We speak to chief executive Lisa Montague about why people mistakenly believe the brand is a heritage label
Aspinal of London bags a Dubai location
Lisa Montague is a woman accustomed to moving quickly. As former chief executive of both Loewe and Mulberry, Montague is used to guiding well-established brands into the fast-moving digital world – alongside raising a young family of her own.
Montague is now focusing her expertise and energy on Aspinal of London. She joined the much-loved small-leather-goods company as CEO in October 2017, and less than a year later was in Dubai to celebrate the opening of the city’s first stand-alone Aspinal store in The Dubai Mall on July 19 (Abu Dhabi already boasts two, in The Galleria and Yas Mall).
I meet Montague to find out what it is about this quintessentially British leather brand that caught her eye. “I wanted to be with a company that is visionary,” she explains, “and, by anyone’s standards, starting online with small leather goods in 2001 was visionary.” And that’s exactly the bold choice that founder (and now chairman) Iain Burton made when he launched Aspinal of London as a digital store nearly two decades ago. At a time when most brands existed only as bricks-and-mortar stores, Burton realised the potential of online, and so launched his company straight on the web, putting it alongside other early pioneers such as Net-a-Porter. “That model might not be as successful now, but then Aspinal was truly the only [mono]brand doing it,” notes Montague.
This step into a relatively unknown market marked Aspinal as brave and revolutionary, traits it has worked hard to maintain. However, there is also a wonderful contradiction at the heart of the brand. Despite being at the forefront of online commerce, the company prides itself on creating luxurious leather products that hark back to a sense of history. Its line of well-made, almost old-school leather bags, wallets and other accessories, are deeply rooted in British workmanship and heritage.
“The brand is very strong, which is where that impression comes from,” Montague explains. “The marks of the brand are recognisable – it’s not only the product, but also the blue, the shield and the feather. These are aspects that feel like they are associated with heritage. Even the name itself … people will say to us: ‘Oh, my grandfather loved Aspinal’ – which would be truly remarkable because we weren’t even around then.”
That sense of heritage is very much on show at the new Dubai store, where Britishness has been translated as a storefront clad in metro tiles, in the shade of rich navy that Aspinal has made its own. The shield and its heraldic feather sit beside a door covered in images of hares, hedgehogs and squirrels.
The boutique is discreetly tucked away on the top floor, away from the hubbub of the mall’s lower levels. Visitors are encouraged to relax in antique leather chairs and vintage sofas, while plaster squirrels scamper around in a frieze overhead, in a design copied from Burton’s country pile. The walls are covered in Victorian Anaglypta wallpaper and warm oak panelling, and the cash till resembles the kind of overstuffed bars found in one of London’s gentlemen’s clubs.
The shelves display a discreet number of men’s and women’s bags, each glistening with the deep sheen that only comes from the correct handling of quality leather. Essentially, the brand is offering a shortcut to British heritage and age-old style. And in a highly competitive retail market, this is proving to be yet another savvy move: aligning itself with British history, despite being merely 17 years old. “It feels like it has had so much love and care and attention poured into the product that it must have been through years and years of craftsmanship. It is [so] with the factories and craftspeople we work with, but we haven’t learnt the hard way – we have gone in straight at the top,” says Montague.
Perhaps mindful of the pitfalls of overexpansion, the company is still relatively small, something that Montague is adamant works very much to its advantage. “We have a direct relationship with our consumers, and the data that comes from online, and the agility and entrepreneurial approach that comes with running an online business,” she explains. “And then there is the value. We haven’t opened offices all over the world; we aren’t in Paris, Tokyo and Shanghai – we are in West Sussex, and we can pass on the value to the consumer.”
Another example of Aspinal’s contradictory nature is that today, as many other brands have tended to open stores all around the world before venturing into the Middle East, it is once more going in the opposite direction. After taking five years to open its first physical store – a concession in London’s Selfridges in 2006 – its first international store was in Kuwait in 2013. Choosing the Middle East for its first overseas venture is interesting as it underpins how crucial Aspinal deems this market to be.
A glance around the store reveals many of Aspinal’s most popular women’s handbags, including the Hat Box, the result of a 1930s-inspired collaboration with the 2017 film Murder on the Orient Express; the Dockery Bag, designed in 2016 with Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery; and the ever-popular Trunk Bag, which will be familiar to those who visited Aspinal’s pop-up earlier this year – the stand placed in The Dubai Mall was modelled after the bag’s boxy shape.
A new version of the Trunk was unveiled February last year during London Fashion Week. The Lion Mini Trunk featured lions-head hardware. Aspinal created the Lion bag because it was keen to help support the conservation of the beloved big cats, with all proceeds going to the Glen Garriff Conservation charity in South Africa.
Another project that launched in April this year was with male supermodel David Gandy, whose Aerodrome collection was inspired by the Spitfire aircraft. The collection is exclusively available in Aspinal stores in the UAE. “We have called them Mission bags, as the collection was inspired by travel, Spitfires and heroic times. David and Iain have a passion for Spitfires; they had a lot of fun designing it. It was also the celebration of 100 years of the RAF, so it came together very well,” says Montague.
Admirable for its eye for authenticity, the collection uses the same leather as flying jackets, while vegetable dyes are employed to obtain the correct shade of golden tan leather. Even the lock on the bag is an exact replica of the firing button from the Spitfire MK1 fighter plane. “David’s main drive was to have very functional travel pieces that he would enjoy travelling with and, obviously, he travels a lot. He knows exactly what he wants, so he was a joy to work with.
“He wasn’t just putting his name to a product; he wanted a product that he could carry, use, and recommend, and he was deeply involved, which is why it took a while to bring it to market,” explains Montague. “There is the 24hr, the 36hr and the 48hr Mission bag. The 24hr I took to Milan, and it was fantastic. It really works.
“We have special products, as well, that we will be doing for this store, which our creative director loves doing,” she adds. “We have a very receptive chairman and ideas team, so we will do more bespoke in a way that is new and fresh for the customer, who in this region especially, is a bit bespoked out.”
Part of that offering is an ability to add initials to almost anything, all while you’re in-store, by specially trained staff. Not having to wait even overnight to have a loved one’s name added to a gift seems to be an important point for all Aspinal’s customers. “We personalise everything and that’s standard,” Montague says. “Aspinal is a very male-female brand in equal proportion and appeal, which is quite rare.”
As our conversation draws to a close, I inquire if Aspinal is concerned by the sudden rush of retail to online. However, given that the brand has 17 years of e-commerce experience under its belt, Montague is confident about its ability to stay one step ahead. “Many brands are worried about how to do online, but that’s how we started, it’s how we work.”