English clothing brand Aquascutum has a new face at the helm and is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Burberry, Jaeger and Mulberry and reinvent itself as an international fashion house. But the label will face plenty of challenges along the way, says David Benady
The revival of Britain’s heritage fashion labels received a boost last week as Aquascutum became the latest twee, middle-aged clothes marque to join the rush to become a trendy, global luxury brand.
The 155-year-old purveyor of trench coats and fusty outfits to the English upper-middle classes is in for one of the biggest marketing makeovers of the year under new president and chief executive Kim Winser, who joined last week, fresh from the relaunch of Pringle of Scotland.
Winser, who cut her teeth at Marks & Spencer, where she rose to become the chain’s director for womenswear, is teaming up with Aquascutum’s new owner Kaleido Holdings to sink &£40m into relaunching the brand. She is investing a significant, but undisclosed, sum of her own money in the venture.
This is the latest slug of cash to be injected into faded British clothing labels in recent years. After Burberry’s successful conversion from dowdy brand to international fashion label, investors – many from Asia – have been looking for other UK marques that can be catapulted onto the world stage. They are seeking to capitalise on the appetite for the traditional British look with a modern twist in from New York to Tokyo.
Playing on their English and Scottish roots, the brands have hired fashionable designers, launched new ranges and taken control of their retail presence through a raft of luxury store openings. This has required huge investment. Pringle, Jaeger and leather brand Mulberry have been given expensive makeovers, though whether they will end up creating much value for shareholders remains to be seen. That said, Mulberry is on course to announce profits of &£6m for 2005/06 on sales of &£43m. Jaeger claims profits rose last year to &£1.7m. However, Aquascutum is believed to make losses on a turnover of &£220m and part of Winser’s remit is to restore it to profitability in a three-year turnaround programme.
On the marketing front, the relaunched brands depend on the endorsement of global celebrities to convey their new fashion stances. Burberry is understood to be planning a global TV campaign, handled by media agency MPG, for its new women’s perfume Burberry London featuring actress Rachel Weisz. Meanwhile, Pringle this week starts shooting for a planned &£2m advertising burst for its autumn collection and has hired M2M as its as global media agency, replacing Starcom.
At Aquascutum, Winser has identified English actors Jude Law and Kate Winslet as suitable faces for an ad campaign this Christmas. But she admits there is a tough task ahead in updating the label. The Aquascutum relaunch is already underway, with in-house designers Graeme Fidler and Michael Herz creating a well-received collection for London Fashion Week in February. Its store in the capital’s Piccadilly was refurbished in 2004, and it is reported to be seeking an advertising agency.
“The most important thing to do is refine the brand values and put energy and passion in there,” says Winser. That will mean building on the elegance and luxury for which Aquascutum is famed. “There is more to do. There is some very nice product here, but there needs to be more. There are some good positions, with Harrods and Selfridges, and some very good retail partners in the UK and Asia. I intend to extend that into the US and develop Italy and France,” she says. She adds that there could be scope for opening stores in Russia and the Middle East.
But the primary job is to develop the brand. Says Winser/ “The focus will be on the heart of the brand, the coats and the trenchcoats. We will do a lot more with that, there is a huge opportunity. In the catwalk show this spring we had trousers to die for. We want more of that.”
She acknowledges that the task ahead contrasts sharply with what she achieved at Pringle, where she spent the last five years. The job there was to extend the brand beyond knitwear – and the classic diamond-pattern golf sweaters – into a wider range of fashionable clothes. She also launched stores, opening showrooms in key cities. Pringle has played on its Scottishness in its store designs – with hints of Highland castles complete with real fires – and ran an ad campaign featuring celebrity Scottish actor Ewan McGregor. Sales have soared, but last year Pringle’s losses nearly doubled to &£7.7m, leaving owners the Wang family with the task of making Winser’s relaunch pay.
According to Interbrand chairman Rita Clifton an important factor in relaunching fashion brands is taking control of the retail brand experience through licensing and merchandising. She says Calvin Klein is an example of a brand that lost control of its retail presence, while Gucci has benefited by taking back control.
Once the product has been updated, Clifton believes the choice of celebrity for Aquascutum’s ad campaign will be crucial. She states: “It would be useful to have someone with glamour and masses of talent, someone with a discernible substance and skill about them.” The performance aspects of the brand could be promoted by using an athlete or musician, she says.
Desirable brand message
Meanwhile, Maureen Hinton, senior analyst at Verdict Research, believes that British fashion labels are contributing to the success of one another with their relaunches. “It lifts the whole sector. If you have strong ones, it encourages other people,” she says. But she believes the hard part for Aquascutum will be getting across the message that it is a desirable brand to have.
A vital task for any luxury label is to strike a balance between exclusivity and mass appeal. Some believe Burberry has thrown away part of its upper class brand value by targeting working class youth – or “chavs” – particularly by selling baseball caps with its trademark check and using model Kate Moss in its ads. One source says Burberry has forsaken its exclusive positioning, though others claim that in overseas markets it preserves its classy, English image.
Rose Marie Bravo, Burberry’s chief executive, who has steered the label back into fashion over the past seven years, is being replaced in July by Angela Ahrendts, executive vice-president of Liz Claiborne. Newly de-merged from GUS, it will be interesting to see how Burberry progresses.
The big question for Winser and Aquascutum’s Japanese investors will be whether the heavy investment required to relaunch the brand can be turned into profits without widening the label’s appeal so far that it loses its cachet.