LONDON, United Kingdom — BoF can exclusively reveal that British shoe designer Nicholas Kirkwood is expanding into China with a retail space within Beijing department store Shin Kong Place. Opening today, the space will be the first permanent Nicholas Kirkwood store outside of the US and Europe, and the latest piece of the company’s sales network, which comprises 166 wholesale stockists, as well as own-brand boutiques in London, New York and Las Vegas.
“There was never a rush to be in China and I think that’s quite important to say,” says Christopher Suarez, CEO of Nicholas Kirkwood, who told BoF that the new store fits into a broader strategy for expansion in the region. While North America is still the brand’s biggest market, Asia currently makes up 21 percent of sales and Chinese shoppers, in particular, already drive significant sales at Nicholas Kirkwood’s Paris and London points of sale. “We’re only entering into the Chinese market when we feel like we have the product range and the brand development necessary to enter,” adds Suarez.
“As a shoe brand without advertising and without a runway show as such, a shop is a really important tool to be able to put across an experience or image for the brand,” says designer Nicholas Kirkwood. “It’s really the one time that you can come and experience the brand by being in the environment. Being able to have visibility in a market like that can really do wonders for the perception of the brand and brand awareness.”
The expansion into Asia is part of a global retail expansion propelled forwards, in the last year, by investment from luxury conglomerate LVMH, which took a majority stake in the British shoe designer last September.But both Suarez and Kirkwood hesitate to use the phrase ‘roll-out,’ preferring to describe brand’s growing retail network as a web of precisely mapped, interconnecting points which, says Suarez, each “have greater meaning than just [in their] local market.”
Since joining LVMH, Nicholas Kirkwood has launched a slew of temporary ‘pop-up’ stores in Miami, Tokyo, Paris and, most recently, Dubai, where, earlier this month, the brand opened its largest temporary retail space yet, in Level Shoe District, the city’s footwear mecca.“Mostly, it was an opportunity for us to explore regional markets where we had seen groundswells in terms of brand awareness,” says Suarez. “Prior to committing any further, especially as directly operated stores, it was important for us to collect regional information, to collect market data analysis. … [Before] taking on LVMH investment, we were not at that point where we were ready to scale and have a retail roll out expansion. That was one aspect of [looking for] investment.”
Certainly, the driving force behind the China expansion has been the resources afforded by LVMH and, according to Suarez, the opportunity to partner with Shin Kong Place came about through the conglomerate’s regional offices in Beijing.
The announcement that LVMH had taken a majority stake in the label came in September 2o13, after a whirlwind few months that saw the emerging brand launch its first men’s collection, set up its second US shop in Las Vegas and win the BFC/Vogue Designer Fashion Fund.
According to Kirkwood, the brand had begun meeting with a range of potential investors at the end of 2012 and already had a handful of interested parties when the call came from Paris. “It was a different type of conversation than we were having with the others,” the designer says. “LVMH is one of the real brand growers. For me, it was important to have a partner who really understands the industry and understands real brand building, rather than just trying to sell as much as possible to then have an exit after three years.”
Following the investment, the brand moved fast to expand its team, hiring a CFO, a commercial director, a US commercial manager and a communications director to take the company from what Kirkwood says was “like a family operation, with people doing multiple jobs” to a more structured organisation. “Decisions that we’d make were not necessarily that calculated, but were about feeling — instinctive. We’d work out roughly, ‘Can we afford that?’” Kirkwood recalls with a smile. “Going into a more process-led system — it’s a learning curve how to do that.”
Since 2012, Nicholas Kirkwood has nearly quadrupled its turnover, according to figures provided by the company.
Next year will mark the brand’s 10th anniversary, a milestone that Kirkwood attributes, in part, to the overall growth of the footwear category. The new store in Beijing will stock Kirkwood’s Autumn/Winter offering, ‘Arcs of Orbit’, which includes stilettoes with silver heels in the shape of half moons, loafers with metallic triangular block heels and the brand’s signature chevron stripe, as well as styles that tap into the current flats-fetish, such as pointed sneakers with sheer lace uppers.
Going forward, the brand plans to expand into handbags, at which point, Kirkwood says, the “huge amount of input and experience that [LVMH] have will lend itself to being able to develop those other products.” Further retail expansion is also in the cards, with plans to double the company’s permanent points of sale by the end of 2015 and double this again by the end of 2016.
But for now, the brand’s immediate focus is on brand awareness. “It’s a real focus of the company, ‘How do we further develop the communication and messaging?” says Suarez. “An engaging language that has resonance; that has much more awareness — how can we develop a modern luxury brand that still carries a certain level of integrity and respect for product and craftsmanship.”
“Brand awareness has to be right at the top of the list right now,” agrees Kirkwood. “I think we’re getting to the point now where the product’s there, we have an image for our retail; there are a lot of things that are in place. It’s just about passing that message on.”
Disclosure: LVMH is part of a consortium of investors which has a minority stake in The Business of Fashion.