LONDON, United Kingdom — From this perennially grey and cold corner of the world innumerable commercial legacies have been forged, but perhaps never more regularly than during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To cater to the needs of a new age, a time of daring exploration and rapid technological advances, the subjects of this tale J Barbour & Sons and Belstaff both came into being, purveying durable, weather-protective jackets, that would become iconic.
While Barbour, founded in 1894, built an enduring relationship with the men and women of Britain’s countryside, clothing aristocrats and their gamekeepers in equal measure, Belstaff, established in 1924, found ready fans for its aviation and motorcycling gear in Amelia Earhart, T.E Lawrence and Che Guevara. Both brands proudly possess the cachet of having dressed one of the world’s enduring icons of menswear: Steve McQueen.
Today, the extraordinary rise of Burberry — from overexposed trenchcoat label to global luxury brand generating over £2 billion (about $3.3 billion) in annual revenue — provides a shining example of what a British heritage brand can achieve, when scaled successfully. And indeed, both Barbour and Belstaff aim to build upon their storied histories to acquire new customers and expand their presence on the global stage.
Heritage alone is no guarantee of success, however. No matter how wide Burberry’s wake, it is already littered with a flotilla of troubled attempts to transform British heritage labels into global lifestyle brands. Aquascutum, Alfred Dunhill and Pringle have all gone through highly publicised reboots, yet failed to find real traction with consumers, despite the efforts of experienced executives and design teams.
“You can’t play in this space in a half-hearted way,” said Damian Mould, chief marketing officer of Belstaff, which was acquired in 2011 by Labelux, the Swiss luxury conglomerate, with additional investment from Tommy Hilfiger and Harry Slatkin, an American billionaire who made his fortune in celebrity-endorsed home fragrances. Reports in the Italian media at the time of the acquisition said the deal valued Belstaff at €110 million (about $152 million) based on estimated annual revenue of €100 million.
“We believe in the brand. We believe in the power of [Belstaff’s famous] four pocket jacket. We believe in what that allows us to do, in terms of business potential in [additional] categories and products. I think it has been well documented that the aim all along has been [to build] a global luxury brand. When the brand was purchased over two years ago the mission was to elevate the brand in the markets in which it was existing, consolidate those markets and then look to grow the business further,” continued Mould.
The company started with its product offering, poaching Burberry’s vice president of design, Martin Cooper, to become chief creative officer, charged with building Belstaff’s new luxury ready-to-wear line. “Ready-to-wear, as well as obviously being a business vertical, is a good communication tool in terms of how we show the edginess of the brand and talk to the woman that you want to talk to and man that you want to talk to,” said Mould.
Cooper designed desirable clothing rooted in the brand’s aviation and motorcycling heritage, though tellingly, the collections were not created in the waterproof cotton for which Belstaff first became famous, but in the finest pythons, alligators and calf leathers available. This, in conjunction with the company’s decision to manufacture in some of the world’s best factories, drove the price of some individual garments into the tens of thousands of dollars.
But, following a tried and tested strategy, Belstaff’s ready-to-wear is just the tip of the pyramid. “Shoes and bags will be key to us,” said Mould. “At some point in the next few years we will hopefully sign the relevant partnerships in [fragrances and accessories],” he continued, referring to the cash cows that underpin the success of most luxury brands.
In contrast to Belstaff’s glossy break with the past, Barbour’s product evolution has been more gradual and iterative in nature. The company’s core products, waxed and quilted jackets, originally intended for country pursuits but now equally popular with city dwellers, have become the basis for wider ranges of mid-priced casualwear for both men and women.
“Our design strategy is to interpret our brand for a slightly different consumer and to be closer to the moment. But we are not Topshop; we are not H&M,” said Barbour’s managing director Steve Buck. “Because we are not chasing [consumers] we don’t have to be incredibly reactive.”
Not chasing customers doesn’t mean Barbour is not seeking to entice new ones. “One of the reasons we do collaborations is so that we can gently challenge the perception of the brand," continued Buck, alluding to the company's product collaborations with the likes of Alice Temperley, Tokihito Yoshida, Paul Smith, Anya Hindmarch and Amanda Harlech, among others. "But we never try and frighten anybody. We try not to do things that would be a shock to the system. We try to stay true to our heritage.”
“Occasionally, we catch a wave, or a thermal — whatever you want to call it — and our plans for modest growth become significant growth. The best example is that six or seven years ago in the UK, younger, possibly more fashionable, possibly more city-dwelling people were getting involved with the brand; and we had a decision to make as to whether we worked with that or against it,” explained Buck. “We developed product that made it easier for that type of consumer to get involved with [Barbour], but the trick is not to sacrifice the brand.” As a result of this approach, Barbour’s ink-blue and murky forest green quilted and waxed jackets were adopted by thousands of younger, metropolitian consumers — including celebrities like Alexa Chung and Tinie Tempah.
