PARIS — Were it not for a hankering for pasta, four-year-old knitwear label Letanne wouldn’t even exist.
“The weather was horrible, so we stepped into this Italian restaurant in Paris,” recalled cofounder Elena Branzburg, who launched the brand with her mother Tanya in 2019. “We ended up seated next to this woman who didn’t speak French or Italian so started translating the menu for her.”
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As they bonded over the cuisine, the woman’s lush knitwear caught the pair’s eye. “She gave me the number of the craftsperson who had knitted it and I asked [the artisan] if she could make something based off a drawing I’d made.”
These days, the brand has been spotted on the likes of Natalia Vodianova, the Hadid family and artist Ashley Longshore, but also a slew of Gen Z influencers like Logan Paul, Daisy Keech and Gstaad Guy. It even had a cameo in “The Real Housewives of New York City,” where the reality stars went looking for its rainbow knits at Kirna Zabete.
It is sold at a dozen retailers including Harrods, Harvey Nichols in Saudi Arabia, Mode(s) and in the U.S., Stanley Korshak, Elyse Walker and, most recently, Neiman Marcus. In Paris, Letanne is available by appointment in its Marais showroom.
Launching a fashion brand wasn’t part of the career plans of Branzburg, a fine art and art history major at Parsons The New School who also obtained a GIA certification to be a gemologist.
When she started wearing the resulting thick baby blue cashmere coat, admiring looks and the odd compliment were the most she expected. But one daring fashion lover upped the ante: She offered to buy the piece right off Branzburg’s back.
The same happened with a second coat. “People were stopping us in the street to ask us where to buy them,” the young entrepreneur said. At first, Branzburg would pass out the details of her craftswoman. “It got to the point where my mother suggested we make a few in advance and perhaps create a few variations,” she said.
Letanne was born and given a portmanteau of their first names as its moniker. The design that started it all was duly named Julie, after the brand’s now head artisan, who had to enlist her network to find more crafters to meet initial orders.
“Our knitwear has unique weavings that cannot be replicated by machine,” explained Branzburg, pointing out that it also made each piece one-of-a-kind as each person has their own knitting signature, even when using the same pattern.
Yet, despite a slew of individual orders, an initial push into wholesale saw retailers telling the fledgling label it was too expensive.
A mid-calf coat with voluminous sleeves and a belt, the Julie coat takes more than 75 hours to knit and uses up between 1.3 and 2 kilos of thick-gauge cashmere yarn, depending on the size. As the duo wanted to ensure ethical sourcing, the yarn comes from Loro Piana, so models retail around 3,000 euros.
Things changed once word-of-mouth on social media entered the game, soon capturing the eye of the chic and creative.
A slew of collaborations followed, including a crystal-embroidered version with jewelry designer Nadine Ghosn, playing with a rainbow nodding to her colorful designs, and a man’s jacket with Gstaad Guy, who requested a snowy landscape and his catchphrase, “It’s All Family.”
These ended up featured in Assouline’s book on Gstaad and Damien Hirst did a small sculpture of the influencer wearing his Letanne jacket.
Such operations showcased Letanne’s personalization potential and inspired retailers to ask for designs tailored to their clientele’s taste.
Nowadays, the brand offers around 55 models, with bestselling styles including the Julie, the Matilda short jacket with a bow and the baby mohair and silk rainbow-hued Emma. Personalized designs account for 90 percent of Letanne’s business and options range from initials and dates to custom colors and even intricate designs.
Exhibit A: Philadelphia-based retailer Boyds requested a creation for its 85th-anniversary celebrations featuring its historic facade that took some 145 hours to embroider.
While its business is mostly in Europe, the Middle East and now the U.S., Asia feels particularly promising as she feels the local clientele are in tune with more graphic, playful designs.
And Letanne now is ready to go to market during Paris’ fashion and couture weeks, where it will show half of the collection in January and the rest in late February. The brand will also step up in-person events and trunk shows, particularly in the U.S.
Knitwear coats will remain the brand’s core for now, as Branzburg feels a young brand like hers can’t afford to dilute its expertise too fast. Sweaters felt like a natural next step, with a first model featuring scalloped hems and a keyhole design already available.
Most recently, the brand has also introduced ultra-light puffer jackets, dressed in its signature knits, but also a cotton option, for warmer temperatures.
That triggered a new market for Letanne: bridal.
According to Branzburg, demand started trickling in last summer, but culminated to some 10 clients for December alone. Bridal now amounts to around 15 percent of the business.
As a result, the next challenge for the four-year-old brand is to scale production. As demand grew, the duo decided they would only add female artisans to their team. “As women, we wanted to help other women gain financial independence,” Branzburg said.
In addition to paying a fixed salary, Letanne gives them up to 25 percent of the profits on the pieces they make.
Now their team counts more than 50, all single mothers and retired professionals recruited by recommendation and located initially in Kazakhstan. Letanne recently started working with artisans in the Baltic region.
Still, it’s hitting a plateau at around 80 coats a month, which has Branzburg looking at recruiting in other areas such as Latvia or Lithuania, and perhaps even opening an office to manage this.
Not that they’ll start making thousands of pieces a month, mind you. “We don’t want to have mass production, especially from the waste aspect,” the designer stressed.
She wants to be reasoned in production but also consider what happens once a Letanne coat is no longer wearable or its owner’s tastes have changed. Branzburg even projected a program where coats could be remade, for a fee, since knitwear can be undone and its material reused.
The process is time intensive and still rather costly, as it involves washing and re-rolling the cashmere yarn, so that’s not a service Letanne offers. “Yet,” she added after a beat.
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