Born c. 1959, in Morocco; married Marc Bohbot, c. 1979; children: Yoann, Sandra, Steven, Stephanie, Noah, Chloe, Celine.
Home—Beverly Hills, CA. Office—Bisou–Bisou, Inc., 2025 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles, CA 90007.
Manager of Paris boutique chain until 1987; jeans importer in Los Angeles, late 1980s; founder, Bisou–Bisou, Inc., 1989.
Los Angeles, California–based designer Michele Bohbot inked a 2002 deal that would put her Bisou Bisou line of contemporary sportswear across hundreds of square feet on the floors of one of the biggest retailers in the United States. Bohbot and her company had enjoyed tremendous success in the 1990s, but a recessionary climate and resulting retail losses made it harder for mid–size companies like hers to survive on their own. A French–Moroccan mother of seven, Bohbot had never actually been inside a J.C. Penney store before the deal to carry her line exclusively was discussed, but was looking forward to the new partnership. "It was a tough decision, but I have the opportunity to dress more people," she told Anne D'Innocenzio for an article that appeared in the Bergen County, New Jersey, Record.
Bohbot hails from the fabled city of Casablanca, Morocco, where her father owned a boat–building company. Morocco was a protectorate of France until 1956, and her family was one of many European–heritage expatriates who had settled and prospered in the North African country. She met her future husband, also French–Moroccan, when she was 19, and Marc Bohbot proposed to her four days later. The newlyweds settled in Paris, France, where her husband ran a clothing–boutique business that he ultimately suggested she join. Bohbot was aghast at the prospect, as she recalled in an interview with People's Allison Adato. "I didn't think this was normal for a man to send me to work," she remembered. "I married to raise children! But I wanted him to love me, and I wanted to impress him, so I did it."
In 1987, the Bohbots moved to Los Angeles to establish a clothing–import business. The line of French jeans they sold failed to do well, however, so Bohbot decided to start designing her own line of casual tops for women with a fitted, colorful style she found quintessentially Californian. Bisou Bisou, a name that means "small kiss" in French, was formally launched in 1989, and within a few years it was a thriving sportswear company. The trendy clothes that Bohbot designed were sold in upscale retailers like Nordstrom, and by 1999 her company was posting sales of $60 million. Bisou Bisou also operated some two dozen freestanding stores by 2000, but the economic slump that began in earnest the next year hampered the company's growth. Some of its department–store clients experienced problems meeting their contractual obligations, for example, and suddenly retail real–estate space was prohibitively expensive. Early in 2002, Bohbot and her husband, who serves as the company's chief executive officer, were forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
In December of 2002, Bisou Bisou entered into a deal with Plano, Texas–based J.C. Penney that would give the American department–store chain exclusive rights to sell her Bisou Bisou line. The 500 accounts at competing retailers were closed, as were most of the Bisou Bisou stores. From that point, Bohbot's line would be available only in about 450 stores across the United States—about half of the total number of the J.C. Penney empire. If they sold well, however, more would be added at a later date. Bohbot had never been inside any one of those 900–plus Penney's stores before the deal was signed, but she was pragmatic about the new venture. "Sometimes in life you have opportunities," she WWD writer David Moin. "And if you are a little bit smart, you need to adapt yourself to what is happening. I never went to a J.C. Penney. It was really strange to see it, but I was really open and I said, 'why not?' It was comfortable to stay where we were, but we were comfortable to go to the next level."
Bohbot still retained creative control of her company, but the Penney deal necessitated a few changes to meet the mass–retail market. Bisou Bisou would now offer a wider range of sizes, and the seasonal–collection presentations to buyers and journalists twice yearly in New York City were jettisoned. Bohbot's new arrangement, however, also meant that the average price for a Bisou Bisou item would be significantly reduced, because working under the manufacturing, shipping, and distribution umbrella of such a large retailer helped to defray costs significantly. A few months into the deal, Bohbot told WWD's Moin that things were going well. "Nobody has ever removed some trim or changed the fabric. The production is beautiful." Apart from the larger sizes, there was a slight shift in what Bisou Bisou now offered its devoted customers. "The collection is more balanced than what it used to be," Bohbot admitted, when Moin asked her if any of its trademark body–conscious look had been compromised. "There are some sexy pieces and some less sexy pieces."
Bisou Bisou sales were predicted to easily reach the $100 million mark in 2004. The daring move on the part of J.C. Penney executives to make the exclusive offer followed an important new trend in the American retail industry, one in which mass–market purveyors sought to land a bit of cool for their shelves. Following the Martha Stewart/Kmart success came Minnesota–based Target and its cache of designer lines, from architect Michael Graves to Seventh Avenue stalwart Isaac Mizrahi.
Despite her career successes, Bohbot also found the time to fulfill her original goal of starting a family. Her first child, a son named Yoann, was born in the early 1980s, followed at two–and three–year intervals by his brothers and sisters, including twins Chloe and Celine, who were the last of Bohbot's seven. Her husband told People that he never thought he would have such a large brood, and had once considered two a sufficient goal, "but she would come up to me and say, 'Hi. I'm pregnant.'" The family of nine resides in a palatial Beverly Hills home with 18 bathrooms and eleven bedrooms. To get through her busy day, Bohbot employs a driver, nanny, cook, and housekeeping help, and is able to finish her Bisou Bisou workday by 5 p.m. She also teaches yoga in her spare time, and insists that all children be home for dinner nightly. Those close to her credit her remarkable organizational skills for giving her serenity despite her hectic lifestyle. "It's like our family lives in a hotel that my mother manages," her eldest son told People.
Cincinnati Post, March 11, 2003, p. C7.
Los Angeles Business Journal, February 18, 2002, p. 9.
People, March 24, 2003, pp. 99–100.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 13, 2003, p. B1.
WWD, July 19, 2000, p. 9; December 4, 2002, p. 1.