An inside look at the workings and expansion plans of the iconic British brand, Mulberry, which opened its first Abu Dhabi store in September 2013.
I am sandwiched between Anna Wintour and a poodle wearing Mulberry. An oddity, I’ll admit, even for Fashion Week. I am at the Mulberry show at Claridge’s, London, and just when things couldn’t get any stranger, the notoriously cagey Wintour flashes me a big grin. Thrown off guard (where are the blacked-out glasses that normally separate her from the rest of us?), I look to the poodle for help, face as blank as an owl’s. Worse still, her smile isn’t phoney, more like an ear-to-ear grin. She is, I realise with much trepidation, hanging around to chat.
In fact, the whole set up feels a little obscure, what with all this smiling. Weirder still, the fashion bunch are milling around the food, munching wholeheartedly on cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches inspired by the famous Claridge’s Afternoon Tea. Editors are digging into the scones – with cream! A thoroughly odd sight, given the often-fictitious wonderland of ‘thinspiration’ and its leanings toward self-gratification.
It is fairly obvious that this jovial, relaxed crowd has let its guard down a little today in support of Emma Hill, the designer who was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for her services to British fashion, and who is solely credited with transforming Mulberry from a successful functional leather label into a global fashion powerhouse. After all, this will be her last-ever show.
Despite her arrival coinciding exactly with the economic crisis, Hill, who had previously designed accessories for Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein in New York, managed to inject a much-needed element of fun into the brand during her six years as creative director. One of the biggest branding success stories of the last decade, I don’t imagine even she herself could have predicted the phenomenal impact she would have on the company.
The star-studded front row, is, as expected, kitted out in Mulberry. Lana Del Rey, Brit Marling, Douglas Booth, Juno Temple, Léa Seydoux, Rebecca Hall, Tallulah Harlech ... I could go on. And of course, who could forget Alexa Chung, who is (as one would, I suppose, if they were to have a bag named after them) carrying the ‘Alexa’ – the very bag that contributed to an astonishing £168.5 million (Dh945 million) turnover for the brand in 2012.
Hosted once again at Claridge’s hotel (Mulberry refuses to upsize even though it has long since outgrown the space), the set designers have been working around the clock, transforming the iconic British hotel into a country manor with heavy wrought-iron gates draped with ivy and roses. The floor is covered in daisies. Le Style Anglais is the theme, with a definite nod to the 1960s – the palette includes a delightful mixture of serene pastels – cream, white, ballet pink and bluebell blue – offset by deep moody greys and midnight cobalt with flashes of orangey red. The bold stripe theme from ready-to- wear is carried on in the bags (all 40 of them, I should add), using complementary leather pairings.
If anyone accuses the British of having a stiff upper lip, they should be standing where I am. A leggy model has just stormed the runway, pulling a rather belligerent British bulldog named Turbo alongside her. Another One Bites the Dust is reverberating off the ceiling and there seems to be a stuffed swan in every corner.
Mulberry’s head of press, Vanessa Lunt, has been with the brand for nearly two decades, which says a lot for a company of this size. She and her carefully selected team seem fun – homely British girls who laugh like they mean it; girls who like horses, the outdoors and plenty of inward eye-rolling. They talk honestly and openly about their love of the brand and about their sadness to see Hill go. It’s a refreshing change from the normal well-oiled machine that simply turns the cogs and ticks the boxes.
Backstage is a private affair, and if anything unsavoury happened behind the scenes, Hill doesn’t let on (insiders hint that her leaving was a result of strategic disagreements with the new management about the direction of the brand – many believe that Hill’s vision of affordable luxury clashed with new ideals of expansion). Regardless, no one can argue that she didn’t bow out with grace considering she handed in her notice in March and stayed until the final curtain dropped on her show in September.
I congratulate her, not just for today, but for all she has done at Mulberry, and she seems genuinely touched. “It all feels a little overwhelming right now. I suppose, if anything good is to be said, it is that I have gone out on a high, which is always the best way to leave.”
