Helene Ly has great style, and when I say that I don’t just mean style in terms of dress. When we met for coffee at the NoMad, I was immediately struck by her quiet elegance, with regard to both composure and clothes, and this impression stayed with me throughout the entirety of our conversation. She grew up in France, the child of Chinese immigrants, but feels incredibly at home in Asia and New York as well, able to move seamlessly between the three places. As someone who is the product of many different cultural narratives, it’s easy to understand why she and her business partner, Michelle Spiro were inspired to start LYS Partners, a company that focuses on international branding. For more about Helene and what she’s built, read on!
Tell me in your own words exactly what you do.
I have a consulting firm that focuses on three things, the biggest of which is branding. So we work with international companies to help develop their businesses, whether it’s by developing new brand categories, or by refocusing their brand DNA, or international expansion. We also work on wholesale/retail expansion. The way that fashion brands set themselves up is very different in Europe. U.S. brands are very promotional. The calendar is different in Europe, the way they plan the business is very different. For a U.S. brand or U.S.-based company, they always have to build into it.
What do you mean build into it?
Take Calvin Klein underwear for example, the brand where I met my business partner Michelle. When you work with Macy’s, they charge you back if things don’t sell by a certain time. Many buyers and sellers have to work together to minimize that. In France, it’s very different. There are two months in the year when everything is on sale.
Right. Les soldes. Every one should plan their trips to Paris around those sales.
Exactly. It’s an experience.
It is literally a free-for-all. You can get amazing things for no money.
Right. You can get whatever you want, and it’s an amazing deal. But it’s a very different calendar, and they have fashion drops every month. So the way people plan their lines is very different. When European brands come here, it’s very confusing. We spoke to a few French brands, chain brands that are very popular in Europe and came here. Then you go to the store you see that they oversold it, and there’s no story, even though the product is great. Everything looks messy. If you were to help them recalibrate the line, sort the line, it would help them to tell a story, and it would help them to maximize themselves. I think European brands are slowly learning, because of the bad economy—they are beginning to understand that you can’t just rely on your own story.
This is something I’ve noticed. Because of my own French connection. I look at websites and Instagram feeds for French companies, and I’ve noticed that they’re very behind in social media content and just in terms of creating a digital presence in general. I look at their websites, and I think, what are you doing? You need to completely redesign this website. So tell me a little bit more about this idea of brand story, and how you see European brands falling down on the job.
So European brands, mostly French and Italian, rely on their history, their cultural heritage. They’re so rich in artisanship that they rely on it. I can’t tell you how many people we’ve met who say, with a big smile, “The product speaks for itself.” And Michelle and I are always like, “Great!” And that’s true to a certain extent. But either way, in the U.S. market, you have to tell a story. You have to give a reason for buying. It’s more of a consumer culture. You have to add value to people’s lives. The marketing speaks even more than the advertising. In Asia, it’s half and half. They need to see the value of it physically, but you also need to tell them the story. You need to make it clear is something is an aspirational brand. Those are the three continents where I’m the most familiar with how it works—I wouldn’t speak for South America. It’s interesting to see the similarities and the differences.
Tell me a little bit about your background, and where you grew up.
I grew up in Paris, and then I went to fashion school after first attending hotel management school. I grew up in the restaurant business. My parents had a huge Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant in Paris. I actually worked there, so I was always exposed to food. And of course in Asian culture as well as in France, food is very important.
Do you cook?
I enjoy cooking. I enjoy discovering new food, trying new food, discovering restaurants. That’s always been a passion of mine. I also like presentation, so when I went to study hotel management, I was exposed to all of it—the kitchen, the cooking, room service, all the aspects of hospitality. What I liked about it was presentation, the visual aspect of it. At the time that I was studying hospitality was very much a man’s world. When you were in the kitchen, it was hard to be a woman. I did an internship at the Intercontinental when it was still on the rue de Rivoli, and I was just watching women crying at seven in the morning.
I think that might be France, though.
