LONDON — Move over, France and Italy. British accessories designers are wowing the U.S. market like never before with their bright colors, quirky touch and sense of humor.

“It’s a particularly strong moment for British accessories brands,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “I can’t remember the last time there was a major lineup of so many brands, each with its own identity.”

Whether they are consolidating successful businesses or making inroads in the U.S., brands including Jimmy Choo, Lulu Guinness, Anya Hindmarch, Tanner Krolle and Asprey seem to have picked a good time to strike.

“The accessories market as a whole is changing and becoming more like footwear,” said Burke. “People are buying three to four handbags each season, and color and novelty have become very important. The consumer is keen on having a handbag that’s not overly recognizable. They like the exclusivity factor.”

That’s just where the British sensibility comes in.

“Their designs have whimsy and a sense of humor,” Burke said. “They break the rules and it works.”

Strategies and styles with British firms vary. Some brands are focusing on the luxury factor, others are playing the heritage card or focusing on detail and design.

Jimmy Choo already derives 50 percent of its sales from the U.S., where it has 11 freestanding stores in addition to wholesale accounts. While its offices are in the heart of London’s Chelsea district, Robert Bensoussan, chief executive of Jimmy Choo, doesn’t see the brand in terms of its nationality.

“I don’t see the world in terms of British brands, but in terms of luxury brands,” he said. “We see ourselves competing with most luxury brands from France, Italy and the U.S. — brands with great shoe collections.”

Sales in 2003 were about $40 million and are set to rise 50 percent this year. Bensoussan said the increase will come from recent store openings in places such as Dallas, Coral Gables, Fla., and the Short Hills Mall in New Jersey.

By 2005, Bensoussan expects sales to double to $80 million, with 40 to 50 percent generated from the U.S. Those increases will come on the back of painstaking work in the U.S., said Bensoussan.“Because the system of distribution is more geared toward the department stores in the U.S., you need to follow up constantly on sales,” he said. “There need to be trunk shows, personal appearances and advertising. In America, you can’t just dump product and expect it to sell.”

Bensoussan’s advice to an accessories brand with growth plans in the U.S. is twofold: “Have a good business relationship with at least one leading department store and open a flagship store as soon as you can in order to pass on your image to the public.”

Anya Hindmarch did just that, using wholesale accounts at Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue to make inroads into the market. She followed up with a flagship on New York’s East 60th Street, and now has stand-alone stores in cities including San Francisco, Miami and Dallas.

Hindmarch’s approach in the U.S. is no different from its worldwide strategy: focusing on details and personal service. The company has followed up its line of personalized, photo-covered bags with a collection made from handcrafted leathers or crocodile skins, with personalized love notes or messages inside.

Hindmarch’s sales and marketing director, Lisa Ephson, said the biggest difficulties in cracking the U.S. market were more practical than anything else.

“It’s building the shops,” she said. “Shop fits are much more expensive than in the U.K.”

Lulu Guinness is another brand that’s going strong in the U.S. market, although it has never advertised there. The brand now has 500 doors across the country in specialty and department stores, and two stand-alone stores, in New York and Los Angeles.

“I’ve really played the long game. I’ve never been an overnight success,” said Guinness, who founded her business 14 years ago. “I built a great relationship with Neiman Marcus. I’ve had the same bag buyer, for example, for the past eight years.”

Both Asprey and Tanner Krolle, two established British brands, are breaking into the market with different tactics.

Asprey is banking on its heritage. The brand, which opened a 20,000-square-foot store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan in December and is planning to open a similar unit on London’s Bond Street next month, has ambitious plans. Parent A&G has spent some $80 million on refurbishing and expanding the units.“I think what we can give the U.S. market is an alternative,” said Gianluca Brozzetti, ceo of A&G Group. “We can be contemporary and stylish with a touch of the eccentric and we have products that have that particular British functionality: You can buy luggage in leather or in canvas.”

Brozzetti added that Asprey is positioned in the heritage department, too.

“England is a country of ceremonies, royal and state receptions,” he said. “It’s a country where etiquette is very important and I think a luxury house can translate that tradition into product — cuff links, jewelry, leather goods.”

Tanner Krolle is taking a completely different approach. Although the company has been around for 150 years, it’s not focusing on its history.

“We like to see ourselves in that sexy, cool space where so few British brands are,” said ceo Guy Salter. “We’re very much going up against the Italians and the French luxury goods brands.”

Salter said he’s in a honeymoon phase with U.S. retailers right now and is expecting to be faced with real challenges further down the road.

“I feel like we’re the flavor of the month and for the moment, it’s very plain sailing,” he said. “But we’re still at stage one — although we’ve been at Bergdorf’s for a long time, we’ve never been there with women’s accessories. And I do realize this can’t last forever. As you grow, you become increasingly dependent on the market as a whole.”

Brozzetti said it’s crucial for British brands to project a clear image.

“The market is so accustomed to the Italian and French brands, which went global so much earlier,” he said. “For a long time, the British brands didn’t really leave London or tell the rest of the world that they even existed. Now, it’s up to us to tell the world who we are.”

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