Manny Mashouf readily admits he didn’t have much experience in the fashion business at the time he started bebe. But that certainly didn’t stop the founder and CEO of bebe Stores, Inc., the Brisbane, Calif.-based specialty retail operation that designs, develops and produces a distinctive line of women’s contemporary apparel and accessories. “Of course, I grew up in a very fashion-conscious family in Tehran. All the women wore the latest fashions from Paris and I frequently shopped with my sisters, cousins and mother. Later, when I came to the U.S. to attend college [he graduated from San Francisco State University where he earned a B.A. in political science], I realized I was probably the most fashion-forward student on campus. I also realized how much I liked fashion.”

After graduation, Mashouf went into the restaurant business. “But my heart wasn’t in it. What I really enjoyed was shopping—for both myself and for my girlfriends. And it was so obvious to me there was a void in women’s fashion at the time. There was nothing between the junior and missy styles, nothing like what you would now call ‘contemporary women’s fashion.’ That’s what I had in mind when, in 1971, I opened my first boutique on Polk Street in San Francisco.” By 1976, Mashouf had expanded to four boutiques and officially established the bebe name. “The name was important to me. It had to be memorable, simple and one word,” he continues. “One night I was at a party and we were discussing the sense of existence. Hamlet’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ speech came up. That cinched it for me. The name for my stores became bebe.”

From the day Mashouf started bebe, his marketing philosophy has remained the same. “As a brand, we focus on portraying women in a feminine, sexual, modern and confident manner. We have a formula, which is part of our corporate culture: bebe is timeless; bebe is about an attitude, not an age; about a mindset, not a stereotype,” he explains. “We have tried to be consistent with the design and quality of our products. Our fans know they can come to us for the latest trends to fit their varied lifestyles.”

This philosophy is also carried into the eyewear and sunglass collections. “Eyewear had become one of the most sought out categories for our clients, who are looking to complete their wardrobes with an ever-changing collection of frames and sunglasses. bebe’s philosophy of providing ‘lifestyle dressing’ for the modern and sensual woman comes into play here,” he notes.

“Based on the success of our eyewear launch with Altair in October it seems the bebe brand is already resonating within the industry,” he says. In fact, according to the results of 20/20 and Vision Monday’s 2010 EyeVote Readers’ Choice Awards, announced in this issue, bebe was the readers’ choice in the Frame Brand, New Launch category. “We hope this launch and our continued success in this category will be further indication that bebe as a brand translates well into varied product categories,” Mashouf explains.

To maintain a cohesive brand image message through all the product lines, Mashouf works very closely with the product designers on a consistent, almost daily basis. “I think that’s the key to ensuring consistency in design and overall product integrity. We have an open line of communication,” he notes.

To keep the bebe brand fresh, the bebe team travels extensively to research trends, new fabrics and new ideas, and also looks to the arts—music, film, theater and graphic design—for inspiration.

To market the brand, Mashouf feels aside from brand exposure in print and outdoor advertising, which has been very successful, it’s critical to provide a continually changing in-store experience to give consumers a reason to shop at bebe stores. “To do this we deliver new products, new floor sets and new windows on a weekly basis,” he emphasizes.

When asked what selling tips he would give to optical retailers selling bebe eyewear, Mashouf responds, “I have always held the notion that a sale is far easier if you engage in a conversation with the clients, get them into a fitting room… and make sure they see themselves in front of a mirror. This seems like a natural selling tip for optical retailers as well.”    

—Gloria Nicola