Irène and Thomas Cohen

An hour with Thomas and Irène Cohen, founders of the cult French children's brand Bonton, is not enough. Aided by their "web angel" Alice, they reflect on the beginnings of the company, the importance of the web in building a brand and why eating ice cream before lunch is a necessary evil...

What are your roles at Bonton?

Irène: Thomas is the Managing Director, he is at the helm, avoiding icebergs! I am more involved with the creation and management of the collections and buying. I suppose I am the guardian of the Bonton philosophy. Alice, after starting off as the babysitter for our eldest children, is now our ‘web angel’. She manages all of our web content.

How did the Bonton story start?

Irène: There is a strong link to Thomas’ family history as his parents were the founders of Bonpoint. We met before, when we were students. We then went to work in our different areas and quite quickly Thomas started to work alongside his parents. Little by little we both found ourselves enveloped into the company. Thomas’ mother was running the design office and it was with her that we started thinking about a second, simpler, brand, for every day. So we did some mock-ups, the colour scheme, the logo etc and then one day in 2001 we found premises on the rue de Grenelle in St Germain and decided to open the first shop there. At that moment we began to work together, with Thomas migrating from Bonpoint to Bonton.

Thomas: The prospect of a family business didn’t scare me; I had always seen my parents working together. At the beginning we were working almost in Bonpoint’s lap, right up until its sale. The buyers weren’t interested in Bonton, so it was at that stage that we became independent.

So what do you see as the advantages of a family business?

Thomas: Only the advantages? (laughs) (I reassure him that the other side of that question is coming…)

Working with the person that you share your life with is very enjoyable. You are working with the person you love. There is an obvious bond between us. We understand each other without saying a word; things are a lot simpler because of that. We are careful not to both be involved in the same areas of the business. I find that with family businesses, in fact with all businesses, it is very important that everyone has their own distinct territory.

Irène: The family aspect inevitably leads to a general way of doing things for the company as a whole. There is a certain atmosphere, a notch above intimacy, which puts human relationships before professional relationships. Everyone has to be part of the family.

Alice: I feel like a part of the family. There really is that effect. Plus, I was born on the same day as Bonton, 19th May.

Thomas: (to no-one in particular) Sometimes life at Bonton feels like being around the family table at Sunday lunchtime.

And the disadvantages?

Irène: Naturally you have to adhere to a certain philosophy and sometimes that can weigh you down. Unfortunately in those, inevitable, difficult moments we all take things very personally. Sometimes when there are those little wounds, they are felt by everyone.

Thomas: Sometimes, with Irène, we fantasize about a different life, as a couple where each one comes home from their respective jobs and leaves their professional worries behind them…But that isn’t the life that we have chosen. We pay the price of entrepreneurship with its inherent freedom and the ever-connected telephone!

Is there another family business that you admire? (I forbid them to say Bonpoint; that would be too easy!)

Thomas: For me, Berthillon, the Parisian ice cream shop which is closed for all of August…
Ok, that makes me laugh, but I will give you an answer that is a little more serious. My cousin Juliette created Swildens. Her husband worked in advertising and left everything to join her in her venture. They are really starting to become known in the world of women’s pret-à-porter, which is much, much more complicated than the children’s world.

Irène: There is a company that I admire enormously, which is the one run by Jean-Louis Costes. It is certainly very Parisian, very modern and trendy, you either love it or you hate it, but they have built it up from scratch. We are part of a family tradition, and even though we don’t work in the family business per se, we recognise the fact that we already had our foot on the ladder. They started from scratch. It is good to recognise that it isn’t always about big families. There are also those who start from nothing.

Where will Bonton be in 10 years time? In your children’s hands?

Thomas: As far as our children are concerned, I will have exactly the same conversation with them as my parents had with me. Bonton is our story; they will build their own for themselves. We will try to give them the best start that we can and to help them as much as possible, while teaching them the value of hard work. If, by chance, they go down the same road as us, we will be more than happy to lead them along it but if they decide to do something else, we will be happy to help them with that too.

