— Luxury replica handbag firm sees 8% rise in sales after wooing back customers, and plans to open more factories in UK
Profits at the British handbag maker Mulberry replica have recovered after it cut prices and spruced up its ranges to win back customers.
Mulberry’s efforts to become a more affordable luxury replica handbags brand appear to be paying off, following a disastrous move upmarket in recent years. It now intends to open more factories in the UK as revenues rise.
Profits before tax rose to £6.2m in the year to 31 March, from £1.9m the previous year. Retail sales climbed 8% to £118.7m while wholesale revenues dipped slightly to £37.2m from £38.8m.
Like-for-like sales were up 8% last year but growth has slowed in the 11 weeks to 11 June, to 4%. Many luxury retailers are struggling, such as Burberry, Giorgio Armani and Hugo Boss, as demand has suffered as a result of the economic slowdown in China.
Mulberry said the first collection from its new creative director, Johnny Coca, who was recruited from Céline, at London fashion week in February had been well received by the press and the company’s partners. It started arriving in shops in April and the whole collection will be in stores by August.
The Somerset-based firm said 70% of its replica handbags uk were priced between £500 and £995, compared with less than half in 2014. They include the bestselling Bayswater and the Lily, named after model Lily Cole. Mulberry has brought the style and pricing of shoes and ready-to-wear collections into line with replica bags.
The firm has pushed through production efficiencies at its factories in Chilcompton and Bridgwater, which produce half of its replica handbags. As they are close to capacity, there are plans to open a third factory in Britain. “The brand’s British DNA is emphasised as a point of distinction,” Mulberry said.
The company opened a new flagship store in Paris last year, replacing a smaller one, and closed three stores in the US. It plans to open fewer stores in coming years to focus on improving shops and its digital business.
Digital sales rose 19% to £21.4m last year, boosted by a website upgrade and improved delivery. They now account for 14% of group sales, compared with 12% in 2015 and 10% in 2014. About half of this comes from mobile phones and tablets.
Nivindya Sharma, senior analyst at consultancy Verdict Retail, said: “There is much more potential for growth especially as Mulberry outlet uk plans to extend its digital offer into key international markets through local language websites and local fulfilment over the next few years.”
She said with Coca’s efforts to modernise the brand while respecting its heritage, Mulberry was on its way to regaining its trademark “classic but cool” credentials.
“Mulberry has made significant progress during the last financial year with solid growth achieved in revenues and profit,” said Thierry Andretta, the chief executive.
“Our UK manufacturing base has remained a core strength and point of distinction. We have built a strong foundation for future growth as a result of the investment made in product design and development as well as our omni-channel infrastructure.”
— Mulberry has created a light-hearted film reimagining the nativity for its 2015 Christmas campaign.
The two-minute film, created by Adam & Eve/DDB, features a man giving his wife a replica Mulberry Bayswater bag for Christmas. Once she has opened the present, a succession of visitors come to pay their respects to the bag.
As the two shepherds and then three wise men arrive, it slowly becomes clear that the bag has taken the place of Jesus in the nativity story.
The film will be accompanied by social media activity and a competition through the Mulberry website.
Anne Marie Verdin, the brand director at Mulberry outlet uk, said: “Everyone at Mulberry loves Christmas and every year we like to put out an amusing tongue-in-cheek little story about how difficult it is to get Christmas right.
“Our research shows that men are particularly nervous about the consequences of getting it wrong. We like to make people smile in the run up to their hopefully… perfect Christmas.”
At Adam & Eve/DDB the copywriter was Aidan McClure and the art director was Laurent Simon. The spot was directed by James Rouse through Outsider.
Rick Brim, an executive creative director at Adam & Eve/DDB, said: “I don’t think you can underestimate that joyous moment when you receive the gift of a Mulberry replica handbag. So with that in mind this idea is simple, funny and couldn’t be more Christmassy if it tried.”
Last year Adam & Eve/DDB also created a humorous online film for Mulberry’s Christmas campaign. The 2014 ad showed a grandma “winning” Christmas by giving her granddaughter a Mulberry bag as a present.
Being tasked with reversing the sartorial fortunes of a brand considered as a national institution is no mean feat, but the verdict on Johnny Coca’s tenure at Mulberry outlet to date? So far, so good. As he approaches his one-year anniversary, we caught up with fashion’s boy wonder to see how he’s getting on – from reinventing classics, to introducing the new bag du jour.
How has your first year at Mulberry been?
“Very, very busy! As soon as I arrived I spent time at our factories in Somerset and with the design team in London, working and working on the first new product and the February show. Now the show is done and we are onto the next season and the one after that. There is so much to do!”
Have there been any surprises that you weren’t expecting?
“Not that it’s surprising, but how much people love replica Mulberry – that was really noticeable when I got to London. I see Mulberry everywhere when I’m out and about and people are always telling me about their own Mulberry replica bags when they find out what I do.”
