LONDON — Amy Powney has an ambitious vision for Mother of Pearl to grow and establish the label as a pioneer in the U.K. contemporary market, where affordable luxury brands are rare.
She has been embracing an agile approach for the label, which was founded in 2002 by Maia Norman, who was married to Damien Hirst at the time. Norman still owns the label.
Digital initiatives aimed squarely at the customer, a new see-now-buy-now show format and a shift to producing just two collections per year are some of the most recent changes she has been spearheading in response to the ever-changing retail landscape and the impact of social media.
She has also diversified the brand’s offer beyond printed pieces — established as a signature when the label was launched — to include denim, accessories and sporty, every day pieces often updated with feminine pearl embellishments.
Through a recent collaboration with Prism, Powney is also testing the swimwear category. Last month, she teamed with the British resortwear label to launch a capsule of one-piece swimsuits, bikinis and leather sandals featuring a series of abstract prints that will be stocked in Harrods, Selfridges and Soho Farmhouse.
Given the brand’s win at last month’s BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund awards, where it was nominated for the second time, the industry seems to stand behind Powney’s shift in gear.
“We went through a generation of the megabrand and the one-stop shop. What social media did is make the world a much smaller place and allow smaller, niche brands to speak directly to the customer. Now customers are inundated by-product, they are excited by it all and shopping around a lot more,” Pawney said. “That’s why we moved to making two collections per year. People might buy one of our collections and then buy from somebody else; they have four budgets per year and they can move around,” she added, highlighting that the brand works with its retail partners to ensure frequent drops that give customers the newness they are constantly seeking.
Powney employed a similarly pragmatic approach when it came to her decision to jump on the see-now-buy-now bandwagon, following the likes of Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, Rebecca Minkoff and Ralph Lauren.
“I’m a logical thinker; I guess I’m a bit of an engineer in some ways and for me, it doesn’t make sense to showcase the product on social media with the noise that the Internet gives and then not let the customers buy it,” the designer said.
Even though the new model does give rise to a series of new issues and many designers, most famously Tom Ford, have opted out after one season, Powney is determined to stick with her decision and give the new model a try.
“I think the hardest part of see-now-buy-now is designing something and waiting to show it. In the meantime, you might see another designer showing something very similar. That would be the reason I’d go back [to the traditional show format] but right now we are just going to try it,” she said. “For me it makes logical sense. It’s about what’s relevant and what’s contemporary. We’re a contemporary brand, talking to modern people.”
Even though the concept of see-now-buy-now is modern, Powney also sees the romanticized, traditional aspect of it harking back to the Twenties when French couture houses invited customers to intimate presentations in their ateliers. That’s why she wants to return to the traditional salon show format for the label’s first buy-now show, which will take place in the fall.
A preview of the upcoming fall 2017 collection suggests a lineup that blends the brand’s signature sporty silhouettes with feminine ruffles and moody floral patterns inspired by 19th-century Renaissance artists, Caravaggio in particular, and their need to return to nature following the industrial revolution.
The brand’s extensive network of retail partners also seems to be benefitting from the new show format. “The only thing that changed for our retailers is that they don’t have a show to attend during market season. They are thrilled because they can then use the promotion of the show to support selling to the customers,” Powney said.
Mother of Pearl is stocked at some 90 retailers worldwide including Net-a-porter, Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Harvey Nichols and La Rinascente. The U.S. is one of the company’s strongest markets with South Korea showing the biggest signs of growth.
Even though Powney said “the brand wouldn’t be anywhere without the retailers,” she is simultaneously focusing her efforts on building the brand’s e-commerce channel and promoting it through a series of digital initiatives — including the launch of a short film online — to speak to the customer directly. She said the shift to online commerce and social media has been one of the brand’s greatest successes.
Powney hasn’t always been so open to the digital world, coming from the last generation of designers who did not rely on computers at college. It was Farfetch’s brand and strategy director Susanne Tide-Frater, who urged the designer to take that route, during the process of the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund contest.
“Susanne highlighted that Mother of Pearl has a contemporary vision given the price point and the product. It’s about what we want to wear now and what Millennial women are thinking about,” Powney said. “But there was a contradiction with the way [the brand] approached social media or e-commerce. Now I’m running with it and I love it.”
She now plans to use the 200,000 pounds, or $258,000, prize from the fund to increase brand awareness through more such digital initiatives and to travel around the world the get a firsthand experience of the brand’s customers in different markets.
She sees the award as an effort by the British fashion industry to stand behind labels in the advanced contemporary market.
“If you go to Italy there’s MSGM and No. 21, in Paris you have Kenzo, Carven and Acne while in New York the contemporary market is so vibrant,” the designer said. “Here, it’s a battle to be that brand because you have no one to sit next to. The award was so valuable because it was a response to that.”
Despite the lack of buzz around contemporary labels in London, Powney remains set on keeping the British capital as the label’s base.
“I’m British, so it just makes sense for me to be based here. I’d like to make it work here and be a pioneer in this category rather than the outcast.”
Politics and the effects of Brexit and the weak pound, which saw brands having to pay up to 20 percent more for materials sourced in Europe over the past 12 months, could be one of the only reasons Powney would consider relocating.
“We are on the higher end of the contemporary category. If we increase the prices then we are in no man’s land. We’re neither contemporary nor luxury,” said the designer who is trying to face the new circumstances with smart designs and fabric choices.
As for producing in England, Powney pointed to the lack of infrastructure in the U.K.’s manufacturing industry, with local manufacturers costing more, without the capacity to handle high quantities. “I don’t believe in Brexit as we don’t have the infrastructure to support manufacturing in this country,” she said.