By  on April 26, 2010

LONDON — Jack Wills, the 11-year-old British clothing label whose laid-back designs play on the raffish style of British college students, is set to plant its flag in the U.S.

Today, the label, which does men’s, women’s and homeware collections, opens its first American store in a former hardware store on Nantucket, while next month a unit will open in a former speakeasy on Martha’s Vineyard, followed by a boutique on Newbury Street in Boston in July.  

Despite the U.S. push, Jack Wills chief executive officer Peter Williams, who, together with Rob Shaw, founded the label with a shop in the seaside town of Salcombe in Devon, England, wants to make clear the label’s roots will remain “British, British, British.” Williams described the label’s look as “aristocratic British dandy, but done in a contemporary way.”

“We’re grounded in heritage, [but] we’re all about the tension between formal and casual.…It’s a traditional English tweed worn with a hoodie and a pair of sweatpants,” said Williams.

The rambling store — housed in a former pub — is packed with the label’s spring looks, such as multicolored Fair Isle knit sweaters, bright pink and purple hoodies and check pajama pants. Jack Wills is only sold from the label’s stores and online, and Williams said he has no plans to wholesale the collection. Williams, 35, worked in management consultancy before starting the label in his 20s, while Shaw had worked in market research. They expanded the company slowly, opening stores in other small coastal and university towns before targeting central London.

And Williams — who owns 70 percent of the company with Shaw, while London-based Inflexion Private Equity owns 27 percent — is equally specific about who the label appeals to, adding that’s why he decided to open Jack Wills’ U.S. stores in locations off the mass retail track.

Jack Wills has built its 35-store U.K. business on word-of-mouth recommendations and viral marketing, rather than with editorial placements and ad campaigns.

The label recorded a turnover of 42 million pounds, or $65.7 million at average exchange, for the 2009 fiscal year, and an earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization figure of 7.7 million pounds, or $12 million, for the same year.

In 2008, Williams added the label Aubin & Wills, a clothing line targeted to post-college customers, and in the 2010 fiscal year, Jack Wills expects to record 65 million pounds, or $99.8 million, in sales.

Williams has laid the foundations for Jack Wills’ U.S. debut by running viral marketing campaigns there over the past three years. In June, Jack Wills will host a polo match at Guards Polo Club in Windsor, England, where Oxford University’s polo team will play Cambridge’s and Harvard’s will play Yale’s.

Williams declined to give first-year sales predictions for the U.S., but said while its online business there is “relatively small,” he has “significant U.S. aspirations” for the brand. Next up, the label has Japan in its sights and has begun a viral marketing campaign there. “Although the U.K. is still a very strong and important market for us, the main future growth of the business lies internationally,” he said.

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