Our fashion labels: coming apart at the seams
Two of this country’s best-known fashion names are in deep trouble, while others are thriving. The reason, says Luke Leitch, is because the successful ones are not all that British.
BY Luke Leitch |
19 April 2012
There is a wonderful, black-and-white Sixties cinema advertisement that shows high-street British fashion at its funkiest, and stars Joanna Lumley at her foxiest. Backed by a groovy flute soundtrack, she and other models skip purposefully around London, clad in jazzily knit mini-dresses, daringly mannish tunic-suits, and Go-Go-perfect, spangled Rayon tights – all part of the “Young Jaeger” collection that was such a hit of the time.
In impeccable RP, the voice-over girl intones: “I want to look so great that everybody in the world will want to be me.” Back then, that blurb wasn’t entirely empty rhetoric. Jaeger, which began life as an eccentric Victorian manufacturer of health-giving “sanitary” underwear, started producing women’s fashion in the Thirties and was favoured by Audrey Hepburn and the Duchess of Windsor. In the Sixties and for part of the Seventies, it was extremely successful, an astute pulse-taker of British women’s ready-to-wear whims. Not now, though.
Today, if you harbour even a scintilla of sentiment for the glory days of British fashion, then you will lament the woes afflicting not only Jaeger but Aquascutum, too. For two of this country’s most evocative and interesting clothing companies are up against it. This week, their former owner, Harold Tillman, was left with little choice but to sell his majority stake in Jaeger and release Aquascutum to the administrators.
Jaeger’s new owner, Jon Moulton (who once tried and failed to rescue MG Rover), has confirmed that, with some tinkering, Jaeger will live on. The future for Aquascutum – not to mention the staff at its factory in Corby, Northamptonshire or the suppliers to whom it owes money – is murkier. One worker told the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph: “It’s a worrying time for everybody. I think there’s about 150 in the factory. There are people there who have never had another job – they’ve been there 25, 30 or 40 years.”
What a sorry state of affairs for these two great British fashion institutions. Aquascutum, remember, was Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministerial outfitter of choice, and is chiefly famed for its wonderful, Corby-made rain-repelling coats. Incorporating a patented water-resistant treatment, Aquascutums were favoured by British officers in the Crimea, and – in the form of new-fangled trenchcoats – by their equivalents during World War One. Churchill and Humphrey Bogart wore Aquascutum coats. Furthermore, the quality of its premium rain-repellers is every bit as good today as it was then. With provenance like that, you’d have thought Aquascutum surely water-tight: but no.
In an odd and unwittingly cruel coincidence, on the same day this week that Aquascutum went into administration, Burberry announced six-month revenues of just over £1 billion. Yes, that’s £1 billion, from a company founded five years after Aquascutum and which also claims invention of the trenchcoat. As Burberry’s finance director, Stacey Cartwright, accurately said on Wednesday, Burberry has become “the only global luxury goods brand from Britain”.
So, why is Burberry thriving as Aquascutum is failing? One disturbing reason is this: Burberry is not really all that British. Yes, as Cartwright says, it is “from Britain”. And as its hugely popular Facebook page proclaims, Burberry is “a 156-year-old global brand with a distinctly British attitude”. Yet the key to Burberry’s success is its corporate leadership – and that is American. Indiana-born Angela Ahrendts cut her teeth as a fashion executive regularly working until midnight, contemporaries recall, first at Donna Karan and then at Liz Claiborne in New York.
In just six years in London, Ahrendts has utterly transformed Burberry. She shrugged off its terraces-check image problem, unapologetically closed an economically unviable polo-shirt factory that employed 304 people in Rhondda, South Wales, and helped cement the position of the hugely focused Yorkshireman Christopher Bailey as its creative overlord. Her remorseless business nous has thoroughly polished a once rough-around-the-edges, all-British business into the smoothly run international brand it is today.
It’s not just Burberry: look beneath the red, white and blue in which they wrap themselves, and many – if not most – famous “British” fashion companies turn out to be only partially so. Here are just a few examples; Stella McCartney is 50 per cent French-owned, and Alexander McQueen is 100 per cent French-owned (both by the same company, PPR). Dunhill is owned by Richemont (Swiss); Paul Smith is 40 per cent Japanese; Mulberry belongs to a Singaporean billionaire; Thomas Pink is part of the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy empire; Hackett is Spanish; Church’s shoes belongs to Prada, and Gieves & Hawkes has just been sold by one Hong Kong company to another.
All of these excellent companies employ plenty of Britons, and some (notably Church’s and Mulberry) even do so in thriving, lovingly nurtured factories, as well as behind their tills or in their flashy central London HQs. Yet their success suggests that being entirely British can be something of a handicap for “British” fashion brands. And the reason for this, I think, is that these owners or managers – who aren’t British – understand that the people who truly value British fashion and British know-how (and who really want to buy it) aren’t British, either.
Paul Smith sells far more of his jackets and shirts in Japan than in Britain. Similarly, the brilliant English designer Margaret Howell is idolised there, but strictly a niche player here. Burberry’s Bond Street store is full of Chinese customers, not British ones. International expansion, particularly into the US and Asia, is fuelling Mulberry’s protean Burberry-like financial performance, and I meet many more aficionados of Church’s and other classic English shoemakers in Milan or Paris than I do in London.
The performance of Jaeger – which sells only in Britain – has not been terrible for the past few years, but its bunting-bedecked 125th anniversary celebrations in 2009 didn’t excite British shoppers in nearly the way that foreign customers, had it had any, would have reacted. And the fatal flaw in Tillman’s deal to acquire Aquascutum in 2009 was that it came without the rights to sell in Asia, which were retained by a Hong Kong holding group named YGM Trading.
On my regular visits to the magnificent old Aquascutum flagship store on Regent Street, it was American and Asian tourists who were buying up trenchcoats by the bagful, not Brits. If YGM isn’t now weighing up whether to take on full ownership of the company, then it really should be.
Brands that parade their British-tinted shopfronts to the world, not just domestically, are the ones that really succeed in the 21st century. Because we, the perverse British, don’t seem particularly fussed whether what we wear is British or not. Just look at the success of English brand SuperDry, which pretends to be Japanese, or sometimes American, too, but absolutely never homegrown.
It’s a shame. The only exception to this rule that I can think of is Barbour: family-owned, British-made (in South Shields), and – by jingo – selling unstoppably both at home and abroad. I’m surprised the French didn’t buy it years ago.
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Our fashion labels: coming apart at the seams
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