It may be 257 years old, but for Wolsey chief executive Fergus Patterson, the brand’s story starts right now.
“This is season zero for Wolsey” the brand’s chief executive Fergus Patterson asserts as he reclines in a comfortable, well lived-in antique leather chair in his new store on Brewer Street in London’s Soho. This may sound odd coming from the top dog at a brand that’s 257 years old (“the oldest menswear brand in the world” according to Patterson) but in a way he’s right.
Patterson arrived at the historic heritage brand back in January 2009 at a time when the Wolsey business was almost unrecognisable from what it is today - his predecessors had even lined up a national treasure to represent the brand. Through his suitably warm Scottish brogue he explains: “When I joined, the Alan Titchmarsh deal had been signed and obviously Wolsey was positioning itself with mid-priced, quite traditional, quality clothes for a conservative customer. I didn’t see a future in it - that’s a declining market.”
It took a couple of seasons but the jolly hardy perennial was swapped for green shoots of change as Patterson embarked on a new chapter for Wolsey. But his vision for what the brand should look like and where the brand should be had to deal with the sporadic and disparate nature of the companies trading under the Wolsey name all over the world, predominantly northern Europe and China. And it was the Scandinavian operation, at that time a separate subsidiary, that Patterson saw as the key to Wolsey’s future.
“The Scandinavian management team started the journey first: they brought Richard Bengtsson in as their creative director and started to improve the distribution. Then all of a sudden instead of selling in similar type shops to the UK they were in [Stockholm indies] NK, they were in Jupiter, they were in Grandpa - they got really good distribution very quickly and got a lot of traction. We wanted to do the same but in order to do it we had to have different owners.”
It was Wolsey’s then owner Matalan that Patterson thought was standing in his way; his attitude to it was at once bold but pragmatic.
“We had a parent company then who had no interest in investing in the brand and that’s why we looked for potential acquirers. The Matalan and Wolsey businesses were like oil and water - there was no synergy between them.”
He says Wolsey “had a lot of interest from overseas, particularly from China and Korea where we’ve got businesses that are quite premium” but, running a British brand, he was resistant to foreign ownership.
“Emotionally I wasn’t that happy about it. Luckily it was just about around that time that John [Hargreaves, owner of Matalan] started to take notice of what we were doing outside of Matalan probably because at that stage he was looking to sell it. I think he was looking at the fact that if he sold Matalan and we were still an integral part of it then we would have gone with Matalan to the new owner. I spoke to John about it and discussed what our plans were and he said, ‘I don’t want to sell it to the Chinese, I’m going to buy it.’”
Although Hargreaves subsequently failed to sell Matalan, he now owned Wolsey as a separate concern. This was a watershed for the brand, as Hargreaves’ and later his family’s investment in Wolsey signalled the moment it had the right team and right backers for where Patterson wanted to take it. The next step was the product, and again the Scandinavian operation led the way.
“What I saw in Scandinavia was absolutely right for the UK - if we could create the same model over here by bringing the two businesses together and get one person [Bengtsson] managing the collection, it would work.”
Wolsey UK acquired the Scandinavian subsidiary and in doing so brought the Swedish-designed 1755 range to a wider market. The 1755 range, named after the year Wolsey was founded, was the key to moving the business on because, as Bengtsson puts it: “Wolsey is the core line and, like a pyramid, 1755 sits on top. The way we design the collection is with the same DNA, the same trends but it’s just a little bit different. 1755 is more vintage tailoring, not as casual as Wolsey [the mainline] but the idea is to be able to mix it.”
Happily for Patterson, buyers have bought across both collections. Lee Fleming, store manager of Liverpool premium menswear indie Weavers Door, considers Wolsey to offer “finely crafted items, premium quality with a price structure that can suit all”, while Steve Monaghan, co-owner and buyer at heritage-focused menswear etailer The Great Divide, likes Wolsey for its attitude towards “style over fads - the knitwear and the outerwear silhouettes were spot on”. Adam Jagger, buying director at York indie Sarah Coggles thinks it’s important to stock “quality from brands with an extensive history” and, with autumn 12 sales up 300% season on season at Wolsey, it looks like the likes of Harvey Nichols, My-Wardrobe, London indie Present and more agree.
So with the set-up complete, Patterson’s mind now turns to adding to the brand’s annual sales of £70m, both home and abroad. And while the UK plans are more certain, it’s abroad, particularly in the Far East, where the strategy is still very much a work in progress. He says: “We have an operation in China which is very successful as a licence but it launched 20 years ago. They positioned us as almost a sportswear brand for golf [and] very premium, more premium than we intend to be in the UK. We want to be a democratic heritage brand as we put it, but in China we’re almost a luxury brand.”
In that market it sits alongside the likes of Dunhill, Pringle of Scotland and Ralph Lauren’s golf lines - the move towards what Wolsey represents in the UK will be less of a flicked switch and more a gradual progression: “What we want to do is over time morph from just doing golfwear to being a fashion brand. The biggest challenge with the Asian market will be where we pitch it price-wise, because that market is still quite polarised into premium and quite cheap, and the mid-market, which is probably the biggest market in every other developed country, isn’t as developed over there.”
However, Patterson thinks that mid-market is starting to grow, quoting Bestseller Group’s Jack & Jones and Vero Moda chains and H&M as leading the way in China in a market where “you either sold to people with very little money or you aimed at people with lots of money”. The key for Patterson and Wolsey’s development in the Far East is that “it’s easier to drift [customers] back slightly than it is to become a premium brand”.
This strategy won’t come without casualties, however. But Patterson remains focused on, as he puts it, “new Wolsey” and won’t stop even if tough decisions need to be made along the way.
“We will lose the customer base we have currently [in China] because they’re predominantly older, businessmen, 50-plus, lots of money, members of a golf club aspiring to wear European. That market is now contracting and there’s a whole new generation coming through that want to dress fashionably and that’s what we’ve got to aim at.”
This may sound foolhardy but it’s not an alien concept to Patterson, who faced a similar situation in Wolsey’s home market post-Titchmarsh. “When we started the repositioning of Wolsey in the UK we lost pretty much 100% of our distribution that we were selling to just two years ago,” he says.
“From autumn 12 I think something like 90% of our customers that are selling Wolsey are different to the customers that were selling Wolsey two years ago, and I guess it’ll happen in other markets where we’ll have to make that change as well.”
Patterson by his own admittance tends to be cautious as he presents his wares to a new audience but he’s not going to let that get in the way of growing his wholesale accounts, which currently make up about 67% of the business, in Scandinavia, Benelux and the US, where a chance association with the well-respected Nick Wooster, former fashion director of US department stores Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus, resulted in the brand being showcased at Las Vegas trade show Project. The response was encouraging, so much so that plans to sell in the US were brought forward by two years.
With Asia about “two to three years away”, the focus for the short term is the UK and Sweden where, like the brand’s Monmouth Street pop-up store in Covent Garden (which is doing so well it’s being kept open with a view to a permanent store), Wolsey is “looking potentially at getting a pop-up” in Stockholm, with Manchester and Newcastle on the radar for the UK.
But for the minute the focus is on Wolsey’s Brewer Street store, the perfect home for Wolsey’s “season zero”.
Jan 2009 Chief executive, Wolsey
2007-08 Managing director, Morgan UK
2004-07 Retail operations director, TJ Hughes
2002-04 Retail bank director, Barclays
1995-2002 Retail operations director, WHSmith - Travel