LONDON, United Kingdom — BoF sat down with Bec Astley Clarke only days after she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) by Queen Elizabeth II for doing what was once considered impossible — building a fully fledged luxury brand on the Internet — and doing it with a distinctly British combination of elegance and irreverence.
Over the last seven years, the eponymous founder of Astley Clarke has turned what began as a multi-brand e-tailer, selling jewellery by other designers, into a small but rapidly expanding modern British luxury brand, designing and distributing its own fine and contemporary jewellery collections (which now account for about 70 percent of the overall business) both online and off. The company declined to disclose exact turnover, saying annual revenue was still under £10 million (about $15 million) but that trading was up over 45 percent on last year, with sales of "core" own-label Astley Clarke collections growing at over 200 percent, year on year.
In recent months, the company has also hired a professional managing director, Scott Thomson, and is "full steam ahead" with plans to expand the business offline and internationally, in the US, Europe and China.
BoF spoke to Bec Astley Clarke, a rare fashion-tech founder whose background spans both fashion and technology, to discuss the genesis of Astley Clarke, building a luxury brand online, growing a multi-channel business, bringing in a professional chief executive and the 'just do it' attitude she inherited from her Everest-climbing father.
BoF: I hear you’ve just been made an MBE by the Queen for services to the jewellery industry. What did that mean to you? Astley Clarke is a very British brand.
BAC: Britishness is a core tenet of the brand. The bits of Britishness that we celebrate are London and design and creativity and a very sort of international outlook. We have a very British tone of voice, which celebrates British wit — so, sort of Blackadder meets Monty Python meets luxury jewellery!
We are a young brand. We’re a pretty irreverent brand. And we’re an outsider in the jewellery industry. We’re not really part of the establishment. We have an amazing picture of the Queen wearing dark sunglasses in our office next door. That’s more us. But the recognition feels really lovely. Everyone has worked so hard for the last seven years.
BoF: I’d like to go back to the very beginning. What were you doing before Astley Clarke?
BAC: My career pre-Astley Clarke was in e-commerce, online and a bit of fashion. I left university and worked with a French agency that did all the buying in London, Paris and Milan for Bergdorf’s and Lane Crawford. But I wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of business, so I joined Anderson Consulting and worked on tech projects, which were quite boring, but did give me great grounding. I worked for a number of Internet companies, then ended up at Tesco.com where I was head of online strategy.
BoF: Most fashion-tech founders come from either a fashion background or a technology background. Very few have done both.
BAC: I’ve definitely done both and it was sort of part luck and part design. I knew I wanted to start a business and I knew it had to be in e-commerce, because that’s what it’s really about from a business perspective, and I really managed to learn the bits of the puzzle: a bit of fashion, a bit of tech, a bit of commercial, a bit of operational.
BoF: Why luxury jewellery? What was the opportunity you saw?
BAC: Luxury brands, and jewellery brands in particular, were very slow to start online. And it was a really interesting business, with beautiful products. And the more I looked into it, there were a few different areas that seemed to be completely lacking in the market, online or off. One of them was design. Another one was preciousness. And the third one was colour.
A large proportion of the market, in the UK, was either Bond Street or high street. And they basically sell silver and diamonds. And it’s all very generic — a little diamond on a little chain. That sort of struck me as odd. And the more I looked into it, I saw that men, who were once the primary purchasers of jewellery [for women], weren’t that interested in the design of women’s products, but that women were buying more and more jewellery for themselves — you buy your Louboutin shoes, you buy your amazing handbag, you’re going to buy jewellery for yourself and you’re going to want something beautifully designed.
Then, there was the whole idea of preciousness. We have a mantra in the office: ‘Go precious every day.’ This is a £5,000 pair of earrings [gestures] and most people will put them in a drawer and wear them when they go to the opera or something. And we’re like, ‘No, you can wear them with jeans!’ It doesn’t have to be a special occasion to pull out your jewellery. As a brand, that’s what we believe. Additionally, there were not many brands that celebrated colour. I have a personal love of coloured gemstones and I saw a real opportunity there.
