The Kooples Is for Couples (Usually European)

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service

(Critical Shopper)

NEW YORK — The world is awash in basics. A shopper can find silk shirts, cigarette pants, cashmere sweaters and pencil skirts for a range of prices starting at $12.90 (for a little black dress at Forever 21) to $3,495 (for a little black dress by Rosie Assoulin). Stocking up on wardrobe basics is no longer a problem of availability, but one of selection.

If you’ve spotted an ad from the French clothing brand the Kooples, you might mistake it for another purveyor of lightly tweaked staples. Ads depict real-life couples (or “kooples,” slangwise, apparently) wearing chambray shirts, leather jackets and wool blazers.

The couples are all effulgently attractive and chicly slim-hipped. They stare defiantly into the camera lens, challenging a viewer to imagine the good-looking children they might someday produce. The company’s logo looks like the title treatment of “Diff’rent Strokes.”

Founded in 2008 by three French brothers, the Kooples fashions itself as an outfitter of romantic partners who enjoy dressing like each other (if that sounds tautological, it is).

Although the brand is a new presence on these shores — and indeed, on any shore — the company has expanded rapidly overseas, planting stores from Dublin to Casablanca to Seoul. Manhattan now hosts two Kooples outposts, the most recent opening in SoHo last month.

According to the brand’s chief executive, sales are split precisely between male and female customers. The store is also split in half, with womenswear on the left and men’s on the right — “although it’s hard to tell sometimes with these European brands,” a saleswoman acknowledged.

On the female side, watery derivative pieces coexist with clever and desirable pieces in a ratio of about 6 to 1. (Not bad for a brand with mass aspirations.) On the one hand, racks flutter with items that recall a Disney executive’s teenage daughter at Coachella: leather bralettes for $295, felt hats, fringed numbers.

On the other hand, there are pieces like a silk-cotton shirt printed with butterflies in the style of a 19th-century lithograph ($195), with a pointed flat collar as neat as an origami flower. Or a red floral-print blouse in slippery crepe de Chine that manages to unite “sex appeal” with “chintz” ($245). I tried on the red top. "You look like a farmer taking a break to pick windflowers in a field,” a saleswoman determined. Not the archetype I was expecting, but appealing, nonetheless.

I also tried a silk-cotton shirt festooned with the sort of overripe roses that appear on Victorian Limoges cookie jars. The fit was slim, like everything else in the store, and the fabric lighter than a Kleenex. It made me look like a randy academic’s wife in an Iris Murdoch novel.

I filed this one in the “yes” pile.

Menswear boasts a similar batting average, but with simple items more rewardingthan statement pieces. If a shopper sticks to the classics, he may find ideal versions of the following: twill shirts, striped tees in featherlight cotton, trim suit jackets in black, gray, navy and glen plaid. Should he venture into denim, he will find jeans dotted with skull rivets — a wee token of barbarity that is instantly defeated by the cut of the item (like pantyhose, but denim).

During my first 30 minutes in the shop, every customer appeared to be foreign: one French, one German, two British, and three unclassifiable (deep tans, faint accents). Finally an American in shorts entered and presented a saleswoman with a shirt. “My mom got this for me in Paris, and I want to exchange it for a bigger size,” he said.

Did he have a receipt, by any chance?

“No,” the American man said, growing edgy. “They literally took it at Customs.”

The saleswoman explained that making an exchange was against policy.

“Can you get a manager?” the man asked. Uh-oh.

A manager was fetched. Then the saleswoman and manager explained, in exacting technical detail, why the exchange couldn’t be made: It had to do with the company’s point-of-sale system and differences in currency, and it was a problem common among stores with locations across the globe.

As a customer-service tactic, the explanation worked like magic. The man listened. He sympathized with the women that retail technology should really, at this point, be capable of reconciling various currencies; he accepted that it was not so. One of the women suggested that his shirt might be salvaged with 20 minutes of tailoring, and the man agreed to try this, taking down the number of a recommended tailor. He went gaily out the door. It was a display of Hague-level conflict resolution.

I was equally pleased to discover, upon checking out, that I would receive a free candle with my rose shirt. “It’s your gift with purchase,” the saleswoman said. (“Gift with purchase”: the most beautiful string of words in the English language.)

The candle featured a gold Kooples crest, and it smelled like a rich man’s armpit.

Shopping bag in tow, I tripped out of the store into the sunshine. Two women stopped me down the block. “Where’s the Kooples store?” they asked.