Barbour has an equally organic attitude to retail expansion. “We tend to go to locations where we think our kind of consumer will shop and then we try and present a slightly broader view of the brand. But it’s inching forward rather than challenging the consumer,” said Buck. Tellingly, when Barbour recently launched its first flagship store for Barbour International, its motorcycling sister-brand, founded in 1908, it decided to open off-piste, away from London's traditional luxury retail corridors, on the major thoroughfare of Piccadilly.
Barbour opens new stores only “if we think the time is right. We don’t have firm targets, but we do believe that retail is a very good lever to demonstrate your brand. We don’t have hard and fast plans for you know — ten openings this year, twenty openings next year — but unquestionably, we want to ensure that we maintain forward momentum,” said Buck, who has his eyes set on international expansion.
“To make sure we are flourishing in ten to twenty years, we do believe that we must ensure we work with a four legged stool: a strong business in Asia, a strong business in the States, a strong business in Europe and a strong business the UK. At the moment, we do a very, very small proportion of our business in Asia, so it is very important that we build a stronger position. We already trade and are growing in Japan. We do pretty well in South Korea. We would like to launch into China at some stage in the next year or two.”
As for Belstaff, “we will obviously be looking at further markets further down the line — all the obvious ones,” said Mould. But unlike Barbour, Belstaff’s retail strategy rests upon a number of major flagships in AAA locations, like London’s New Bond Street, New York’s Madison Avenue and Milan’s Via Della Spiga. “It is about consolidation and building the brand through those stores,” Mould continued.
The Bond Street store (situated a stone’s throw from Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior) for which the brand paid £3 million for a 20-year lease, set a record for the highest rent paid on the luxury shopping street for a new open market letting. Grandly laid out over a meticulously restored 25,000-square-foot trophy building, Belstaff House, christened to evoke an aristocrat’s city home, aimed to announce the brand’s arrival as a major luxury player.
Indeed, for the opening, Belstaff shut down New Bond Street for a “big luxury event” in the form of an eardrum-piercing biker parade during London Fashion Week and attended by the likes of Anna Wintour. “We got $40 million of coverage off the back of the New Bond Street store opening,” claimed Mould.
When it comes to advertising, one would be forgiven for confusing Belstaff and Barbour International’s current moto-heritage campaigns (see above). The black-and-white images from both brands are populated by sultry dark-haired northern Europeans and share remarkably similar composition. But while Barbour commissioned the lesser-known Julian Broad and Sean Cook to shoot its imagery, Belstaff hired top-flight photographer Peter Lindbergh to shoot a campaign featuring newly appointed brand ambassador David Beckham, an undeniably splashy and expensive communications strategy.
Barbour’s more iterative approach obviates the need for big statements. “At the end of the day, my brief from the shareholders is to make sure that [Barbour is] a prosperous business five, ten, fifteen years hence. We translate that as the need to move forward, but never risk the brand capital,” concluded Buck. But not risking brand capital has not prevented Barbour from successfully capitalising on the brand. Turnover for 2012 was £137 million, up from £68 million in 2008.
At least part of Barbour’s success can be attributed to “the chunks of authenticity at the core,” said Buck. “Everything flows from that.”
“Now we are in the fashion business, which I was always afraid of, but it was because of our garments, not the other way round,” added Dame Margaret Barbour, the company’s chairwoman, and the latest in an unbroken line of Barbour family members who have steered the brand since their ancestor, John Barbour, founded the firm.
By contrast, Belstaff’s approach has been to swiftly reposition the brand at the apex of luxury. But two years after the launch of its ready-to-wear lines, the top end of Belstaff’s prices have dropped by 30 percent. “We have just managed our costs basis better to hit a keener price. The main price trimming was with the high high high end product, and that was just to keep it in line with the prices of other brands, to be — not affordable, that is the wrong word — to be priced in the right zone,” explained Mould.
As for results, Belstaff declined to disclose turnover, saying only that “the significant investment over the past 2 to 3 years is really bearing fruit and revenues are well ahead of expectations at this stage of the successful turnaround of the business.”
While it's hard to verify these claims, what’s abundantly clear is the amount of money invested in Belstaff’s repositioning — in product development, retail expansion and advertising — has been staggering. But is simply pouring money into a brand a strategy for success?
“Belstaff has lavished very significant investments on the brand and its deployment. I am somewhat perplexed when I look at their stores: considering size and locations, I suspect that they could weigh very heavy on the bottom line,” said Luca Solca, managing director, luxury goods, at Exane BNP Paribas. On the other hand, continued Solca, “Barbour seems to have gone for a more democratic, commercial approach. This seems to make sense given the DNA of the brand."
But Belstaff-owner Labelux has deep pockets on its side. “As a private company, Labelux has the ability to invest for the long term,” said Mould. “There is no set three- or five-year sort of plan. The plan is to turn it into the next, biggest, best British luxury brand — and I guess it will take as long as it takes.”