Yes. It’s a generational thing, and it’s French. I think the new generation is very different, but the baby boomers and the generation before them, it’s still very male-centered. But the field doesn’t really matter. It’s publishing, banking, all of them. So I finished my training, and I wanted to go into fashion. The hotel management school was my parents’ idea. I did it for them, but once I was done with it, I said, “Now you have to allow me to do whatever I want.” So I went to ESMOD in Paris, which gave me great exposure to all of the international brands, like Kenzo and Christian Lacroix.
So let’s apply what you learned to what you do. Kenzo, for example, was extremely popular in the 90s, and then they came back a couple of years ago. But now they seemed to have disappeared again. If you were asked to revamp Kenzo, what would you do?
The best example for me is Raf Simons at Dior. Even though he has his own handwriting, when he went to Dior, his first collection was a dream. He understood the brand DNA, but he fast-forwarded it into today’s lifestyle. He has done a great job of keeping the balance between the brand aesthetic and his own.
It’s like ghostwriting. When I create social media content or copy or images for a brand, I have to balance maintaining my style without overshadowing the voice of the company.
And you still have to make it relevant. There are certain brands that have a certain DNA that we all love, like Eres. It’s a lingerie brand that I love, but it’s not current—it hasn’t evolved. It’s great to have a $400 bra, but who’s buying that bra?
Their bathing suits, however, are incredible.
I could not agree more. But that’s the challenge for any fashion house today: finding a way to maintain a balance between the brand DNA and making it relevant without compromising that DNA.
Right. Because how many 20-year-olds do you know that buy Eres?
Not that many.
Okay, so you go to fashion school. How do you get from there to where you are now?
What was interesting with ESMOD was that our program was three years. Most fashion schools are four years. So I did not sleep for three years. I did design and pattern-making. The first two years you do ready-to-wear, and the last year you have to pick a specialty. I picked intimates, and the reason I picked it was that I’d always had an interest, and ready-to-wear was oversaturated. I like the feminine, sexy aspect of it, and it was untapped. From there I fell right into it. We had guest speakers that would come in, and one of my mentors, who is based in Holland and runs a trend forecasting company in Paris, gave a lecture. I was mesmerized by her, by how international she was, the idea of the United States, working with different brands. This was at a time when Calvin was relevant, and I had this obsession with working for them. I loved the Kate Moss/Mark Wahlberg ads. I also had a fascination with New York too. I came to New York for the first time when I was ten years old, and I told my mom, “I’m going to live here one day.” It turned out that ESMOD had an exchange program with FIT, and I thought, “That’s my ticket.” Calvin Klein was my goal. When I came to New York I sent about 150 cover letters, I went to about 60 interviews, and it took me about 46 months before I got my first job.
At Calvin Klein?
No. The funny thing is that the head designer was French. She loved my portfolio, but she had just finished hiring her team. It wasn’t meant to be, but you know what, it’s all about timing in life. I started at a different company, Action AC, Heating and Solar, where I learned the in and outs of the U.S. market. And then, about ten years ago, I had to move back to Paris for family reasons. After that, the Calvin Klein licensing department called me. The company where I was working had Warnaco as an account. I went to London for an interview with the woman who liked me the first time around. She looked at my book again, and she said, “I’ve seen this before,” and I said, “Yup, you saw it six years ago, but you had just hired your team.” Two weeks later I was hired. It felt right. The timing was right. I was more prepared—I had the tools, and I had the experience. I had so much more exposure than the other designers at Calvin. I was exposed to manufacturing, sourcing, global brands, different tiers, channels. I was grateful for that.
What happened next?
I needed to find something creative that made sense to me. So I decided to quit my job. I bought a one-way ticket, one of those world tickets where you can pick different destinations. I picked five. One was London because I’d never explored London aside from work. I went to Paris to see my family, and then I went to Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. I came back through LA.
So this was like your pilgrimage to figure out what you wanted to do.
Exactly. I took three months just to travel. I parked myself in those places, and I told people, “If you know anyone, please put me in touch with them, I just want to meet them for coffee.” For the most part I was on my own, and I really just wanted to observe. I needed to know what was happening to the consumer today. The world has become so global, but it’s still different at the same time. Looking to find the balance in all of this has helped me figure out how to work in consumer products, how to analyze it, how to approach it, and how to connect it all. That’s what is important to me.