By  on May 5, 2008

LONDON — Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye, the new chief executive at Liberty, doesn't see much difference between marketing fashion items or fast-moving consumer goods. A former Walt Disney Co. and PepsiCo Inc. executive, de La Bourdonnaye said the hardest part about breaking into the fashion business was persuading his colleagues he could speak the luxury lingo.

Before joining Liberty last summer, the 50-year-old French executive had served as president of Christian Lacroix for four years. "The only challenge in making the transition from Disney to Lacroix was convincing people that I was legitimate in that world, that I was part of them," said the steely-haired de La Bourdonnaye during an interview inside store founder Arthur Liberty's wood-paneled boardroom.

"At Disney, I was taking stories and turning them into products," he said. "At Lacroix, I was taking ideas from the catwalk and turning them into items that could be sold at retail. In both, you're playing with creativity — and the bottom line. You can apply marketing to anything."

At Liberty, de La Bourdonnaye wants to use his own broad experience to sharpen the store's appeal, which is why he's searched inside and outside the fashion cosmos to make his most recent staff changes.

His goal, he said, is not to compete with London department and specialty stores like Selfridges, Harrods or Harvey Nichols, but to transform Liberty into a specialty store along the lines of Colette or Dover Street Market. "For me, it's not about providing the food hall. Instead I want food for the soul," he said.

On the fashion front, de La Bourdonnaye has hired Yasmin Sewell, former director of buying at Browns in London, as a fashion consultant. "What we need is [someone with] an eye with conviction, who is going to buy deep, believe in and support the labels," he said, adding that, in the past, Liberty's buy had been far too wide and shallow, with the best items selling out immediately and the rest languishing for months on the shop floor.

The hot sellers he's referring to include Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela and Dries van Noten.

He also plans to reduce the home collection from three floors to two, and dedicate the extra space to fashion. Some recent labels Liberty has taken on exclusively include Christian Lacroix and Karl Lagerfeld bridal; the American lingerie label Kiki de Montparnasse, and Jean Paul Gaultier.He's poached Sara Edwards, formerly head of human resources from Claridge's and The Connaught, to take on a similar job at Liberty "because I want the same service standards as a five-star hotel," he said. Edwards is working with de La Bourdonnaye on introducing personal shopping and concierge services, seven-day valet parking — key in a city where spaces are rare and expensive — a men's grooming area and a wedding and gift list.

De La Bourdonnaye said he's hoping all these changes will help make the flagship itself profitable. "It's currently not making money — but it will," he said.

Harrods veteran Guy Hipwell, Liberty's new director of Internet, merchandising and supply chain, will unveil the store's first e-commerce site, which will become transactional this summer.

De La Bourdonnaye is also aiming to tap into Liberty's links with the decorative arts. After all, founder Arthur Liberty made his name trawling the world for textiles, arts and crafts that he would sell at his central London emporium, which is still housed in the original Tudor revival building. The store was seen as core to the era's Arts & Crafts movement, particularly such designers as William Morris. Such was Liberty's taste and talent that in the late 19th century London's Victoria and Albert Museum would purchase antique embroideries and rugs from him.

De La Bourdonnaye's goal has been to renew the store's relationship with the museum, one reason why Liberty is the official promotional partner of the V&A's current show, "China Design Now." The show at the V&A runs until July 13.

De La Bourdonnaye is also counting on the new Liberty of London accessories brand — which currently offers bags, scarves, jewelry and home goods — to boost the store's image and sales. Liberty of London had been a major focus of Iain Renwick, whom de La Bourdonnaye replaced as chief executive last summer.

The luxury accessories brand will open its first stand-alone store in July at 197 Sloane Street in Knightsbridge, near Louis Vuitton and Alberta Ferretti. The store will span 1,800 square feet over two floors.

At wholesale, the line is currently retailing at stores including Le Bon Marché, Jeffrey, Corso Como and Dover Street Market. In April, the store launched "We see big potential for this brand, up to 200 wholesale doors over the next three to four years. We're really positioning it as a fashion brand, which no other store like us has done before," said de La Bourdonnaye.This isn't the first time Liberty has tried to build a major fashion brand out of its name. The retailer in the Nineties introduced a collection of scarves, ties, leather goods and ready-to-wear that it wholesaled in Japan, Europe and the U.S. It even showed the line during London Fashion Week. But battles between management led them to kill the line.

And observers are skeptical that this time will be any better.

"Does the world really need another Marc Jacobs, Fendi, Louis Vuitton or Chanel?" asked George Wallace, chief executive of MHE Retail, a Europe-wide retail consultancy. "Also, Liberty is a shop, not a brand, and because the market is so sophisticated today it can't really be both."

However, Wallace is upbeat generally about Liberty's prospects. "It's a fun place to be, individual, a bit edgy and different, more like a club. It's got a great handbag room and one of the best jewelry rooms in London," he said, adding de La Bourdonnaye would do well to cultivate the store's loyal and sophisticated customer base rather than compete with the likes of Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and Harrods.

All of the changes and new investments at Liberty have so far come at a substantial cost to the store, which is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

In 2007, Liberty posted pretax losses of 6.4 million pounds, or $12.6 million, compared with the previous year's 2.3 million pounds, or $4.5 million. Group sales grew 4.2 percent to 45.8 million pounds, or $90.2 million, driven by men's wear, gifts and beauty. In-store retail sales rose 1 percent, while wholesale sales — from the Liberty of London line — went from 0 to 200,000 pounds, or $394,000 in its first year.

All figures have been calculated at current exchange.

One division the store has no plans to change is fabrics, where sales grew 10.9 percent last year. The company's clients include Louis Vuitton, J. Crew, Cacharel and Bonpoint, and has worked on collections with designers including Junya Watanabe. "It's a high-growth, high-profit and high-profile line for us," the ceo said.

De La Bourdonnaye is confident that Liberty will succeed if it's true to its roots in design and fashion. "We have a very strong aesthetic and point of view, and I think if we keep editing and get the service and staff right, we'll be successful," he said.

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