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LONDON — Behind the headlines, the royal wedding hype, and the myriad accolades for its creative director Sarah Burton, the house of Alexander McQueen has been refashioning its image — and increasingly behaving like a luxury brand.
Over the past few months, McQueen has unveiled new, softer-edged store interiors — courtesy of the designer David Collins and Burton — and revealed plans to move its men’s wear onto Savile Row and its McQ line into Mayfair. The PPR-owned company is also putting a big emphasis on accessories — skull-printed silk scarves and Knuckle Box clutches are among the top sellers — and shifting its focus from wholesale to retail.
In an exclusive interview at the firm’s East End headquarters, chief executive officer Jonathan Akeroyd said the overarching goal is “to be known to be the best British luxury ready-to-wear brand, and we’re very much on track for that.”
The company has been on a dramatic journey since its namesake founder, Lee Alexander McQueen, committed suicide in February 2010 — and has emerged strong and optimistic about the future.
“The last two years have been something that I think most brands haven’t gone through in their lifetime. It’s been a very hectic time,” Akeroyd said. “We had a strong momentum going by late 2008, early 2009 when Lee was with us.
“With Lee’s passing we had a year of transition — and it went far better than we expected. We were so fortunate to have Sarah take over — it was almost seamless. It was a sad moment, but positive as well. We then planned to continue the momentum that we were experiencing when Lee was with us.”
The latest accounts from Companies House, the official register of businesses in the U.K., bear him out. For the year ended Dec. 31, 2010 — the year that McQueen died and Burton took over — the U.K. arm of the business, which oversees a fraction of McQueen’s retail and wholesale operations in the U.K., U.S. and Europe, had sales of 32.1 million pounds, or $50.4 million, and profits were 3.3 million pounds, or $5.2 million.
Those figures are the latest ones available from Companies House, and PPR does not break out separate numbers for its fashion brands.
“Through all of the sadness of Lee’s passing we all felt that he’d left us with so much. We saw opportunity through the sadness,” said Akeroyd. “Sarah should take a lot of the credit for the speed with which things have moved on. Our fortune was in having such an incredible successor to Lee.”
Last week, Queen Elizabeth II acknowledged Burton’s talents in her annual Birthday Honors list. Burton will receive an OBE, or Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, for her services to the fashion industry.
Now Akeroyd wants to build on the foundation that was established by McQueen himself and expanded on by Burton. Retail, which currently generates 30 percent of the business, is a major priority: “It’s time for us to realign and focus on retail, and ensure that the distribution mix is more balanced,” said Akeroyd. McQueen currently has 23 directly operated stores, six of which are flagships.
The Miami store, the first McQueen unit to open in four years, is the first to showcase the new interiors. The unit, which had a soft opening earlier this month, spans 2,000 square feet. It will be followed by a 3,000-square-foot store at the Reel Mall in Shanghai that will open in August, and a 2,500-square-foot location at the Elements Mall in Hong Kong later this year.
Following that, a 3,500-square-foot store will open in Hangzhou, China, in January, while a 1,800-square-foot unit is set for Highland Park in Dallas that same month. Finally, the brand’s Bond Street flagship will likely be refurbished with the new shop design in 2013. Akeroyd said the company plans to open four to five stores a year worldwide, and that finding a location in Paris — where the brand does not yet have a stand-alone store — is a big priority.
The company is looking for a good balance of geographic regions. “Growth won’t just be coming from Asia,” he said, adding that the U.K. and U.S. currently make up 40 percent of sales, with the balance coming from Western Europe, Russia and Asia.
The new store concept features marble floors, chandeliers, and molding on the walls that looks sweet from a distance. On closer examination, it appears to be crumbling — a typical McQueen Gothic flourish. The feel is far grander, and more feminine and luxurious, than the minimal, Space Age-y shop fit that McQueen unveiled 10 years ago.
In the new store, the brand’s best-selling silk skull-print scarves are on show in their own glass cases while the equally popular Knuckle Box clutches and Heroine and Folk handbags, as well as other accessories, are displayed on the walls. Akeroyd said that the accessories category, including jewelry, now generates 40 percent of the business, and the new shop fit reflects their growing importance.
The 2,500-square-foot men’s store at 9 Savile Row, which opens in September, will have similar interiors, and will stock rtw and accessories. As reported, McQueen will also be working with the Savile Row tailor Huntsman to offer a bespoke service called Huntsman at Alexander McQueen Savile Row. It will pair the McQueen silhouette and block with Huntsman’s expertise and will be available in a choice of fabric weights and designs. Men’s wear currently represents about 15 percent of the overall business, and Akeroyd said the aim is to “showcase and elevate men’s wear to the level of women’s.”
Akeroyd also talked about plans for McQ, the six-year-old contemporary label that’s getting its own stand-alone store in London later this summer. “It’s a real opportunity for us to create a brand-within-a-brand, and Alexander McQueen is the only brand within the PPR luxury group that is doing a contemporary line, and one that is produced outside Italy,” he said. McQ currently represents 20 percent of the McQueen business, and will remain wholesale-focused. Akeroyd said the company is mulling whether to show the McQ line once again during London Fashion Week.
The new McQ store, which will open on Dover Street and span 3,000 square feet, has also been designed by Collins, although it will have a harder, more “tech-y” edge, said Akeroyd. McQ also has its own area on the newly relaunched Alexander McQueen Web site. It can be accessed via the main page and has a full e-commerce offer.
The overall Web site was designed by the London-based Wednesday, and features runway videos and images, seasonal look books and pre-collections. It also has a separate scarf “boutique,” stocked with skull scarves, and others with exclusive color combinations and prints.
As for other plans, Akeroyd said now would be an ideal time to launch a fragrance. “But we’re going to take our time — we’re not rushing into anything. It would be the only brand extension that we’re thinking about right now,” he said. In early 2003, the company launched its first fragrance, Kingdom, and three years later a second scent, My Queen, was unveiled, but the fragrances had disappointing sales and are no longer distributed.
Akeroyd said the next two to three years will be busy ones. “It’s a question of keeping a focus on the product and keeping the momentum going,” he said. “But that’s a nice challenge to have.”