And with regard to where Bonton will be in 10 years, we are currently preparing the way for international development (Yes! I have a scoop!), more precisely in Japan, Korea, and China. In Asia there is real affection for the brand. Once we have enough financial strength, we will attack the London market. The sky is the limit!

How does the Bonton universe resemble you?

Irène: Bonton resembles both of us because we created it of course, but I think that there really is something in the brand that resembles me. I am not at all afraid of mixing things up, neither styles, nor proportions. And at Bonton I think that you can feel that. I also think that it is a reflection of how we live today. In the living room you are going to have your children’s toys next to some amazing candlesticks that you inherited from your grandmother, next to a modern lamp that you bought at Armetide. And personally I think you should leave things like that; that way life is full of beautiful surprises!

When I think about it, Bonton is a bit like a child. We created it but it has an energy all of its own. A brand resembles you, but it changes you too.

Thomas: Nothing to add!

What has the Internet brought to the Bonton story?

Thomas: Now on this point, I have a very precise answer. I am not going to let anyone else speak! So, on a very basic level, the web has given us another sales avenue, but even though we did it for that reason, that is not what delights us the most about it today. What we love about it the most is how it has allowed us to establish a link with clients that we had not managed to reach before. And all that is down to Alice. Thanks to her touch of youth, and a certain lightness of touch that our clients adore, and that we adore too!

Irène: It is true that previously, there was barrier between us and the client. There is a real human quality that the net brings to a brand, that we didn’t have in the business before. We have gained a greater intimacy with our clients.

Alice: The blog has brought us a lot. Above all, there is a real dialogue with the customer. I have kept all the emails and comments from our clients that honestly bring a tear to the eye.

What is your advice for someone setting up as an entrepreneur today?

Thomas: Don’t do it in France :) (Laughs, especially at the English woman who set up web a business in France…). Be driven, that’s important and a great quality. You meet some incredible people. But you also must be honest with yourself. It is very hard; you don’t make money overnight. It’s a very long process. That is the litany of all entrepreneurs. There are long, long moments of solitude. There is no certainty. You have to work, work, work. And when you have finished working, you have to work a little bit more. But on the other hand, there is an unbelievable sense of freedom. You face your client with only one question: do they like what you do or not?

Irène: You have to be aware of both sides of the story: the good and the not so good. Otherwise it can very quickly become a huge and somewhat violent disappointment. And another thing; there are two halves that are reliant on one another. You can be a great artist but never actually achieve anything, just as you can be a great manager and never manage anything either. Each one has to respect the other. Neither can work without the other. You have to bring the two together. It’s a kind of alchemy.

Your favourite site?

Thomas (without any hesitation): L’équipe (the French sporting newspaper).
Irène: Topshop. I can order for me and my oldest daughter from the comfort of my sofa. And their polka dot packaging is lovely too.
Alice: Pinterest.

Your favourite blog?

Thomas: IFON.FR
Irène: The one by Sophie Cuvelier (who created the Bonton logo).
Alice: L’e dans l’a. Her writing is exceptional and the photos are naturally beautiful.

A motto?

Thomas: Life is what you make it. (Irène: but that is your mother’s saying! Thomas: I am allowed to use it! Kate: That is the beauty of a family business!)
The sky is the limit. (Thomas: You aren’t going to steal my phrases then…)
Take it easy!

A designer?

Alice: Morgane Sézalory, from Sézane.
Irène: Apolline, which has a very poetic quality.
Thomas: Hayao Miyazaki.

A childhood memory? The first thing that comes into your head.

Thomas: Wednesday evenings when I used to go and play tennis at the sport’s club “Le Stade Français" with my brothers. We were allowed to eat there, on a school night, it was amazing!
Irène: Eating ice cream before lunch. AND I still do it. It was the moment when I realized that rules could be broken.
Alice: The biscuits using the cream from the milk that my grandmother use to make.

(At Bonton, I can confirm, they love their food…)

Last question. Are you chic or geek?

Alice: Geekement chic (coined by Irène)
Irène: Chic, not very geek.
Thomas: Obviously geek.