By  on August 13, 2007

LONDON — Aquascutum is ready for its comeback.

The British brand will return to the U.S. this fall with a limited edition collection of coats and trenches inspired by designs from the Thirties through the Fifties, including pieces worn by past clients such as Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn and Sophia Loren. The collection, Aquascutum Vintage, will be sold in the U.S. exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman, and will hit the shop floor in mid-August.

The American relaunch is a key plank in Aquascutum's revitalization plan, which is being overseen by Kim Winser, its president and chief executive officer who joined the British company in spring 2006. Winser's goal is to turn Aquascutum into another major luxury player, and to more than double sales from its current 220 million pounds, or $440 million at current exchange, to 250 million, or $505 million, by early 2010, with the most growth coming from women's wear and accessories.

She has her work cut out for her, as even she admitted in an exclusive interview: "There was no energy left. The brand had lost its pace."

Aquascutum is a traditional British brand — with all the pluses and minuses. While it is more than 150 years old — the brand was founded in 1851 and became known for its tailoring and performance fabrics — it also for years has had a musty image that was far from fashionable. Even though there have been repeated attempts over the last 15 years to revamp the brand, they all failed as management either left or its Japanese owner, Renown, pulled back investment to focus on its core Japanese operations. This led to contradictions, Winser said: "The brand had a huge global appeal, but no global structure. Each market was handled locally."

The company's stuck-in-amber condition was even more galling to some, given that its longtime rival in the British trenchcoat business — Burberry — was being successfully reborn as a global luxury player under American ceo Rose Marie Bravo.

And what Winser found on her arrival at Aquascutum was reminiscent of the situation Bravo inherited. On Winser's first day at work, she took one look at her office and thought, "No way." Her new space was in The City, London's financial district, and nowhere near the brand's flagship on Regent Street (just as Burberry's headquarters used to be in Hackney, in east London, miles away from its then-flagship on Haymarket).But the dynamic Winser wasted no time. The next day she moved into the Regent Street store — the staff quickly carved out some space in the upstairs archive room for her. The switch enabled her to start connecting with customers on the shop floor, and decide how to save the brand.

It helped that she'd been in this situation before. Winser was lured to Aquascutum from the British brand Pringle, which she helped convert from a producer of dowdy golfwear into a luxury brand. She even was awarded an Order of the British Empire honor from Queen Elizabeth II for her work there.

And, just as at Pringle, Winser quickly grabbed the Aquascutum organization by its boot straps and gave it a firm shake-up. Over the past year, she's been overhauling the brand to mold it into a global luxury goods company.

Aquascutum still does the bulk of its business in Japan and the U.K., and its biggest category is men's wear, but Winser is setting out to change all that. In addition to pulling the design, product, logistics, marketing and pricing under one roof, she's begun the move into new markets — including the U.S. — inked licenses, launched new collections, hired an accessories designer and unveiled an ad campaign starring Gisele Bündchen and Jamie Dornan.

"We haven't just done some icing," she said, sitting in her dark, wood-paneled office, which still houses some of the company's extensive archives. "We are building a substantial, global luxury brand from a top-quality name with a wonderful heritage. For the first time, we're designing for a global market, and we are actively thinking about our customers' lifestyles and needs."

That is why the relaunch at Bergdorf Goodman is so important to the brand. Aquascutum's last New York store closed in 2000, but Winser said the market has the potential to generate at least 20 percent of overall business over the next two to three years. She plans to open a flagship in New York down the road.

The fabrics in the Vintage collection include napa leather, duchesse satin and double cashmere, and the styles are sexy and dramatic. The liquid, belted trenches look more like dressing gowns, while the trenchcoat dresses are low-cut and curvy."Vintage is the diamond of the brand, the top of the pyramid. It says who we are, and it communicates our luxury positioning," said Winser, who plans to introduce the full women's ready-to-wear and accessories collections to the U.S. for spring 2008.

For accessories, Winser has hired designer Sara Porro, who had been working at Tod's for the past six years and with Anna Fendi before that. Porro will remain based in Italy, and her first collection for Aquascutum will be for spring. Porro will be working alongside rtw designers Michael Herz and Graeme Fidler on the collections.

A women's shoe collection will bow for fall 2008, to be produced under license by Antichi Pellettieri, which makes footwear and accessories for Missoni and Vivienne Westwood, among others. Antichi Pellettieri also will be making the bags and small leather goods for the company. Accessories currently account for about 3 percent of sales, and Winser believes that figure could shoot to 20 percent in the midterm.

Winser is already in talks with licensees for fragrance, watch and eyewear lines. "It's going to take a while, and I'm not going to choose just anybody. We're going in at the top," she said.

In addition to securing the Antichi Pellettieri license for men's and women's shoes, bags and small leather goods, Winser earlier this year inked a license with Novaseta, the accessories company owned by Ermenegildo Zegna, to produce ties and scarves.

Winser is also taking the brand into Europe, Russia and the Middle East, with plans for flagships in Paris and Milan. Aquascutum's biggest markets right now are Britain, Japan, China and Hong Kong. The brand has flagships on Regent Street in London and in Tokyo, and another 160 stores and shop-in-shops in Japan. It has 80 stores and shop-in-shops in Hong Kong, Mainland China and South Korea.

For fall, Winser also will be introducing a women's personal tailoring service, which she hopes to take to the U.S. next year. "We already do it for men, and the service for women is really needed in London," she said.

Customers can have dresses, suits and coats made with their choices of fabric, linings and buttons, with prices starting at about 700 pounds, or $1,400, for a suit. Winser said the company already has tailors on site and aims to deliver to customers' homes or offices in two weeks' time.Winser sees Aquascutum as a "truly sartorial brand," and believes that fabric is its key point of difference in the market. Indeed, 95 percent of the fabrics in the collections are exclusive to the brand. Herz and Fidler have updated the company's patented Aqua 5 fabric, a waterproof fabric first launched in 1959. Some of the Aquascutum Vintage designs are made from Aqua 5. The designers have seam-sealed coat and suiting fabrics, which means even the cashmere overcoats will be as airtight as yachting wear. They've also developed Aquamacs, which are full-sized, belted trenches that fold into a pocket-sized pouch.

"Fabric innovation is at the heart of Aquascutum," said Winser.

She said the hurdles in her new job are completely different from the old ones at Pringle. "There, we were building the foundations of a business. Aquascutum is already built. It's now about developing the product and getting the right people in place."

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