A Brit of all right

Craftsmanship, individuality and wit: the hallmarks of British style once again have the luxury consumer in thrall. Why now, asks Lucia van der Post.

Image: Chris Burke

Ah, Britishness; once, the very word was a signifier of luxury. How the names associated with it resonated around the world – Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Savile Row, Fortnum & Mason, Norman Hartnell, John Lobb. But at some point towards the end of the last century, something happened and it lost its glamour. The very notion began to seem old-fashioned, immured in the past, lacking the sexiness and desirability synonymous with other countries such as Italy and France.

Not that Britain was short of innovative small companies (Lulu Guinness and Philip Treacy, to name just two), but very few seemed to have the commercial legs that could turn them into serious global players. While they remained mostly modest in size and ambition, behemoths Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Prada, Hermès and Ralph Lauren strutted their stuff on the world stage, growing in size, confidence and profitability.

But now, at last, Britishness seems to be in favour again. Companies such as Burberry (revenues up 29 per cent in the past six months alone), Mulberry (profits up an extraordinary 358 per cent year ending March 31) and Paul Smith (profits up 18 per cent in 2010, the most recent figures available at the time of going to press) are on a roll. Rolls-Royce, where sales were up 41 per cent between January and September 2011, is expanding its manufacturing plant at Goodwood in Sussex and making its first move into the South American market. “We believe the time is right,” says Richard Carter, director of global communications for Rolls-Royce. “We’re finding in the rising economies such as China, Russia and Brazil that there’s a deep fascination with British brands.”

Similarly, Mulberry has expanded its factory capacity in Somerset by 30 per cent and is planning to open another. Brand director Georgia Fendle sums up the mood: “Historically, the popularity of all things British comes and goes in waves. Just now Britishness is definitely having a moment. Sometimes the British have struggled to express their national identity, but when they do it with intelligence, with wit and with credibility, then it seems to strike a chord around the world.”

But what’s really at work in the collective unconscious of many customers is a legacy of elegance, good taste and generations of classy codes that they think Britain stands for. Though, when it comes to the wit, Fendley points out that it can be a double-edged sword. Not everybody always “gets” it: “Sometimes, some of the foreign fashion editors – the Americans in particular – think we’re very eccentric. When, for instance, we showed one of our collections in a ballroom in Claridge’s and filled the room with 6,000 inflatable animals, you could see the American editors looking a bit nonplussed. It couldn’t happen in Manhattan. But today a brand that can deliver a good dose of British values with honesty and exuberance and a bit of humour is going to do well.”

Brown agate scarf by Richard Weston, £205 from Liberty.
Brown agate scarf by Richard Weston, £205 from Liberty.

For its part, the British Fashion Council has done a fantastic job in supporting young talent. Designers such as Christopher Kane, Erdem, Mary Katrantzou and Roksanda Ilincic are proving the kind of draw at British Fashion Week that has attracted back the heavy-hitters with their big bucks from the swanky stores in the United States. “The big American stores,” says handbag supremo Anya Hindmarch, a non-executive director at the BFC, “find they need London’s edgy creativity to give life and zip to their floors and the proof is that they’re selling.” These young designers, trained at British fashion schools and mentored by the BFC, are every bit as quirky and as creative as Brits have ever been, but the difference now, says Hindmarch, “is that they have commercial savvy as well. They deliver on time and have good quality control.”

Then there’s Barbour, an old-established country brand, which has collaborated with a series of very “of the moment” designers such as Hindmarch and Alice Temperley and, most particularly, the Japanese Tokihito Yoshida, and is now so in demand that Anne Pitcher, managing director of Selfridges, the London department store, says she “can scarcely keep it in stock, so fast is it selling. It’s gone back to the original icon, its core DNA, and developed the brand from there, and our customers just snap it up.” Over at Barbour’s headquarters, figures confirm the success story – turnover rose 20 per cent from £74.8m in 2009 to £89.9m in 2010.

The smaller and quirkier brands that foreigners have come to love – Smythson (sales up 40 per cent in 2011), Anya Hindmarch (profit more than doubled in 2010), and Alexander McQueen (although figures are not published, the company claims “a jump” in revenue for the third quarter of 2011) – are embedding themselves ever more firmly in the public’s affections. At Dunhill, the artisanal nature of its bespoke range and its slightly quirky English take on classic menswear is making strong inroads into other markets (in particular, Japan), so much so that over the past five years it has shown double-digit growth year on year.

Pitcher senses a growing feeling that all things British now have an appeal and a status that they didn’t have before. “We see a huge global traffic in our store, people come from all around the world. Foreigners love the pomp, the splendour, the clear sense of tradition they find here, combined with quality that they perceive as being an essential part of Britishness. I think the royal wedding and having a popular young royal couple has helped, and Sarah Burton doing the wedding dress, as well as the big exhibition of Alexander McQueen’s work in New York, have raised McQueen’s profile even higher, while our customers have always loved Vivienne Westwood. We ourselves [at Selfridges] have been sensing this rise of interest and so we’re planning a concept store given over entirely to all things British.”

Everywhere one turns, one sees Britishness being celebrated – on television, fans are still mourning the loss of Sunday evening’s Downton Abbey (which has been sold to more than 200 territories around the world), Meryl Streep is playing Margaret Thatcher on film, and Jo Malone, having sold her brand to Estée Lauder in 1999, recently launched Jo Loves, another fragrance brand that promises to be as innovative as Jo Malone was when it began. In March (until mid-August) the V&A is mounting a major exhibition showcasing the best of British design between 1948 and 2012. Then, of course, there are the royal diamond jubilee celebrations coming up, followed by the Olympics.


