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Writing a new chapter

Wil Beedle is keen to spread the gospel that All Saints is back on track in his first interview since becoming chief creative director.

In his first media interview since being appointed to the newly created role of chief creative director at the embattled All Saints, Wil Beedle appears decidedly undaunted at the prospect of presiding over the retailer’s collections.

No one would blame him if he felt the pressure. After all, All Saints’ high-profile troubles have been the subject of much media attention in the fashion industry over the past couple of years – the business almost filed for administration in May last year, only to be rescued by a consortium led by private equity firm Lion Capital. Then, in September of the same year, All Saints was faced with the shock resignation of chief executive Stephen Craig amid an alleged falling out with chairman Kevin Stanford.

“I think for those who are defined and obsessed by the perfection of the creative instinct, it doesn’t matter necessarily whether it is a high-profile, low-profile or any profile business,” explains the former Cambridge English literature graduate, who clearly still has a way with words. “What matters is delivering something with conviction and passion and deliberation and accuracy.”

Beedle, who was formerly menswear design director, was promoted to chief creative director in June, with responsibility for the creative direction of both menswear and womenswear, following the departure of womenswear design director Hannah Coffin earlier this year. An All Saints loyalist, he has been with the business almost from day one, having joined nine years ago. He tells Drapers that the east London office in which we are sitting is a far cry from the business’s humble beginnings. “There were four of us at the beginning, and we only had three chairs and two computers,” he says. “It was a very different environment to the one we see today with almost 250 people employed here in the East End and 2,500 employed globally.”

Beedle’s passion for product obviously hasn’t waned and he is quick to take Drapers through pictures of the autumn 12 collection, the first in which both menswear and womenswear has been designed under his directorship. “What we have tried to achieve is something that looks like All Saints but also looks new. If you look at what is iconic to us, which is silhouettes with the attribution of inventive and innovative morphologies, we have here things that ought to be All Saints and now are,” he says.

In other words, Beedle has not tried to reinvent what is iconic to All Saints but has tried to evolve the collection so there are greater synergies between the genders and, as he puts it, “a greater brand impact as a result of that”.

Beedle’s vision makes Lyndon Lea, partner at private equity firm Lion Capital, which acquired All Saints for £105m, happy. “We don’t want to reinvent the product, otherwise why would we have bought All Saints?” says Lea. “We think the product has a very distinct and strong handwriting but we do think it is time to move the product on, particularly in women’s.”

One of the key criticisms levelled at All Saints’ collection in recent years was the constant product repeats, to which a former employee admits. “I think that’s because Stephen [Craig] liked to revisit the back catalogue,” she explains.

However, Lea counters the criticism by saying “our numbers tell us everything we need to know about how our product is viewed”.

He adds: “We’ve been doing very well in men’s, but over the past couple of years women’s has flattened out more and when we talk to our customer she is telling us that she loves our product but she is not seeing enough change from season to season. We are a fashion brand, we are not a fashion follower, so it is important that we offer our customer newness.”

Thumbing through a copy of the autumn 12 lookbook, Beedle adds: “The most dangerous thing to do would be to be retrospective and I think you can see quite clearly from what we have here that it is about as far from a greatest hits package as you can imagine.”

While Beedle chooses to remain tight-lipped on anything relating to the business’s financial position, Lea is slightly more forthcoming and admits that the problems experienced by the retailer prior to Lion Capital’s acquisition last year cannot simply be attributed to product or, indeed, a failure to sell that product.

In the full year to the end of January 2011, All Saints reported a profit dip of 9% to £21.5m against a 57% increase in turnover to £208.6m, although Lea says that even these figures do not represent a true picture of what was really going on at the time. “We entered the business in May 2011 and at that time it was about to file for administration and clearly a cash-generative, profitable business is not about to file for administration,” he says, adding that All Saints was losing money, had poor gross margins and a cash crisis.

“Turnover was up so much in those numbers because a bunch of new stores had been opened, particularly in the US, but the buying side of that was all wrong,” says Lea. “The company was far too optimistic in its outlook and ended up with a lot of stock, which led to a cash crisis and then they couldn’t pay suppliers, suppliers didn’t ship stock, stock was coming in at the wrong time of the year and it was a vicious circle, which obviously led to a dramatic down draft in gross margin.”

“They definitely had a tendency to overbuy,” adds the former All Saints employee. “The other issue was that although they were really innovative and ahead of their time in terms of the design direction, they didn’t move things on enough and the high street caught up.”

Lea assures Drapers that Lion Capital’s number one priority after acquiring All Saints was to get the business back on track during the first 18 months of its ownership, and that, 14 months in, he believes the business is definitely on schedule to meet that target.

As for Beedle, the future of All Saints is all about “attitude” and making the product, and the quality and versatility of that product, the hero in every environment.

“I think our goal is to continue to delight and excite and at times surprise our consumers,” says Beedle. And from what Drapers saw of the autumn 12 collection, All Saints’ customers are likely to be pleasantly surprised.

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