So, I think there is an opportunity for a brand to try and own that space, somewhere between Bond Street and the high street, embracing all the things established jewellery brands aren’t doing: design, colour and educating people about preciousness.
BoF: So you’d identified a market opportunity. But, of course, being a founder comes with enormous pressure and expectations. It’s a personal journey, as well as a professional one. On a personal level, what convinced you to take the plunge?
BAC: I was pretty fed up with working for other people and, also, I wanted to build something. You don’t get the opportunity to actually make something that often and when you work in big organisations, you’re sort of a cog in this big chain, you don’t see the beginning and you don’t see the end.
I also come from sort of a weird family: people that all just went off and did their own thing. My dad was on the first British expedition to climb Mount Everest and my grandfather was a geneticist who discovered the cure for Rhesus negative in babies. And my mom was a doctor and psychiatrist before most women did that type of thing. Whenever I’ve said to my dad, ‘Oh what do you think I should do?’ even if there are a hundred million risks involved, he always said, ‘You’ve got to do it, you’ve just got to do it.’
A guy called Mark Esiri — who’s on our board of directors and was one of our initial investors — has his own venture capital fund and, at the time, he said: “Come and work for me, you’ll see lots of businesses and if you get an idea while you’re here and if we like it, we’ll back it.” And they did. It was like an unofficial entrepreneur-in-residence scheme.
BoF: Astley Clarke launched as a multi-brand e-tailer, selling jewellery by other designers. When did you first realise that you were actually building your own brand?
BAC: Quite early on we had our own jewellery collections but we sort of kept them under the radar. Initially, they were very plain, pearl studs or an easy amethyst necklace. Remember, I’m not a jewellery designer. But soon we realised that actually 70 percent of our search traffic was based on people typing in keywords like ‘Astley Clarke.’ It wasn’t like Net-a-Porter, where people were searching for brand names, like Gucci or whatever. They were searching for ‘Astley Clarke.’ So that made me think we’re quite good at this brand building thing.
In fact, we were quite good at two things. One was PR, looking after the press and educating the press about the market and fine jewellery. And the other was building this luxury experience on the website. And having interesting content and the right tone of voice and fantastic customer service. We made a big point of always having the telephone number on the homepage of the website and we actively welcomed people calling and interacting with the business. People seemed to engage with the brand. They liked the name, they liked the emails, they liked the tone of voice, they liked the products.
So we hired a creative director, Lorna Watson. She came from Fabergé. She’d worked across fine jewellery and more contemporary jewellery and we set about designing and making our own collections. And from day one it flew. And that sort of gave us a bit more confidence and we said, ‘Ok, let’s put a little bit more behind this.’ As of last year, it’s actually 70 percent of sales. I remember there was a board meeting where everyone was like, ‘You’re a brand, you’re a brand.’ So we said, let’s really give this the due attention it deserves. And, of course, commercially it made sense.
BoF: Unlike most offline brands, you launch new collections every week. Why this rhythm?
BAC: I think it’s a really interesting one because fine jewellers, they put their product out for the year and that’s it. But as an online business, we’ve had to run launches differently because we’ve got to keep interest and we’ve got to have people coming back. There is something about giving people newness.
For many people, jewellery purchases are associated with their engagement ring, or anniversary, or birthday. And we want our customers to see jewellery more in line with how they see other fashion items, like a new dress or a new pair of shoes.
BoF: Some say that, more than any other factor, product is the key to a successful e-commerce business. Tell me about the Astley Clarke product. What makes it special?
BAC: Our design handwriting. And our use of noble metals and coloured gemstones. But we are a young brand, so our handwriting is quite soft in the mould still. We have these pillars that run though [our designs] and that are evolving all the time. Collectability and stackability are key elements.
BoF: Why did you decide to start selling offline, first at Harrods, then at Liberty and Selfridges?