Having worked in the background for a long time, how are you finding being the frontman for a house?
“It’s an amazing opportunity. To have a 360-degree view of a brand and all of its collections. As creative director, it is my job to push the boundaries, while always respecting the legacy. I came to Mulberry to help bring a British fashion and lifestyle brand into a new era. Mulberry outlet uk is also the leading leather goods manufacturer in the UK. We are now designing with more of a focus on the original lifestyle approach: ready-to-wear, shoes, jewellery, travel, as well as leather accessories for men and women. I will measure success by how much this new design era can appeal to the global customers of today.”
Were you daunted coming on board and redesigning famous silhouettes, such as the Bayswater?
“I always try to remember that it’s truly an honour to be trusted with a brand that people love. Mulberry replica is such a British institution and our customers really feel passion for the brand and for our bags. The Bayswater is one example: it’s a Mulberry replica icon. But all icons evolve and we’ve tried to make the new Bayswater as relevant as possible for women today. It’s the small changes that make a big difference – the inside pocket is easier to get to on the front, and we’ve reinforced the lining with beautiful suede to give the overall bag more structure. The Bayswater is a bag for every day and I wanted to make sure it could be the best it could be.”
Tell us about your direction for your new bag creation, the Maple.
“The Maple isn’t gimmicky, it is just a well-made tote that carries all the things you need day to day – the size was deliberately specified to fit A4 documents and laptops. Its beauty is in its structure – the simplicity of the form and the careful addition of details, like the detachable front pocket. It’s perfect for running out to get a coffee and for those times when you don’t need to take your whole bag with you.”
A replica designer bag is a statement for the wearer – how does the design of the Maple, and your other bags, reflect you as the designer and the new direction of Mulberry?
“I want to focus on the construction of replica bags – and the shoes, and the ready-to-wear! In a way, when I’m designing, it’s like I’m designing a building. I studied architecture so structure and form really resonate with me. It’s all very well designing a beautiful bag, but it needs to be functional, useful, too.”
What are your thoughts as a designer on the see-now-buy-now model?
“I think that increasingly people do want instant access to the new and exciting. The shows and campaigns are now instant and all on social media straight away. But we are very lucky at cheap Mulberry – by having two factories in the UK, we can produce collections in line with customer demand. However, we also like to work with the press and buyers to really create the stories and desire for the brand, which means leaving some lead time. So we will do it the fake Mulberry way: continuing seasonal collections but having select product and capsule collections immediately available.”
How do you plan to evolve your designs from autumn/winter 2016 to spring/summer 2017?
“It’s important for me to always reference British design details and for both collections you’ll notice inspiration from traditional tailoring, iconic hardware and classic silhouettes. Colour is also so important to me – I think it’s part of being Spanish! Different leathers take colour in different ways and it’s been interesting to work with new materials and really offer vivid, rich colour choices for our customers.”
Comparing the sleek revamp of the Bayswater, Mulberry’s best known, most loved, most copied and still best selling bag, with one of the original versions is an instructive lesson in how far we’ve all raised our game and expectations, bag-wise.
Millions of us loved that bag when Nicholas Knightly, Mulberry’s then creative director, launched it in 2003. The appeal of its chunky, semi-structured frame, gently distressed leather and chuck-it all in interior was so broad that as Emma Hill, Mulberry’s Creative Director between 2008 – 2013 and no slouch herself when it comes to minting It Bags, said, “I have a Bayswater, my son’s grandmother has a Bayswater, Kate Moss has a Bayswater.”
“I remember suddenly seeing this bag everywhere,” says Johnny Coca, Mulberry’s new creative director, “and thinking how clever it was. It had an attitude. You could put everything in it, throw it around. It was obviously well crafted, but it didn’t seem precious. Every brand tried to reproduce something like it.”
Working out what made it so right a decade ago, and what would make it right now, has been, he says, “a bit like redesigning the Mini”. The analogy isn’t so far-fetched.
Like the Mini, the Bayswater is an exemplary, cute, anti-bling design that became an emblem of Britishness. So why mess with it? Because as Coca is currently deftly demonstrating, draping an original over his shoulder and twirling around his airy, oak floored south Kensington studios to give me a 360-degree view, the older versions are not without faults.
“Look,“ he dips a hand inside, “The internal pocket is at the back, so you can’t reach into it so easily. The straps make it heavy and a bit clumsy at the sides – and what do they do?” (Ostensibly they can be undone to adjust the size of the bag but Coca’s right, no one uses them), “The hardware is dull looking, the padlock is unnecessary, the straps always flop down to show a join that isn’t very elegant…” There, in an almost bullet-point paragraph, you have the nuts and bolts of Coca’s approach to design, where form co-exists with function.
In an industry filled with flowery, meaningless descriptions, he is the antidote: a designer who imparts his knowledge with a lightly-worn but head-clearing authority. It’s not hard to picture him as the aeronautical engineer he almost became.