Caoimhe Buckley, managing director of marketing and communications for UK Trade & Investment, says that Thomas Heatherwick’s wonderful building at the Shanghai Expo and the exhibitors who showed their wares there really changed perceptions of the UK in the minds of the 80m visitors. They saw British innovation for themselves and if you add in a reputation for quality and heritage, it’s no wonder many British brands are doing well there. “The fast-expanding middle class in China is growing in sophistication and is now looking beyond the obvious brands for the quirky and the interesting, brands that can deliver both the quality that they’ve long associated with things British as well as the new creativity.”

“The British have a knack for creating quirky brands that really stand out,” adds Julia Carrick, chief executive of luxury lobby group Walpole. “The amount of new young talent that has been emerging from Britain over the past few years has been quite extraordinary, from online jeweller Astley Clarke to luxury watch brand Bremont, men’s shoe designer Mr Hare and exciting young British fashion designers such as Osman Yousefzada and Zoë Jordan. We have seen applications for our Walpole Brands of Tomorrow mentoring programme soar.”

In addition, under-the-radar brands with long and splendid histories – Breanish Tweed in the Outer Hebrides, The Gainsborough Silk Weaving Company in Suffolk, for instance – are being rediscovered and revitalised. Deborah Meaden, of BBC2’s Dragons’ Den fame, has invested in Fox Brothers, a wonderful producer of quality cloth based in Somerset, that during the first world war produced 852 miles of fabric for the British army. In its heyday, it employed some 5,000 people, but by the time Meaden discovered it there were just 18 employees.

Yet Meaden is so excited by what she has found that she has started an ancillary business, The Merchant Fox, which sells online and is devoted to products that are entirely British. Fox Brothers flannel is used to make beautiful dressing gowns in collaboration with Budd of Mayfair. Then she found one of the last oak tanners in the country and is using English bridle leather to make handbags, men’s bags and iPad covers. “The cows are English, the leather is tanned in an English tannery, the products are made by English hands, the brass is made in Birmingham,” she says. She’s found a company that makes willow baskets, and she’s got it to make wonderful laundry baskets for The Merchant Fox from the last commercial willow beds in the UK.

When Claudia Marodim arrived in London from Brazil, she was dismayed to find that there wasn’t a shop or website devoted to British goods, so she started a website of her own, Go-British. “I knew I had to have Lulu Guinness; for me she sums up what I love about the British – witty, different, quirky,” she says. Trawl the site and you’ll find a host of gorgeous things, some well-known brands but others little-known treasures.

Avon post bag, £660, and chalkstripe limited-edition chair, £900, from The Merchant Fox.
Avon post bag, £660, and chalkstripe limited-edition chair, £900, from The Merchant Fox.

Under the Anglophile section, she has written what is almost a love letter to Britain. “As you may have gathered by now, we are head over heels in love with all things British here and that, by definition, makes us proud Anglophiles.” She finds that “there’s something mad, bad and dangerous about the true Brit. At one end there is resolute conservatism and at the other end the unashamed libertine. The bold and the beautiful, and those not afraid to be individual. A nation with a true love of personal expression constantly drawing on a rich tapestry of history and cultural traditions.” This tradition is personified by people such as Michael Lewis, the shoemaker who has designed for a raft of starry houses (Versace, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Tom Ford) and is now bringing out his own brand of colourful shoes that will be sold at Dover Street Market and Harvey Nichols. There’s lots happening on the beauty front, too – Nicky Kinnaird, founder of Space NK, was inspired to start Beautannia, a British brand (which I wrote about here last November) because when she looked around there was nobody doing it on a big scale. Meanwhile, Amanda Connock is conjuring up visions of English lavender fields with her range of lotions and potions called Connock London.

Some of this is, of course, a reaction against the uniformity that has overtaken the high streets of the world. It’s part of a counter-movement that is identifying with the small and the individual. TS Eliot’s wonderful remark about literature – the more provincial (rooted in specifics) a literature, the more it might aspire to universality – could just as truthfully be applied to products: the more they have of a particular identity, the more deeply rooted in a specific culture and tradition, the more likely they are to reflect something deeply appealing that speaks across the oceans. It is that thing called “soul” which is what the consumers around the world, who aren’t busy scouring the high street for bargains, are looking for. And to have this elusive “soul”, a brand has to have real values, proper provenance, roots and a story to tell. When the Brits do it well, they do it brilliantly.

It’s interesting that sometimes it takes a foreigner to see what’s so great about being British. I well remember talking to Rose Marie Bravo when she was busy reinventing Burberry and she was excited by its Britishness at a time when the British themselves saw it as boring. It took her and Roberto Menichetti, the Italian-American designer at the time, and as much of an Anglophile as she was, to bring the company back to life.

Ed Burstell, an American who is now managing director of the London department store Liberty, which has always leveraged Britishness as one of its great themes, is convinced something new is in the air. “I see a lot of companies bringing their manufacturing back to this country. Now that China, for instance, has become so successful, prices are becoming higher, there are often delays and some orders get pushed to the back of the line. I see many customers who want to own a piece of something British, and they’re willing to pay a premium price for it. With our British Open Call initiative [where any designer with a product to sell is guaranteed a chance to show it], we uncover really wonderful things. Richard Weston, who came in with scarves, is a prime example – we’d never heard of him before, now we do between £200,000 and £300,000 worth of business a year with him.”

The key question is how many of these small emerging players can be transformed into global brands. Some have already been acquired by non-British companies, though they retain their quintessential Britishness (indeed, that is what their owners exploit). What the Brits seem to do best is the small, individual and craft-based, and though a few brands do carry serious international clout, they are the exceptions. But for the moment changing tastes seem to be running in Britain’s favour. Throw in a bit of heritage and real quality and this year could be an interesting one for all the things that UK plc does best.