CEO Talk | Christopher Colfer, Chief Executive Officer, Alfred Dunhill

Christopher Colfer, CEO, Alfred Dunhill | Source: Dunhill

LONDON, United Kingdom — In 1893, at the age of 21, Alfred Dunhill inherited his father’s saddlery business in London and slowly but surely transformed it into a global business spanning several categories including timepieces, automobile accessories and clothing. In this way, it was the first global luxury men’s brand, paving the way for brands like Ermengildo Zegna, Dior Homme and Tom Ford to follow in its footsteps many years later.

But over the years, despite a strong product mix and rich heritage, Dunhill has lacked a clear creative identity. And while Dunhill has the most prominent presence of any men’s luxury brand in China with over 75 stores, its presence in the United Kingdom, its home market, has paled in comparison.

In 2005, Dunhill announced it was bringing in 36 year-old Christopher Colfer from elsewhere in Richemont, where amongst other things, Colfer had overseen the Swiss luxury group’s prescient early investment in Net-a-Porter. Upon taking the reins as CEO, Colfer embarked on a transformation strategy for Dunhill: buying back licenses, appointing Kim Jones as Creative Director, and launching a series of ‘Homes’ in key markets, including London’s Bourdon House.

Formerly the London residence of the late 2nd Duke of Westminster, who had wooed Coco Chanel within its beautiful walls, Bourdon House includes a private member’s club (modeled after the Hellfire Clubs) and is Dunhill’s London ‘Home,’ tucked away near the end of bustling Mount Street, the new epicenter of London’s luxury retail explosion.

I recently met Chris at Bourdon House to take stock of what has been a very busy few years and to look ahead into Dunhill’s plans for the future.

BoF: We’re sitting here in the London ‘Home’ of Alfred Dunhill. What is the thinking behind this kind of space versus the luxury ‘flagship’. Is there really any difference at all between the two, except in name?

So many luxury houses have built these monstrous flagships. Some of them have unique products, some of them don’t. Some of them are art style, some of them are very design-led.

But one of the key elements of any luxury house is the service element. In fact, it’s the third leg of any stool. So, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t build flagships, which is why we’ve called them homes, because they are a place that you should treat like your home. You should feel comfortable and relaxed. You should be able to find what you need, and if you don’t we should be able to find it for you.

It’s all predicated and built around service. When we started this whole exercise, it was genuinely about becoming the ultimate destination store for men.

BoF: What does ‘ultimate destination’ mean in practice?

Just next door, we’ve built a bespoke, private screening room, where, as a shopper you can rent this room out. If you want to come watch the football on a Saturday night, you can do that. We’ve also had people rent it out to watch the U.S. elections. Probably more than anything else, it’s used by people when they have a dinner in the private dining room or in the restaurant. Afterwards, they watch a film with six to eight of their friends. And, because of our deal with the movie houses, we can get the latest films two weeks before they’re released.

We also have a full-service spa which offers treatments from 15 minutes to two-and-half hours, built especially for the traveling executive. There’s a barbershop and full-service dining, and probably my favourite, the bespoke and custom room. Our custom program, which we brought in globally last year, has been a fantastic, high-octane piece of business. In custom shirts, for example, most individuals who come here will order eight to 14 shirts at a time.

BoF: It must have a lot of time and money to set all this up.

Yes, indeed. The handshake agreement I had with the Duke of Westminster and Grosvenor was to restore this house to its former glory. Signing the lease was one thing, but the restoration was the really big investment and required a lot of consultation. It’s a listed two star building, which means it is one of the top 4 percent of properties in the UK, so you have that involvement. Because it’s the Duke’s personal residence, you have that involvement. Then you have Grosvenor, and Westminster City Council, Health and Safety on top of that.

It was a major undertaking, but well worth it.

BoF: With a space this size and with that kind of investment it must be difficult to turn a profit.

We don’t look at it that way. If you look at it from the point of view that this is a brand statement, that this is an anchor, that Alfred Dunhill needed a home in London, this is it. Alfred Dunhill is truly epitomised by this building. It’s very masculine and Edwardian. And, it’s the only freestanding building in Mayfair and is the former residence of the Duke of Westminster.

We’ve got a 130 year lease so we haven’t looked at this as a small, little project. This is going to be here past my kids, and their kids, and that’s what it’s all about. We never really had that anchor in London, and we have it now.

In fact, the store turns better that we thought it would. We thought it would take a little while because we are off the beaten track. When you look at all of this, and you look at how this particular P&L works, actually it’s a very positive business model.

BoF: How did the appointment of Kim Jones as Dunhill’s first ever Creative Director fit into your broader strategy?

About five years ago, Dunhill had multiple Creative Directors: there was someone designing the leather, someone designing the formal wear, someone designing the casual wear, someone who was doing the shoes. They all had their own interpretation of what Dunhill was, which meant there was no consistent creative thread running through the business.

One of the key things required for getting this brand on track was to get someone in-house to manage all of this, doing it in a relevant way that transcends all product categories and holds it together as a collection.

When we first met Kim, he was the only guy who really tore our archives apart and came back with a very structured point of view on how to rebuild this and put the pieces of the puzzle back together in a slightly different way.

BoF: Still, looking around next door, there are a lot of pieces to that puzzle. What do you see as the pillars, from a product standpoint, of the Dunhill brand?

Our two focal points are menswear and leather. Our pillars within menswear are formal shirting, blazers and outerwear. Those are the areas where we have spent a lot of time over the last fifteen months, and where we are seeing great results.

I want people to understand that actually we make the best blazer in the world. Our Camedeboo mohair blazer is crease-resistant. It keeps you warm in the winter and dry in the summer, and fits to your body over time.

We had to start to build segments within our business. The other bit that we had to do was to ‘release the brand’ a bit. Depending on country you live Dunhill can be sometimes perceived to be …

BoF: …your father’s brand?

Well, you could say that, but I am not going to! (laughs)

Depending on where you are, in certain parts of the world, we’re perceived as one of the youngest brands. In our home country, however, we have suffered a bit. Perhaps we became a bit complacent over time. Perhaps we looked at other markets as more important than our own home market.  We became an international brand without building on our roots. Although we transferred those roots very well globally — the Britishness, the creativity, the innovation, the functionality and performance element of what we do — we lost traction at home.

But in the last two years we have seen excellent progress here, with very strong double digit growth. We have a growing client base, and a younger client base.

BoF: Can we talk a little about China for a moment? I was astonished by Dunhill’s presence there. Given the state of the luxury market at the moment, this must be a major boon for your business?

As a business, China has been very solid for us. If you’re a man who bets on demographics, then you should be in China.  We were there very early in the day, but we were there under a franchise. In my first year, we bought back some of our retail in China. We now have about 45 directly-owned doors and 30 franchised stores in the country, and it is performing very well.

We also have a fourth Home store opening in Hong Kong later this year, to add to the ones we have in London, Shanghai and Tokyo. From our point of view, southern Asia and China is an invest-to-grow market and we will continue to put a lot of investment behind our businesses out there.

CEO Talk is BoF’s forum for in-depth discussions with the fashion industry’s global decision makers, conducted by founder and editor-in-chief Imran Amed.

This interview has been edited and condensed.