Luella Grows Up: Brand Plans Expansion

She’s still got the East End studio, the Brit hippie look and some of the coolest friends in town.

LONDON — She’s still got the East End studio, the Brit hippie look and some of the coolest friends in town, but 35-year-old designer Luella Bartley is proudly growing up.

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Together with Club 21, Bartley’s global licensee for ready-to-wear and accessories, the designer has tightened her operations, ramped up the quality of the collections and begun taking a more commercial approach to the market.

Last summer, the label took on its first-ever president, Frenchman Regis Rimbert, formerly of Dior and Prada, whose mandate is to take Luella to the next level.

“We’ve been working to give Luella a proper, long-term vision and strategy, and to bring stability to the brand,” said Rimbert. So far, he’s made changes to the manufacturing and supply chain, and helped the designer hone her approach to her customers.

“In the past, it was about creating the right image, following the right trends, but I don’t feel that pressure anymore,” said Bartley. “I have more confidence now. I can focus on catering to my customers’ lifestyles as opposed to following the rest of the market.”

One of Rimbert’s first moves was to shift all manufacturing from the Far East to Europe. As of fall 2009, the collections will be made in factories in Italy. Going forward, he also plans to focus on the pillars of Luella’s collections, such as riding jackets, cocktail dresses, Gisele bags, boy’s-style shirts and skinny trousers to consolidate and build the business.

Although he did not supply sales projections, Rimbert said the “vast majority” of sales potential lies in rtw, which Bartley launched in 1999. He and Bartley are focusing on the details, and what they call “individual” luxury, that’s not about showing off. “We want to speak to the customer through the little things,” Bartley said.

According to industry sources, the label’s estimated turnover is about 9 million pounds, or $13 million at current exchange. Rimbert said his priority is not top-line growth, but rather securing a long-term strategy. He also said there were no immediate plans to expand into new product areas such as fragrance and eyewear.

Although her collaborations with Target and sports brand O’Neill — Bartley and her partner, the photographer David Sims, are passionate surfers — have come to an end, there could be more in the future. “We’ll look at the commercial opportunities that come our way, and we’ll continue to do collaborations,” said Rimbert.

Bartley said the company is improving everything from the basic materials to the workmanship. The knitwear collection is going to grow, too, with Luella offering a larger variety of colors. They’re also paying more attention to the finer points, branding the zipper pulls, buttons and handbag locks with Luella’s signature heart, running horse or name logo.

Luella’s silhouettes have also gotten slimmer for fall. The designer, who has channeled everyone wicked witches, British aristocrats and Mick Jagger for past collections, has said that while her basic reference points remain the same, she’s slowly moving to a more sophisticated place.

Since the spring, the price range of the collection has expanded to reflect the improvements, and the line is being positioned alongside such labels as Miu Miu and Chloé. The entry price is about 200 pounds retail, or $290, for a jersey dress or a cotton skirt with detailing. It sells at Liberty, Harvey Nichols, Harrods, Colette and Printemps. Luella has a temporary shop-in-shop at Galeries Lafayette, which will remain open until March 15. The label also has a limited distribution in the U.S.

Rimbert said the brand is still serious about leather goods. Designer Katie Hillier has returned to the label, starting with the fall accessories collection. In addition, Bartley is collaborating with Georgina Goodman on a small footwear collection called Luella by Georgina Goodman.

Luella got its first big boost from the Gisele bag, which Bartley designed for Mulberry in 2002, a year before Club 21 became the label’s global licensee and distributor. While that bag is still a Luella staple, the designer is putting the focus on new silhouettes, such as the rounded, napa leather Flower Bag, for spring.

Last year, Bartley, a mother of three who counts Stella McCartney, Kate Moss, Katie Grand and Giles Deacon among her close pals, won the British Fashion Council’s coveted Designer of the Year Award. “I’m very proud to have come to this point. For me, it used to be about consciously putting together a ‘cool’ exterior image. But now it seems the more we play the more cool the collection naturally gets. I really have the freedom now to design, and I guess you could say I’m coming of age,” she said.