Extending Lyle & Scott’s reach beyond that of retired bankers on the golf course sparked a menswear phenomenon, but the managing director behind the idea is teeing up to drive the brand even further
How does a golf-casual brand transform itself from comedian Ronnie Corbett’s favourite choice of pullover into a coveted must-have in both the playground and the pub?
Ricky Wilson, singer with indie rock cheese-mongers the Kaiser Chiefs, could be to blame. Or maybe it’s the cast of E4’s teen drama Skins or footballer Cristiano Ronaldo?
Certainly, this highly visual bunch of Lyle & Scott devotees forms a compelling troupe in the eyes of most of the UK’s youthful males. But the person responsible for the metamorphosis of the Scottish knitwear house is a somewhat quieter man, one whose measured tone and dry wit is at odds with the brand’s in-your-face fanbase.
Six years ago, managing director Derrick Campbell came up with the concept for Lyle & Scott’s Vintage range which, with its golden eagle logo, slim knits and figure-hugging polos, has fuelled sales that are out of step with the sluggish economy. Four years later, he launched slightly older sub-brand Heritage with a more discreet eagle logo, and both sit alongside the original, but now niche, golf-oriented range with the green eagle.
When quizzed about the brand, its stockists positively gush: “Mate, it’s huge,” says one indie in the south-east of England. “For a salesperson, it’s great,” oozes another in the north-west. “You don’t even have to work to sell it. You can just stand there and shift four or five pieces a day.”
Campbell, though humble, is not surprised by this tidal wave of cheer. “Autumn 09 has been the best season yet. Since 2003, we have built a substantial and sustainable business in knits, which has led us into piqués and a vast number of polos. We’ve gone into wovens too and every jacket in the collection has sold well. For autumn, we launched accessories and the hats, scarves and bags have all gone. You may laugh,” he says, “but even the pumps have sold well.”
A glance around Lyle & Scott’s London showroom just off Carnaby Street does suggest the brand is outgrowing its knitwear roots. Among its wardrobe of menswear are tiny-collared slim shirts, tartan nylon windcheaters and classic pumps bearing the eagle logo, all supplementing the spectrum of V-necks and polos.
This progressive expansion is in line with what retailers want from the brand. One says: “I would like it expanded even more. There is room for a high-profile premium brand in Lyle & Scott - everybody else has done it, why not them?”
Campbell’s plans chime with this ambition. “We know there is an elasticity in terms of perceived value,” he says. “We could quite happily sell a polo at £45 and a cashmere sweater for £500.”
Campbell admits that the creation of a limited edition, premium sub-brand is in the offing, with a strictly controlled distribution. It is not a huge leap for a brand that already creates limited-edition pieces in tandem with London’s uber-cool indie Dover Street Market.
Expansion has been swift. The year to March saw the company turn over £27 million globally (£20m of it from the UK), continuing three years of 30% year-on-year rises in sales.
For Campbell, it has been catch-up time. “Because of the rate at which we’ve grown, we’ve not had enough people on board,” he says. “So last December we hired 15 new staff including three directors for logistics, buying and sales.”
The aim of these appointments is to grow the business, but Campbell says his directors are also tasked with being true to the brand and making it more than a UK and Scandinavian phenomenon. Campbell says: “The dream is to get young Japanese kids in Vintage. It’s in five stores there [in Japan]. These kids listen to the same bands as the UK audience so there’s already a window there.”
He adds: “We opened a Hong Kong office in October and I’ve taken on responsibility for the Far East licensees. We’ll all be speaking Mandarin one day.”
Campbell perhaps will be speaking it earlier than most. He came to Lyle & Scott largely because of his language skills - to translate correspondence.
The brand was bought from its previous owner, the Sara Lee corporation, by investment firm Harris Watson in 1993. Campbell says: “They bought it as a golf brand and we were charged with retaining that customer.” But it was Campbell who saw potential beyond “flogging sweaters to retired bankers.” He says: “I was cynical. The golf customer was not even a 40-year-old guy. He was more like 90 or 120. Sooner or later he was going to fall off the putting green.”
He was given the green light to forge ahead with Vintage. But despite a chorus of approval, orders failed to materialise. At least not until Selfridges’ director of beauty and menswear David Walker Smith stepped up. “He was the lynchpin,” says Campbell. “He said ‘this is what it’s all about’. Selfridges became the window to the trade - the sell-through was so phenomenal,” Campbell says.
Since then, Campbell’s punt on the Skins generation has been vindicated. However, he says it is time for the brand to grow up: “The target customer for Vintage was 20 to 23-year-olds, but that is far younger now. The question I pondered was what do these guys wear when they get older? I came up with the grey eagle for those that don’t want the gold eagle. I called it Heritage - not an original title but as a collection it is fascinating, with great growth potential.”
Of the £27m taken last year, Heritage accounted for £5m. But if it’s anything like Campbell’s last idea for the brand, it will only get much bigger.
- 2009 Takes over responsibility for the licensing part of the business
- 2006 Appointed managing director
- 2003 Becomes brand director; launches Vintage
- 2000 Under its new owners, Campbell spearheads a rejuvenation programme for the business
- 1980 Joins Lyle & Scott and one of his tasks is to translate correspondence
Who in fashion do you most admire? Savile Row tailor Richard James because of his forward-thinking work - he’s a traditionalist, sharp, contemporary and British.
What has been the proudest moment in your career? The launch of Lyle & Scott Vintage in 2003 and resurrecting styles from our archive and reworking them in contemporary colours and fits. The added bonus was the instant success and take-up of the range by some of the UK’s leading opinion formers and seeing the range worn by the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on? The traditional and original lambswool golf sweater, which we transformed into a modern fitted Vintage product in a wide selection of colours.
What are your plans for womenswear? At the moment it’s a tomboy range based around the polos and V-necks. But for spring 10 we have a launch pad to create a more fashionable and feminine range for womenswear.
Which retailers do you most admire and why? Selfridges, but particularly director of beauty and menswear David Walker Smith because he recognised the potential of Lyle & Scott and supported
the brand for the past five years.
What would be your dream job (apart from your current position)? It’s too late in my career to wish for or contemplate anything else more challenging than what is facing me in the years to come with Lyle & Scott.