Raised in Seville, in Southern Spain, he studied architecture and interior design in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and the Ecole Boulle, which two centuries earlier had made furniture for the court at Versailles. In the mid 90s he worked on the interiors of Café Marly – a modern incomer to the Louvre museum, which became a template for so many Parisian café make-overs. And then he found himself window dressing at Louis Vuitton. A few weeks later he was hired to design bags – while still completing his two courses.
One of his first hits, aged 24, was the Vuitton Musette, a messenger style bag, designed to hold vinyl records. He later moved to Celine, first under Michael Kors, when he worked on the Boogie bag, a huge hit in the late 90s, then under Phoebe Philo, where he worked on bags such as The Trio, which became as copied as the Bayswater.
He’s been tweaking every detail at Mulberry replica from the packaging, which is now green, to the typeface. Given his architectural training, it can’t be long before he turns his attention to the stores’ interiors? And he loves maths. “I know the minute I start sketching a bag how much it will cost… I like numbers”.
Price is a key block in Mulberry’s recovery strategy. From its heady, recession-defying heights when a string of hits and shares sent shares soaring 207 per cent in one year, the brand has been on a turbulent journey. A decision by Bruno Guillon, an ex Hermes executive who was briefly in-situ at Mulberry (2012-14) as CEO, to take it “upmarket” saw the company lose 67 per cent of its share-price in one year. Things have gradually improved.
Mulberry now desperately needs some fashion credibility to regain its position as a much loved purveyor of aspirational, but not unattainable objects. No pressure then. But Coca could be the one . He may have designed some of the most desirable bags of the past 20 years during his career at Louis Vuitton, Celine and Bally, but he shares Mulberry’s “friendly-luxury“philosophy.
Shopping recently for a present for his sister after she had a baby, he found some of the bag prices startling – and wouldn’t pay for them. Most of Mulberry’s will sell for around £125-£295. Not cheap by normal criteria, but a bargain in the luxury market – and importantly, a fair price for the workmanship, half of which is carried out in its two Somerset factories (the rest is in Turkey, an increasingly popular workshop for global luxury brands, including some you might assume only to manufacture in France or Italy).
He’s refurbished the Bayswater, which is available in its new incarnation now, from the inside out – literally. “Look”, he says, unfastening a charcoal model to reveal a burgundy suede lining that had everyone oohing in the office when I showed them photos. Unlike the old Bayswater interiors with their ridged seams, the new ones are bonded which makes them seamless. The offending pocket on the inside back is now at the front. The straps have been removed – the Bayswater redux is sleeker and lighter and the sides automatically extend, in the vein of Celine’s Trapeze (which, after all, he worked on). The brass plating is shiny – the perfect amount of bling. The pointless padlock has gone. The leather is softer, thicker, more expensive looking, although he says it’s the same quality replica Mulberry handbags has always used. The handles don’t flop. He’s added a dinky, but practical, on-trend smaller version (22cm x 35cm x 12cm) with sporty-chic white top stitching. These tweaks, which don’t cost more, are the product of a refined eye and “of knowing how to roll leather, not stretch it, how thick to make it for different parts of the bag.”
“I knew I didn’t want to alienate existing customers,” says Coca. When one bag came out too expensive, despite Mulberry’s stockists being keen to have it, Coca cancelled it. “It doesn’t feel the moment for such a British brand, with such a British smell to do something that costs so much.”
I haven’t heard anyone talk about a British smell for years. Since he’s in his seventh year living here (he moved when Phoebe Philo relocated the Celine design studio from Paris London, just behind that most hallowed of British institutions, the John Lewis flagship), I was intrigued to know more. It turns out he’s not referring to hygiene, but to attitude. ”There’s playfulness in the culture here, but also something that encourages independence of thought and a certain punk element.” It’s that old conservative versus anarchic paradox which may seem a cliché to Brits. Yet it holds such sway over the rest of the world, it must contain some truth.
His first Mulberry catwalk show in March avoided the glaringly obvious British tropes, while still, charmingly, playing homage to many of our traditions – from military coats and cloaks to Dr Martens-esque chunky soled footwear, floral prints, glossy leather gilets and mini kilts – and a slew of new bags, some sleek, others have sprouted punkish chains. The line up includes the Selwood, a smooth skinned saddle bag with a striking metal clasp, and the Chester, a very grown up two sided tote.
For the Bond Street customers the same styles will come in exotic skins that may cost several thousand, and a luscious palette of oxblood, navy, khaki, green…” I love green”. So much so, he’s changed the colour of the packaging. “It’s a very British colour. That’s the thing that always hits tourists when the come here – how much green there is and how intense it is.”
It’s an understatement to say Coca has form designing smash hits – yet prior to his appointment at Mulberry outlet, no one had heard of him. Is this the mark of the new breed of serious, successful designers?