collection is so strange, so simple and the colours are too dark.
[At the time] all the Chinese brands were very colourful, very feminine. This was totally different, very cool and edgy but very different. I couldn’t understand and accept that kind of style at that time. I wanted to invite RozeMerie to come to China to see how fashion styles are like here. When she brought JAC collection to Hangzhou, and our customers had the chance to look at what an international designer brand is, they felt “wow so strange yet special”.
RozeMerie : We kept the DNA of the brand. What we’ve done is keep the black, white, beige but added a pop colour in every season, and of course we offer the Chinese red.
Jane : (laughs) Chinese people love red. Before I used to never wear black, when we first partnered up I started to wear black.
Photo Credit - JAC
Have you seen a shift in Chinese fashion towards more international styles over the year ?
Jane: Yes, all the time. JAC is definitely a pioneer in fashion for its time. We’re so lucky to have chosen JAC at the right time, with the right person, to do the right thing. It was a perfect match. They had an idea to do something totally different, and it took a lot of courage to do that. It costs a lot of money to bring a brand and develop it in a new market. You have to be careful, you can spend a lot of money and risk that it doesn’t sell. We were counting on big things. Everyone took a chance.
RozeMerie : They took a chance on me, and I took a chance on the Chinese market. We got to know each other step by step.
Where is the future of fashion business headed ?
Jane : It will be mixed. For future we must have online and offline together. Combination of both will be the most powerful business model in the future.
How do you deal with this fast pace model ?
RozeMerie : There’s no book to tell you how to adapt, you just do it.
Bruce : Or if you have the book, it is wrong. What they tell you is right in that moment, it’s wrong a few months later.
RozeMerie : In the beginning I would come to Bruce “but you said this” and he says : “I know but now it’s changed.” Now I realized it doesn't matter what you think, what you say. It changes so quickly and you just have to be ready for it. I can feel all the moments when I would say “but this was the plan, we were here and now we’re there”.
How does this mentality develop. Is it part of your culture ?
Jane : Technology has changed the lifestyle of Chinese people. The last 10 years.
RozeMerie : I think in China, people think much quicker. Because there’s so many people. There’s always someone a little bit faster than you. I would always tell Bruce and Jane I think the Chinese way is the way you drive in the street. In Canada it’s proper, it’s your turn, then it’s my turn. In China it’s like everyone wants to cut in front of you, so how do you get there ? You just move slowly forward and never stop. Don’t stop or you’re done. It doesn't matter if you go to the right or to the left just always move forward. If you stop, someone else goes in front of you, but if you keep going then they back off. Then they move out of my way. I do feel this is the same principle in business.
Jane : The survival principle in China, not only in business but in everything. If you stop, you will fail.
RozeMerie : You just have to keep moving forward. Always find a way. Sometimes you try something and it totally doesn't work. The focus isn’t that it didn’t work it’s how can we fix it. Let’s just forget about that and try something new. In the beginning, I would feel so terrible because “oh that failed, I didn’t do a good job”. My energy wasn’t focused on, ok that didn’t work, move. I was spending my energy on something that already happened, that was yesterday. When I should be focusing on what’s coming tomorrow.
Jane : Our next step is global, in the China market, JAC sells #1 in local department stores. JAC created a lot of magic.
RozeMerie : Now we are ready for the Canadian market with 20 stores in the plan.