This year marks the 25th anniversary of when Roberge, President and CEO, and his two partners, his wife Lina Di Liello and his brother-in-law, John Izzo, acquired the iconic Canadian brand La Vie en Rose.
“It was such a heartwarming feeling to realize that 2021 marks the 25th year that La Vie en Rose has been under our ownership. I can say that celebrating a company anniversary like this one is quite a success in our industry nowadays. Retail is far from being a walk in the park, especially in the last year, which has by far been my biggest challenge as an entrepreneur. I’m staying optimistic and I can’t wait to see what the future holds,” said Roberge, of the lingerie, sleepwear, and swimsuit retailer.
The company has its head office and distribution centre in Montreal and employs more than 3,000 people across the country.
Today, La Vie en Rose has 201 locations across Canada, as well as 89 others in 16 different countries. After launching the La Vie en Rose swimsuit collection in 1998 and creating the e-commerce website in 2001, the entrepreneur took a giant leap in 2015. He acquired the swimsuit and beachwear retailer Bikini Village along with its 48 stores. The banner now has over 65 stores nationwide.
“In February 1996, we took over a little chain of 23 stores, mainly in Ontario. I thought at that time it had huge potential because the name was strong, the location was good, the stock and the staff were there,” said Roberge. “I thought this was a future growth market. When I moved the head office to Montreal, there were 12 people. Now we’re more than 350.
“When you look over the last 25 years, it’s crazy because we never stopped. I always say to everybody that in retail you grow or you die. And this is my philosophy in the last 25 years. Always push the machine to maximize the potential of the banner.
“I still have fun. This is one of the important keys when you are a retailer. If you don’t have fun, you should do something else.”
Roberge said the company has impressive plans to grow both banners in the near future especially since there has been a number of bankruptcies and creditor protection filings in the lingerie and swimsuit retail categories.
“There’s a lot of opportunity and I think it’s important to be aggressive. So if you look at what’s coming for the next six months, wow it’s crazy. We’re going to take a couple of La Senza’s . . . There’s an opportunity for us to take some market share. I’m going to do Willowbrook in Langley. I’m also taking a lease of La Senza in Red Deer. I’m taking a lease in Peter Pond Mall in Fort McMurray, which was also a La Senza. I’m taking the one in Cambridge. Also I’m taking the Mapleton Centre in Moncton, the Justice store. There’s a lot of stores we can take now and the market is for us,” said Roberge.
“Also, I’m taking five Swimco locations — mainly in the West — for Bikini Village.
“We’re moving. I think the next two years will be fantastic after the pandemic and I want to be ready to maximize every opportunity.”
Unlike many of his competitors, Roberge did not close any of the company’s stores during the pandemic — outside of mandated lockdowns. He is a firm believer in the value of physical stores with a strong omnichannel presence. Managing inventory has been a bit of a challenge over the past year particularly in the swimsuit category which has been impacted by travel restrictions. Communication within the store and its staff has been important to navigate through this tough economic time.
As a business owner, one of the key lessons Roberge said he has learned through the pandemic year is it’s a privilege to open a store. As the pandemic has shown, any government could close you down through lockdowns.
“It’s a privilege to be a retailer and to open a store because government can control much more than that. That’s my biggest learning. It’s an experience and communication and to build a bridge with government is important for a retailer,” he said.
Roberge said he believes brick and mortar stores mixed with a strong online presence is going to be the future for retailers. Price, quality, service, and reputation are important in success.
“The store is one of the keys for the future,” he said. “People can’t always stay at home and just wait and look at the computer. I think they like to go out. We’re going to see an evolution of the mall in the future because malls cannot just be fashion. They need to revise the business plan and everybody is working very hard on that.
“I believe that brick and mortar mixed with a strong web, customer service, is going to be the future.”
As an entrepreneur, Roberge began in the retail industry working for Boutiques San Francisco in a number of roles including Construction Director and Banner Director.
He acquired La Vie en Rose when he was 33 years old.
In 2002, Roberge created the Roses of Hope Foundation. This charitable organization’s mission is to financially support organizations that are committed to the well-being of women. Nineteen years later, $2.5 million has been donated, with more than half going towards the fight against breast cancer and support for women affected by the disease. La Vie en Rose also gives back to many other causes, in particular to organizations in its Montréal borough, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve.
Roberge has been President of the Board of Directors of mmode, the Metropolitan Fashion Cluster, for five years. The cluster’s mission is to improve the competitiveness and growth of the Quebec fashion industry. He also sits on the Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan Montréal’s Metropolitan and Urban Affairs Committee and acts as mentor for many Canadian entrepreneurs.
La Vie En Rose works with brokerage Oberfeld Snowcap for its Canadian real estate negotiations.