The French champagne and wine were flowing at the VIP reception for Orchestra, France's premiere baby/children's fashion retailer and the sixth largest in the world - on Monday night.
In a large, 4,400-square-foot space on the second level of upscale King of Prussia Mall, guests - mostly from the French community on the Main Line and employees at the French American Chamber of Commerce - were treated to French biscuits called "gavottes" to celebrate Orchestra's first store in the United States.
"The opportunity was there," said Pierre Mestre, founder and chairman of the board of Orchestra Premaman, on why after conquering nearly every other continent - including Asia and North Africa - the brand finally opened to American shoppers at 10 a.m. Tuesday under a big sign: "Orchestra - French Fashion for Kids."
Orchestra is among a wave of highly successful "fast fashion" retailers known for churning out new designs rapidly (more than 3,000 designs produced each season). It also sells huge volumes (90 million pieces sold annually) and charges dirt cheap prices ($2.25 for a girl's tank top, $11.95 for a skirt).
With about 700 stores worldwide in 40 countries, Orchestra has also built an enviable distribution network with $782 million in sales last year. More than 100 new items can be shipped to any store each week. The company's more than 1.6 million club members pay a $10 annual fee for a 25 percent discount on merchandise year round.
Mestre founded the company with his wife Chantal (who remains the company's artistic director) in the south of France 23 years ago. Agathe Boidin, the American CEO of Orchestra, relocated from France to the Philadelphia area, with her spouse and three children last year to lay the groundwork for the new KOP store.
In April, the company launched its first English-language retail website.
It is also working with Destination Maternity to sell baby clothes at 17 Destination Maternity stores on the East Coast, using the "store-within-a-store" concept. This was announced at Monday's reception.
The first four Destination Maternity locations are in the Philadelphia region, starting with the Shops at Liberty Place downtown on Thursday, both Neshaminy Mall and Quaker Bridge Mall on Friday, and Cherry Hill Mall on Tuesday. The Orchestra line fits newborns through age 2.
"We are thrilled," Boidin said. "King of Prussia is a top-three mall in the United States, so our product and concept will be seen by a lot of customers."
"Big," Mestre said with a chuckle when asked how the U.S. was viewed by Europeans. Then added, "It's the most educated market in the world."
In the last 18 months, at least 15 European retailers have moved in, most into KOP's new luxury wing: Jimmy Choo, Superdry, Bottega Veneta, Kneipp, MCM, Ecco, Le Creuset, Fendi, Bulgari, COS, Marc Cain, Clarins, Suitsupply and Philipp Plein.
John Krause, first vice president at commercial real estate firm CBRE, Inc., who brokered the Orchestra deal, said the brand selected the Philadelphia area for strategic reasons.
"Opening the first store in one of the top malls in the country, and one that continues to improve its offerings and merchandising, is an incredibly exciting start," Krause said. "Given the current marketplace is not yielding many new retail concepts, this is a big win for both Philadelphia and Orchestra."
Kathy Smith, director of marketing and business development at King of Prussia Mall, said there is no shortage of retailers - both domestic and international - that want in.
The same goes with shoppers: "It's amazing to see many clients walk through our door from all around the world," said Milana Knowles, Clarins' executive director of retail stores and spa division. The Paris-based beauty retailer opened only its second store after Hong Kong at KOP Mall in January.
Chris Daiss, director of retail operations for shoemaker Ecco, agreed. The Denmark-based firm debuted its first store in Pennsylvania there last month.
The location gives "the best possible chance for Ecco to be presented and understood in its purest form," Daiss said in an email.
There might also be an element of familiarity.
"In market towns in Europe or Asia, there was that place everyone went to shop," said Adam Ducker, managing director at RCLCO, a real estate advisory firm based in Washington. "If you went down the streets of 17th-century Bangkok or Paris, all of the vendors and specialties were located together because people gravitated to where there was critical mass, volume, diversity and energy."
Boidin alluded to that vibe: "I love the positive energy. Everyone believes in the project."
Mestre said Orchestra plans to open more stores later this year in the U.S. He cited H&M, Gap and Gymboree as the main competition in kids' wear.
"Our taste and style has an opportunity in the United States," he said. "It has to be proven, of course, but we are optimistic. We compete already with H&M and Zara in all the European countries for kids' clothes. We are French-style at an affordable price."