When Coralie Francois arrived in the UAE a few years ago, it was to work as a fashion buyer for high-end brands Balenciaga, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.
Needing to gain a full understanding of her new customer, she took time to visit stores and malls, to see who was shopping and, crucially, what they were buying. What she discovered, however, surprised her.
While shoppers for high-end goods were well catered for, as, too, were those craving high-street finds, there was almost nothing aimed at the women wanting something in the middle.
"Walking through the malls, looking at the UAE fashion landscape, a simple conclusion came to my mind," Francois tells The National. "What is on offer between fast fashion like Zara and H&M, and the luxury brands such as Gucci or Dior?"
Seeing a clear gap in the market, in 2016 she launched a tightly curated fashion boutique called Maison Clad.
“Being an entrepreneur has always been at the back of my mind,” she explains.
The aim behind the boutique was very simple: to give women in the UAE access to “a new option of exclusive brands with nice stories, great quality and decent prices".
Situated at La Serre Vida Hotel Downtown in Dubai, it was well received, and soon prompted Francois to open a second site at The Collective by Ripe, in The Courtyard Al Quoz, which she expanded to carry both sportswear and ready-to-wear. Over Christmas 2020, she opened a third site at The Sofitel The Palm Jumeirah.
All three stores are filled with a beautiful array of colourful pieces, from fluted-sleeve tops to floor-length patterned maxi dresses, while tables are set with delicate gold-plated jewellery and shoes sit on shelves around the walls.
Each item is carefully chosen by Francois herself, who uses her experience to source the most interesting, unique pieces she can, thanks to what she describes as her "laser focus".
“We are currently working with 35 brands, but I feel we are still at the beginning,” Francois explains. “Exploring new brands, new ideas and new countries are my obsession. [There is] so much more coming.”
Francois’s passion means that Maison Clad carries myriad options for today’s busy woman. Gym bunnies will enjoy the sportswear (think cropped tops with lattice backs), while those wanting something dressier will find stylish looks for day, as well as chic eveningwear. The latest range that Francois has introduced is beautifully feminine lingerie.
Prior to moving to the UAE, Francois worked for French brand Agnes B as a buyer and product manager, a background she credits with helping her cater to the UAE’s diverse population.
“I used to travel a lot to Hong Kong and Japan, which taught me to understand different cultures, the needs of women in different places of the world and how to adapt," she says.
Despite years of buying experience and an education in fashion management, Francois is adamant that the best advice is found inside boutiques.
“Every single day I am selling in the boutiques, so I can immediately see what works and what is a hit," she says. "I build my purchases based on this.
“Our concept is to bring in small quantities of exclusive novelties weekly, always keeping in mind what my clients want."
Blessed with loyal clients, Francois enjoys that some customers trust her judgment, explaining that “many times, the shopping becomes a personalised styling session".
“The fact that we work with different brands and styles enables us to find a fashion solution for each woman's needs.”
Francois’s eye is the secret to her success, as well as her desire to find what she dubs "clothes which will bring you compliments".
Explaining what this means, she is charmingly frank. “If each time you wear a look from Maison Clad, your family, spouse, colleagues, friends give you compliments ... you will eventually come back to our boutiques. This is how we create a strong base of loyal customers.”
She is quick to admit, however, that her unique eye means that often, clients are eager to keep her to themselves.
Despite some customers' secrecy, however, word is out about Maison Clad and Francois is now shipping to clients across the region, including Lebanon, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, with a four-hour delivery turnaround in Dubai.
"I genuinely wish my clients feel unique and always find something that makes them smile."