LONDON — After leaving his post as Pucci’s creative director earlier this year, Matthew Williamson was hoping to downshift. Three years of shuttling between London, Milan and Florence had been challenging but stressful, and he was looking forward to a more relaxed working life.
But that was never going to happen. “It’s relentless,” said the lanky, soft-spoken Williamson during an interview at his company headquarters in a posh Mayfair town house. Every scrap of time is taken, and his Christmas holiday in the sun has now become four days in his native Manchester as he fires up for an even busier 2009.
In addition to a men’s and women’s collection for H&M due out in April, a growing accessories line and his first New York store opening in February, Williamson is expanding his staff and retail network, and plans to launch his first signature men’s wear line in January 2010.
Company sales this year grew 14 percent to 10 million pounds, or $14.7 million at current exchange, from 8.8 million pounds, or $13 million. Matthew Williamson is majority owned by the designer and his longtime business partner, Joseph Velosa. The financially troubled Icelandic company Baugur Group holds a 26 percent stake in the business, and Marvin Traub’s TSM Capital has 22 percent.
During New York Fashion Week in February, Williamson will open a 2,600-square-foot store in the Meatpacking District, not far from those of fellow Brits Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.
The new unit, formerly a Bodum store, boasts a further 700 square feet of office and showroom space, and will serve as Williamson’s U.S. headquarters. Williamson will expand his American staff from three to about nine.
The store itself will feature a curving central space with concrete floors, pillars and clothing hanging from pink neon poles. “Hidden” rooms off the central space will have themed interiors such as “sexy disco” and “boudoir.” Echoing Williamson’s London store on Bruton Street in Mayfair, the New York unit will have a tropical garden in the back, with foliage spilling onto the concrete floor.
“Eleven years after we started, we are finally going to be able to connect with our customer in New York, to show her our complete environment and how we think the collection should be seen,” said Williamson, whose bright colors and sequined and beaded styles created an immediate splash when he made his debut on the London scene in 1997.
Asked about whether the time was right to open a flagship in recession-hit New York, Velosa said: “This has been a long time coming, and a step we needed to make. We are on the journey, and we are going to see this through. The store is not just about New York, but about catalyzing the global wholesale market.”
However, he added that plans to open an L.A. store are currently on hold because of the dismal economic climate in the U.S. and around the globe. Velosa said sales at the London store are down on the previous year, in step with other shops on the street.
The delay of the Los Angeles store doesn’t mean there isn’t more retail expansion ahead for Williamson. In January, the duo will open a 1,800-square-foot unit at the Dubai Mall, followed by a 1,600-square-foot store at 360 Degrees Kuwait mall in the spring. In early summer, the brand will open a shop-in-shop in Moscow at Tsum.
Williamson is building up his brand in other ways, too. He believes the H&M deal, announced last month, “will get my label out to a much wider audience. It is a fantasy project for me: H&M is great at emulating the shopping experience of the designers they work with, and they are great at matching the quality and craftsmanship of the signature line,” he said.
Williamson added his collection for H&M will be on the shop floor for a longer period than the retailer’s other designer collaboration lines, and will feature two additional product drops: In April, the fashion element will debut in 200 stores, followed by a spring-summer collection and a men’s wear one in 1,600 stores.
It was H&M, he said, that pushed him to design men’s wear. “I’ve always wanted to do men’s, and hopefully it will make sense after the H&M project,” he said, adding he will be “designing for himself” when he creates the collections.
“In men’s wear, there is a fine line between boring and ‘costume,’ and I want to hit that sweet spot. It won’t be about minimalism, but it also won’t be about this for men,” he said, waving his hand around his showroom packed with sexy garments in tropical hues and studded with sequins and embellishments. “I think Dries Van Noten, for example, gets the balance right,” he added.
Williamson said the accessories line, launched last spring, is humming along, and he hopes it will account for about 25 percent of sales by 2011.
The designer currently sells bags and shoes, made in-house in Italy; costume jewelry designed by the Germany-based Xenia, and sunglasses produced under license by the London-based Linda Farrow. Up next are soft accessories such as scarves and stoles.
Although their investors hold minority stakes, Velosa said they have been a big help in building the business. With Baugur, he said, it’s business as usual despite the investor’s recent credit problems.
Baugur’s debts of $2 billion are currently in the hands of Icelandic banks. Although that debt was up for sale earlier in the autumn — with British retail tycoon Sir Philip Green, Texas Pacific Group and other private equity companies reported to be interested — it appears increasingly likely the banks will hang on to the debt and manage it for long-term value.
“They’re great partners, they still attend the board meetings every month, and we’re comfortable with the relationship. They have no intention to sell their shares,” said Velosa.
As for TSM, Velosa said the investors are “much more involved” and have been giving the company operational advice on staffing, cost control and overall strategy.
Although Williamson can’t seem to carve out the free time he’s been dreaming about, he knows it’s a pivotal moment for the business.
“We are not a family company anymore,” he said, adding the business will soon have more than 50 staffers on both sides of the Atlantic. “We’re no longer a cottage industry, but an actual industry — and that’s really exciting.”
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