There is a lot of hugging and plenty of tears. “Sorry about all this,” she says, her British stoicism threatening to take over. “We are just such a tight team, and I can’t imagine any of all this without them. We have a lot to celebrate today.”
Fast forward a day and I am on my way to a dinner hosted by Mulberry. I arrive early and so as not to disturb the team, wait outside and catch up on the show reviews. A well-dressed man pops his head around the door. “Follow me, I’m the door man,” he says. I do what I’m told and for that I am glad, for I later learn that the man in question is Bruno Guillon, the chief executive who joined Mulberry last year from Hermès. The very man who wants to monopolise the global market for Mulberry.
Again, the menu is a thoroughly British affair. Hereford rib of beef, Banham roast chicken, Lincolnshire cheese – everything is English, apart from the guests that is, for there is not an Englishman in sight. Instead, Asia, Germany, America and the Middle East are all represented, which makes the plan for global expansion all the more apparent.
I’ve been briefed firmly not to talk about Hill’s departure and the much-speculated new appointment. However, nobody is telling any tales. No chance of a slip-up here. The question is not if Mulberry will become the global brand that Guillon is pushing for, but how? Surely it is the eccentricity and home-grown appeal that gives the favoured luxury heritage brand its charm. “The plan is to express our Englishness whilst still appealing to the open market. We need the global market to understand us; we need to push new markets. The UK is still our main market and it will always be a huge priority for us,” Guillon says. “But we need to expand in key areas like the US and Asia. It’s a challenge, absolutely. But I wouldn’t do something I didn’t believe or see potential in.”
He assures me that the company will continue producing in England at its flagship factory in Somerset, which is called the Rookery (it has a Mulberry tree in the driveway). Tellingly, a second factory, The Willows, is set to open nearby in Bridgewater in Somerset later this year. Founded in 1971 in the English countryside, Mulberry is one of the last British luxury brands to retain and invest in leather goods manufacturing in the UK.
I meet the director of group supply, Ian Scott, and explore the factory’s intricate production lines with him. They produce over 1,000 Mulberry handbags each week. For an idea of timelines, the iconic Bayswater (of which the company makes around 40,000 a year) consists of 39 pieces of material and six components, and takes a team of 30 up to five hours to complete. From the prototype to the quality-control team, each bag undergoes hundreds of processes – cutting, inking, stitching and skiving – before it is inspected, packed and prepared for shipment.
Why continue to produce in the UK if it comes at such a high cost, I ask. “We have made a decision as a business that we want the majority of our manufacturing to be done here. We are a British brand, so we should be making our goods in Britain,” Scott says. I learn, interestingly, that it is the luxury car industry increasing its production of expensive leather interiors that has driven up leather prices. I also learn that most other British heritage brand products are made in one of three Turkish factories, while the smaller goods, such as purses and wallets, are manufactured in China.
There is no doubt that fashion is all about branding and styling; it has to be in order to survive. But the age of conspicuous consumption is over, and it seems that inspiration rather than aspiration is the new point of reference. Designers have had to turn back to the powers of invention, which is exactly where Mulberry is at. It is in prime position, for unlike so many of its contemporaries, it refuses, for now at least, to let its vision be hampered by commercialism.
The beauty of Mulberry is that it’s just so un-fashiony. There are no inflated egos or filtered, honeyed versions of what it is trying to achieve. Just good quality, honest design – with a lick of good old British humour.
Just as my time with Mulberry is coming to an end, Guillon finally offers a little more insight than expected. “There is no doubt that Emma brought something fantastic to the brand. She made Mulberry sexy and did something magnificent, but we have to see this as a new and exciting opportunity. I am very aware that when you come to a new company and start to break the seats, it isn’t going to work. What I do, it isn’t easy coming in and making this change and that, but in order to succeed as a brand you must have a vision and work towards that. All I want to do is continue the Mulberry story.”
And I believe him – I would too. For the story is a particularly nice one.