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Export directions: Asia's growing markets for British labels

Demand for British menswear is growing in Asia, says Penrose London’s Michael Whitby-Grubb.

British premium menswear brands are increasing their presence in the Far East as demand for “quality heritage” product rises in Asian markets.

Speaking to Drapers after an exhaustive five-month sales trip to 11 markets around the world, Michael Whitby-Grubb, commercial director of luxury accessories label Penrose London, says South Korea, Japan and China are all growing markets for British labels.

“The Japanese market is re-emerging; it was in poor shape. It is now starting to see growth and the potential for British brands there is significant. Vietnam and Indonesia are also ones to watch as investment in infrastructure in those regions continues to increase. As the local population gets wealthier the big players are starting to move in.”

Whitby-Grubb adds that the popularity of British labels in Asia is due to the quality of the product and the history of craftsmanship surrounding the UK menswear industry: “Asian consumers warm to British brands that are unique, exclusive and not mass-produced. They love the heritage of British labels. The ethics behind brands such as Penrose London are also very important for export markets.”

And Whitby-Grubb has seen the demand first-hand. Penrose London launched in South Korea for autumn 13 and will enter Japan for spring 14, and the business anticipates the two markets will account for 30% of the brand’s business in the next 12 to 18 months.

However, the brand, which is already stocked by luxury department store operator Lane Crawford in its store in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong, will not expand further into China just yet. “The large population and spending power means China is of huge interest but it’s still early days for us there,” says Whitby-Grubb. “You have to find the right partners who are going to represent the brand in the right way.”

Penrose London, which is stocked in Harrods and Selfridges and independents including Jules B in Newcastle and Pockets in Shrewsbury, was one of 23 British brands to exhibit at the first edition of Hong Kong trade show The Hub in August.

Whitby-Grubb describes the show as a fact-finding experience and has plans to return for The Hub’s second edition, which will take place at AsiaWorld-Expo in Hong Kong from February 25-27, 2014. Trade shows such as The Hub are essential for the industry, Whitby-Grubb says: “Buyers need to find out what is new on the market and brands need to showcase their product.”

Penrose London’s Asian expansion follows in the wake of a wave of overseas growth for UK menswear brands and retailers. Asia is top of the agenda for Arcadia’s menswear fascia Burton, which trades as Burton Menswear London internationally. It makes its first moves into Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia this autumn.

Paul Smith relaunched its business in China in May 2012. Its eponymous founder had previously said the Chinese market was “extremely dangerous” due to its high rents and because the majority of the population only want “clothes to cover their bodies”, and the business pulled out of China in 2007 due to undisclosed losses. However, after signing a partnership deal with Hong Kong distribution company ImagineX to open 24 stores in the country by 2017, Paul Smith now has eight stores in China.

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