Repetto's Variations on a Ballet Flat

Famous for supplying pointe shoes to dance companies, this French shoemaker is riding the fashion to fame, and scaling up its line for later

Repetto is back on its toes. This venerable French manufacturer of ballet slippers has become a hot fashion brand, pirouetting to cash in on the worldwide popularity of ballerina-style flat shoes.

Traditionally a supplier to French ballet companies, Repetto has launched a line of dance-inspired footwear, retailing for $200 a pair and up. The shoes are sold in nearly 1,000 high-end stores worldwide and have attracted a celebrity following, from Sarah Jessica Parker to Hillary Clinton. "Repetto's flats have become a basic staple in every chic girl's wardrobe," says Sally Ross, a vice-president who oversees footwear merchandise at New York City's Bergdorf Goodman department store.

Choreographing Repetto's comeback is Jean-Marc Gaucher, a former head of Reebok's French operations who bought the company in 1999. Established in 1947, Repetto fell on hard times after founder Rose Repetto died in 1984, and passed through a series of owners who failed to revive it. Although the company had developed a line of street shoes, they were mainly bought by seniors looking for comfortable footwear.

High Heels to Handbags

But Gaucher saw plenty of potential in Repetto. The ballerina flat has been closely associated with French fashion since the 1950s, when Brigitte Bardot ordered a custom-made pair of crimson Repetto slippers to wear in the film And God Created Woman. "There is a lot of imagery with dance: the prima ballerina, the tutus, the opera, the stage, the makeup. We wanted to take this image and introduce it into the luxury sector," he says.

He brought in designers, including big names such as Issey Miyake and Yohji Yamamoto, to develop dozens of new styles. Beyond ballet flats, Repetto now sells everything from tango-inspired high heels to handbags. Gaucher also led the company through a bankruptcy proceeding in 2002 that allowed him to reorganize, shuttering inefficient factories and centralizing production at a factory in France's Dordogne region.

Gaucher also retooled Repetto's distribution network, cutting off sales to stores targeting older customers, and focusing instead on upscale outlets such as Bergdorf Goodman and Harvey Nichols in London. By 2005, sales had grown to $13.7 million, and last year they leaped to $23.4 million. Repetto doesn't release profit figures.

Flatlining Flats

Repetto is still a minor player in its sector. Sales of all ballerina flats in the U.S. alone were $58.9 million last year, according to market researcher NPD Group. What's more, analysts say the ballerina-flat craze may already have peaked. Marshal Cohen, NPD's chief industry analyst, predicts that sales of ballerina flats will begin slowing by autumn. "Only a few brands will stay in the flat business," he says.

That's why Gaucher is pushing hard to develop new product lines, including handbags and dancer-inspired clothing. He's also preparing to open boutiques in Tokyo, New York, and Los Angeles this year, in addition to existing boutiques in London, Paris, and Lyon, France.

What about the professional ballerinas who have long been Repetto's most loyal customers? The company still produces handmade slippers and pointe shoes for them. At $70 to $100 a pair, they aren't moneymakers, but, says Gaucher, "We want to have a strong brand for dancers, because that is what our image is built upon."

For more on Repetto's fashionable turn, see BusinessWeek's slide show.