BAC: Initially it wasn’t strategic. It just happened. They came to us. As did Harvey Nichols. But ultimately, I think you’ve got to let people shop in the way they want to shop — as a brand, we’ve got to be where customers are expecting to find us. And as a marketing tool, it’s been very valuable to have our brand in front of potential customers that don’t necessarily know us.
BoF: Do you see Astley Clarke stores?
BAC: I see an Astley Clarke store, yes. I think we will have a flagship store at some point in the future. Offline is there to welcome our customers who want to shop that way and, more than anything else, introduce people to the brand. The core of our business will always be e-commerce, but we’d like to have a flagship store in the next 18 months. Mayfair and the West End is where we would most likely be. But I don’t think we need to be on Bond Street.
BoF: What about international expansion?
BAC: We’re in the middle of looking at this as well. We’ve got the US website. And I think the East Coast of America is where most of our international customers are. And Europe. And I think China. We probably have to do web first. It’s the lowest cost entry mechanism. And then we have our engine there, set up and ready. Then we’d look at wholesale accounts and then we’d look at press launch. We probably need to do Japan. We definitely need to do Hong Kong before mainland China in terms of a physical presence.
BoF: A couple months ago, you brought in a professional managing director, Scott Thomson. How did you know it was time?
BAC: We felt, 'Ok, we’ve opened three concessions in Harrods, Selfridges, we have a US website, it’s all going really well.' But let’s really get behind it. Let’s get behind it internationally. Let’s get behind it offline. I don’t think we really have offline retailing experience, or wholesaling experience. He does. His story’s quite interesting actually. He started with a lady called Marcia Kilgore, who owned Bliss, a beauty brand that was sold to LVMH. And then she started this brand FitFlop — you know the sandals that make you thin? Apparently, they've got something that tones your legs. But it went from zero to £150 million in turnover through a big internationalisation, through big wholesale. And so we really wanted to have that expertise in house.
We’ve got to be a multi-channel brand in the places that people want to shop. And for me it was quite easy to see that I don’t have enough offline retailing or wholesaling experience to do this by myself. And I think having someone frees me up to do the bits that I’m good at — and not the bits that I’m not good at. Operational efficiency is not my strong point. But tone of voice and brand messaging and working with our creative director are much more my strengths.
BoF: You have attracted a number of impressive investors. How did you go about choosing your investors? Other than financial backing, what have they brought to the table?
BAC: I have been good at finding good investors who bring more than just money to the table and I’m so delighted with the people that we’ve got on board. When things are good, or when things are bad, we’ve had nothing but support from them.
Mark Esiri was our first investor. And when he came on board, he brought some other people with him. Then, my ex-Tesco people invested. [At Tesco] I did a deal with a guy — we bought his online dieting company called e-Diets and he made loads of money. So when I rang him up and said I’m setting up [Astley Clarke], he invested. And Robin and Saul Klein I had done this deal with and they invested. Then Index [Ventures] got in touch, which opened up a whole new family of people. More recently Carmen [Busquets], who came via a lady called Mimma Viglezio, a former communications director at Gucci Group who has been great, helping us with PR, helping us with product.
It’s a really nice bunch, because we have these hardcore e-commerce tech guys who know nothing about products, but they approach it from a conversion rate, traffic, stop doing affiliates, start doing this, all of that good old fashioned e-commerce stuff. And then we have people like Carmen and Mimma, who understand products and who understand brands. I think e-commerce and platforms was the differentiator ten years ago or five years ago. But now anyone can have a website. There’s no barrier to entry. But not everyone can have a brand.
BoF: Looking into the future, where do you see Astley Clarke in five years time?
BAC: We’ve got a slide: it’s a map of the world. We want to be a global luxury jewellery brand. In a similar sort of vein to what Mulberry did for handbags, I think we want to be that sort of size business, a £200 million turnover business with some multi-currency and multi-language websites, with concession locations or wholesale locations across the world, and probably one or two flagships. I mean we have in our business plan a London one, which is a definite, and possibly one on the East Coast of America. But we’re not a store rollout business. We’re an e-commerce business using offline to build our brand.
This interview has been edited and condensed.