What a difference six months makes. For Mulberry, the handbag brand currently saddled with the prefix “troubled”, 2014 will ultimately go down as a year to forget – but there are green shoots. “Jungle” green shoots, to be precise, and a soft cow leather, chain-handle bag that goes by the name of Mini Lily.
Mini Lily, £350, is the leading lady in Mulberry’s strategy to claw back customers repelled by their former CEO, Bruno Guillon’s attempt to turn the Somerset-based brand into a “British Hermès”, peddling bags for over £1,500. Guillon exited in March 2014, hot on the heels of Emma Hill, their head designer responsible for six years’ worth of hit bags (the Alexa, the Del Rey, the Willow) and well-received ready-to-wear collections, who resigned in June 2013.
Mulberry’s strategy, in line with other luxury brands, has been to combat shrivelling share prices and falling profits with a range of mid-priced bags hovering around the relatively accessible £450 mark. And while today’s annual report contains some bruising figures – pre-tax profit in the last financial year fell from £14m to £1.9m, with total revenue down 9 per cent to £148.7m – Godfrey Davis, Mulberry’s chairman, insisted things are looking up.
“If I’m being pedantic, the results are slightly better than people expected,” said Davis, pointing to a retail sales rise of one per cent for the year, up nine per cent in the second half (and down by the same percentage in the first.). He also drew attention to the encouraging sign that total retail sales for the 10 weeks to 6 June were up 17 per cent.
“The surprise, perhaps, is the current tradings, as people won’t have realised how well that has progressed. They show our strategy is working, and that we’ve made major inroads to regain our core UK customers. The trend is consistent and improving, as you can see in the last ten weeks. And we’re entering an exciting period with a new chief executive, and a new creative director joining in under a month.”
Davis was speaking to the Telegraph flanked by Thierry Andretta, previously boss of the Italian jewellery brand Buccellati, who took up the role of CEO in April of this year. Johnny Coca, the Spanish designer poached from Céline, will start on July 8.
He’s right to be excited: Coca was the fashion insiders’ choice, responsible for the endlessly emulated Trapeze and Trio bags, signature pochettes and skater shoes that persuaded fashion editor after fashion editor to abandon their stilettos. A rise in sales combined with a knack for cult hits that maintained Céline’s exclusive status made Coca hot property – and the perfect choice for one of the most high profile jobs in British fashion.
Andretta, still finding his feet at Mulberry, admitted it was early days: “It is difficult to talk about Johnny because we haven’t spent any time for him. But he is one of the best professional talents in design, across the categories, which is important. What we are doing here now is to really understand how we can organise things when he comes on board. I think we have a great, super professional, young, talented team who can really help him build a new momentum for Mulberry.”
Coca will continue to live in Paris, commuting regularly to London and Somerset, where 50 per cent of the bags are manufactured, and will work closely with a team of around 20. “I don’t know exactly how many staff – I haven’t been here that long!” Andretta joked.
So will Coca launch his career, all guns blazing, with a stellar catwalk show in September? Absolutely not, says Andretta. “It would be impossible to welcome someone with his creativity and his talent and oblige him to show something that he had had no time to design and prepare. So we won’t have any show in September, we might do a small event just communicating Mulberry, but not a specific collection, we will have no product coming out in September for ready-to-wear.”
One thing is clear: expect more (relatively) accessibly-priced handbags. “In spring/summer 2014, 45 per cent of our bags were under £1,000. Today, about 71 per cent are under £1,000, and that will increase to about 80 per cent,” Davis said.
The real push is on bags priced between £300-£500 – otherwise known as the mini bag market. Tiddly, youthful, mini-me versions of bigger bags, such as the miniatureBlossom Pochette, £275, and the aforementioned Mini Lily, £350, come in a range of eye-catching colours, not to mention prices.
“The under £500 [bag category] numbers about 5 per cent [of the collection] at the moment and it’s shortly to be around 16 per cent. We’ve come up with some really good-looking small versions of our bags, and they’ve been really popular. There are some really nice things in there coming in the shops in the next two or three months,” said Davis.