LONDON, United Kingdom — “I think I wanted a brand before I even knew what a brand was. I remember thinking about what my logo would be, not just about designing a dress or a shoe,” Charlotte Dellal told BoF, sitting in the sizeable West London headquarters of her seven-year-old footwear brand, Charlotte Olympia. The label — known for a Hollywood pin-up aesthetic, topped with a dollop of British wit — generated over $40 million in wholesale revenue from over 340 points of sale, with year-on-year profit growth in double digits.
Despite persistent sheets of rain outside, the designer’s most recognisable feature, her blonde ‘Marcel Wave,’ is coiffed and bouncy, perfectly matching her 1940s-inspired monochrome trouser suit and even referenced in her lapel pin, a cartoon-like avatar of her own face.
“Since I can remember, I wanted to design and I think it came from my love of glamour, from the movies I saw at a young age with my mother, from Gilda to Gone With The Wind. It was that old Hollywood glamour that got me into my love of fashion.”
While her love affair with fashion may have begun with movies, as the daughter of a successful model and the granddaughter of a wealthy banking and property magnate, Dellal grew up in a glamorous world of her own. “Sometimes I would go to shows with my mum and see backstage that whole crazy buzz, everything coming together. I still love it today, the last minutes setting up of the showroom, putting that whole creative energy together, it feels like a mess at the time and then,” she said, gesturing to the manicured showroom in which we sit.
Aged 18, Dellal interned with British fashion journalist Hilary Alexander at London’s Daily Telegraph. “Having that insight that your work is being critiqued and isn't just for you, you learn all sorts of things. It was important for me, as a young designer, to have an aesthetic point of view — something recognisable,” she explained.
A lot of it was common sense and instinct and a lot I learned through my mistakes or doing things right by default.
In pursuit of her career, Dellal began her studies at London College of Fashion, completing a foundation in fashion design. “I didn't really think of being a shoe designer, I wanted to be a fashion designer, which for me was head to toe. It wasn't just about the dress. So when I was designing the apparel, I always had a different hat, bag and shoes for every outfit.”
Her hat-to-toe approach did not go unnoticed. “My tutor said, ‘You're very accessories focused.’ I didn't think of it like that. He said, ‘Why don't you try Cordwainers’ [a leading shoe design college in London] and I did.”
At the school, Dellal focused on developing her aesthetic with the tools available. “You used what you got, so it was rummaging through the box for the highest heel and the skinniest heel that I could find. I always liked the glamour and a really high shoe. That is how I started off. I don’t think I made a flat shoe once while I was at Cordwainers.”
The first Charlotte Olympia collection — “five or ten pairs of shoes” — was released in 2008 with backing from the British Fashion Council’s NewGen scheme, which offers support and exposure to emerging designers. But sourcing production was a challenge. “It's very hard to find a factory, let alone one that wants to work with you and execute your designs. I made my whole graduate collection in Brazil with a model maker. It was an old man, basically an artisan. He made the shoes for me and I shot a campaign, so I had my look book and my line sheets.”
Soon afterward, Dellal hired a family friend to manage her production in Italy. The first orders — from London’s Dover Street Market and São Paulo’s upmarket mecca Daslu — ran to a couple of hundred pairs. “We tried very hard to woo one factory, but it didn't work out. Then we found another factory that I still work with today. No matter what, do not give up. It will happen in the end,” she said.
“There are important parts that you need to focus on at the beginning: design, having someone to make them, selling them, invoicing them, getting them out on time without the heels falling off,” continued Dellal.
Over time, Dellal grew her wholesale network to include the likes of Joseph and Harvey Nichols. “A lot of it was common sense and instinct,” she said. “A lot I learned through my mistakes or doing things right by default,like standing your ground with prices. My prices were quite expensive to start off with, especially as a new designer, but they were beautifully handmade in Italy and you are in no position to negotiate with your factory in the beginning. Believe in yourself and your product, you can shoot yourself in the foot by giving away stuff for free, or not making any profit.”
In 2011, Bonnie Takhar, who held key roles at Jimmy Choo and Halston, joined the business as chief commercial and operating officer. “To take the business to the next level, there comes a point where you do have to hire a professional who has the expertise and the knowledge and the know-how to take your business to the next level,” said Dellal.
The hire came just after Charlotte Olympia launched its first retail presence with a store on Maddox Street in London’s Mayfair. “When Charlotte and I met, what really jumped out at me was the way she'd incubated her brand and her business. If you go to the store on Maddox Street, you can feel that it is comprehensive in its thought process. At the time, emerging footwear brands were really developing in the UK and everyone was looking. A lot of the retailers were looking to invest in a brand that they could build for the future. They knew that certain brands were going to hit saturation point and over the last decade, footwear has been a very, very strong category,” Takhar told BoF.
Commerce has to live with the creative elevation and creativity has to live with commercial diversification ... its always better to over-communicate than under-communicate.
When Takhar came onboard, Charlotte Olympia had a total of 29 wholesale retailers, a number she aimed to grow significantly, while ensuring the business could fund its own expansion. “Our wholesale strategy in the beginning was to focus on 10 key partners, with a third, a third and a third between Europe, Asia and America. But knowing that the infrastructure of the business has to grow, we can't take on all markets at the same time. Hence, 2012 North America, 2013 Asia and 2014 and 2015 have been about the rest of the world. We said, ‘What do we need to do to develop the business without diluting the soul of Charlotte's vision for the brand and pricing?’” revealed Takhar.
Of course, retail growth is also part of the plan and by the end of the April 2015, there will be 10 freestanding Charlotte Olympia stores, strategically positioned around the world in London, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Dubai and Hong Kong.
Over the years, the brand has also expanded into a range of new product categories. Back in 2011, Dellal first diversified into flats, which now make up 38 percent of the business. An early foray into bags, with a winning Perspex clutch, also proved successful. Then, in April 2012, the company added bridal footwear, rather organically, after Dellal herself married, seeing “a definite need for bridal shoes in the market.” Children’s came in August 2013, just after Dellal became a mother for the third time. And men’s, or rather a men’s version of the brand’s Kitty Flat, followed in July 2013 after her male store manager requested a pair. A capsule collection of menswear will be released this year.
But the creation of Encore, a seasonless classics collection, has propelled the business the most. “I think the game changer on the commercial side of the business was the creation of Encore,” said Takhar, who is now president of the brand. “We have a re-order facility for our partners that really allowed retailers to protect their margins and inventory and profitability was also protected. Because encore was a classic collection that they would not mark down, they wouldn't have any dilution or risk in the profit and they could build the business with it,” she continued.
Encore now represents 50 percent of the business, with seasonal collections responsible for the remainder. “You don't want something like 90/10. The reasons customers are buying it is because they're seduced by this company. One can't live without the other. It's about balancing that. Charlotte and I talk constantly about that balance. Commerce has to live with the creative elevation and creativity has to live with commercial diversification. That really comes down to a dialogue. Communication, I think, is just the absolute paramount within entrepreneurial businesses, because you're moving at the speed of lightning because you're seizing the opportunity and it's always better to over-communicate than under-communicate,” said Takhar.
The next big product category opportunity for the brand lies in leather handbags, launched at the end of 2014, and small leather goods and other accessories. “Encore was very much about developing an aesthetic and to keep doing it season after season really expressed what my silhouette was about. It left me with a signature silhouette, somewhat. Now I can focus on introducing new shapes and product platforms, while having a strong identity and just building on it.”
Editor's note: This article was revised on 04 February, 2015. An earlier version of this article misstated that Charlotte Olympia's first production run was 1000 pairs. It was not. It was, in fact, approximately two hundred pairs.