London — It is ribbon-cutting day at the Garrard flagship on Albemarle Street, and the moment Lawrence Stroll and Silas Chou have been working toward for 18 months.

Servers bearing trays of champagne, sushi and caviar on little pancakes wind their way around glass cases sparkling with delicate tiaras, engagement rings and hip-hop inspired diamond pavé jewels.

Jade Jagger, dressed in a body-hugging corduroy Dolce & Gabbana dress, is looking for the right necklace to wear, the crown jeweler David Thomas is chatting with guests and Stroll is rushing around the 9,000-square-foot store with the energy and pride of a new father. In the evening, he and Chou will throw a dinner party for 640 guests — including the Duke of York, Tommy Hilfiger and Helena Bonham Carter — at the Tower of London, home of the Crown Jewels and perfectly in keeping with Garrard’s past role as the Crown Jeweler. (For party coverage, see Eye, page 5.)

The store is the first major manifestation of the plan the two have for buffing up Garrard and its sister brand Asprey by remodeling Asprey’s flagships in London and New York, opening more stores worldwide for both companies, launching new products and categories and attracting new and younger customers. Their oft-stated goal is to turn the companies into rivals of Cartier, Tiffany or Bulgari. During an exclusive interview in the company’s offices across the street, Stroll and Chou — who’ve been in business together for more than 15 years and will often finish one another’s sentences — are still buzzing with energy as they discuss the lessons the luxury goods business has taught them.

"Patience. In a word, that’s what we’ve learned," says Stroll in his unmistakable booming voice. "We wish that Asprey was opening today as well, but luxury requires a longer, slower process than fashion. Management-wise, the business goes much deeper too because there are so many more products."

Chou says: "In fashion, we’re talking about three- to six-month cycles. In luxury, they’re two-year ones."

Stroll and Chou built up the Polo Ralph Lauren business in Europe and helped transform Tommy Hilfiger into a global megabrand. They also have, at Stroll’s admission, many other businesses that aren’t quite so public and aren’t in the fashion sector (which, however, they declined to discuss). The duo surprised the luxury goods world two years ago when they snapped up Asprey & Garrard, which had been fading steadily under the ownership of Prince Jefri of Brunei. Since then, they’ve split the brands into two companies, and their goal is to transform them into luxury lifestyle brands."That’s where we’re placing our bet," said Chou, adding that this is familiar territory for them.

"Fifteen years ago, we had a choice. We had the opportunity to buy the shirt businesses Arrow and Hathaway, but we knew that wasn’t the future, we knew people weren’t going to want just a shirt. They were going to want a shirt in the context of a lifestyle brand, which is why we invested in Polo," Chou said.

The same thing that happened in the fashion business is going to happen in the jewelry business, Stroll said. "There’s going to come a time when the consumer who buys fashion apparel is going to recognize and want branded jewelry, and they’re going to turn to true jewelers like ourselves."

He believes that instead of an anonymous diamond ring and setting bought from the neighborhood jeweler, customers are going to want the security and status of a brand name. "That’s one reason why we’re laser-engraving our diamond rings, for example, so you will always know you have a Garrard diamond."

Stroll and Chou aren’t the only ones talking up branded jewelry. Later this year, the first De Beers LV store will open on Piccadilly in London. It will be the first time that De Beers will sell diamonds under its own brand name and will be the first of a string of stores worldwide planned by the joint venture between De Beers and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton.

Luxury goods analysts said branded jewelry has enormous growth potential. "The market right now is very fragmented because a lot of people have their jewelry made by private jewelers. There’s a real opportunity for the big players to corner a bigger share of this market. At Gucci, for example, jewelry is the fastest-growing product category," said Jacques-Franck Dossin, chief luxury goods analyst at Goldman Sachs in London.

Claire Kent, head luxury analyst at Morgan Stanley, agreed. "The jewelry market isn’t dominated by brands, so there’s a lot of growth potential there. In addition, with watches and jewelry, you get a very high return on very little floor space."Tommy Hilfiger, who was here for the Garrard opening, described himself as a "silent, minority partner" in the A&G business, and said he’s excited about Garrard’s potential. "The money made from the Tommy Hilfiger business has allowed me to make outside investments, and this is one of them," he said during the dinner at the Tower of London.

"The work that [Stroll and Chou] are doing with Garrard is incredible and they’re making an Old World company new and relevant again. You can compare it to what’s been done with Gucci, Christian Dior and Yves Saint Laurent," he said.

Now that Garrard’s doors in London are open — a second store will bow in Manhattan in the middle of next year, confirmed Stroll — the partners are training their eyes to Asprey. Stroll said he sees the Asprey project as "100 times more complex" than Garrard. "Garrard is principally a jeweler and silversmith, while Asprey encompasses jewelry, silver, leather, clothing and accessories. The Asprey store [in New Bond Street] is 28,000 feet, compared with Garrard’s 5,000 feet," he said.

As reported, Asprey’s first two new generation stores will open simultaneously on their existing sites in London and Manhattan in fall, 2003. The grand plan is for Asprey to open 10 stores by 2007 and 40 by 2012. For Garrard, the company is planning to open two stores each in London and New York by 2007 and 10 stores worldwide by 2012.

By 2012, the company aims to make Asprey a $400 million lifestyle brand and Garrard a $100 million jeweler. The goal is eventually to take A&G group public.

Stroll, who stepped down as co-chairman and a director of Tommy Hilfiger Corp. in July to focus on Asprey and Garrard, said he and his team have completed the product design for Asprey and have prototypes in all categories. They’ve also mocked up fixtures, lighting and certain sections of the New Bond Street store. "Now it’s just a matter of execution," he said.

The partners said they divide their Asprey and Garrard labors much as they do any of their other businesses, with Stroll focusing on design and marketing and Chou homing in on the financial and manufacturing aspects of the business."We’re constantly talking and discussing," Chou said. "We talk about every move together."

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