After some fine tuning for its second season, the designer says his MW diffusion line has found its own identity
To receive one compliment from Matthew Williamson is enough to make your day; to receive two is enough to make Drapers blush. Not only does Williamson comment on how much he likes my lemon yellow blouse, he later also tells me he might even be using the colour in his spring 12 collection, which will be unveiled at London Fashion Week in September. But that’s as much information as he is prepared to share right now. “It could all change anyway,” he laughs, explaining that samples seem to arrive later each season. “But I’m too old to panic – they’ll get here,” he adds, alternately sipping cups of coffee and tea.
What is “here”, in Williamson’s London office in Mayfair, is the spring 12 MW by Matthew Williamson collection, the designer’s diffusion line which launched for autumn 11.
Produced under licence by Italian fashion group Mariela Burani, the collection will debut via 17 UK stockists this month, including Northeast indie Jules B, Hollywood Collections in Solihull and Katherine McCormack in Limerick, and 55 in total worldwide – not bad for a new line. But M&L Harris, the London-based agent for the diffusion brand, is confident it can double that number for spring 12, after some “fine tuning” – according to Williamson – was made to the collection since the autumn launch.
“Like any new collection, [MW] was a learning curve in terms of understanding the market and the price,” he explains. “We also had to understand how the DNA of the mainline could translate into the diffusion line.”
Price was key for buyers, says Beverly Barnett, sales manager at M&L Harris, who believes the collection is now more commercial, too. “Buyers said they loved the collection and the reviewed pricing will make it even more attractive to them. Prices are important for all brands in this tough economic climate,” she says. Prices now start at about €36 (£32) for a T-shirt – for autumn 11, the entry point was €70 (£61) – and are about 50% cheaper than the mainline.
And while you still can – and should – see the Matthew Williamson handwriting in the diffusion line’s bold colours, prints and embellishment, MW has differentiated itself enough from the mainline to stand out as a brand in its own right. It’s clear from the pieces – some 180 of them – that MW targets a younger customer than the mainline (teens, 20- and 30-somethings, according to Williamson). Short hemlines, maxi dresses, coloured denim, prints and a palette that ranges from warm, rustic hues right through to cooler blues give a youthful energy to what is a separates-led collection, which is another differentiator from the mainline and its signature dresses.
The fabrics, too, are different. “We use a lot of cottons, cotton and silk mixes, and silk voile rather than silk georgette,” says Loukia Hay, senior designer for MW. “Sometimes the mainline verges on couture, but MW is a completely different level of product. The shapes are easier, too. It really has found its own identity.”
Williamson is adamant that MW is far enough away in design and price not to compete with the brand’s Butterfly by Matthew Williamson label for Debenhams, also produced under licence. “That line is for a much older customer, a 40-plus customer. They’ll hate me for saying that because they think it’s more for a 30-plus,” he laughs. “[MW] sits comfortably between high-end and high street.”
In fact, one of the “many, many” factors that contributed to the launch of MW was the success of Matthew Williamson’s tie-up in 2009 with H&M. “The collaboration gave us huge exposure,” says Williamson, with Hay adding that it introduced the brand to “a new [younger] audience”. Part of the idea, then, is that MW will allow the brand to hang on to some of those younger customers. But not all: average retail prices for MW will be between £200 and £400. Some of the most popular pieces from the H&M tie-up were a short tan leather biker jacket for £145.99 and a long floral-print peacock dress at £199.99 – noticeably lower than MW’s prices.
Could another contributing factor to the launch of MW be the economic downturn? With shoppers reining in their spending, a diffusion line would still allow them to buy into the Matthew Williamson brand, but for half the price. “Absolutely,” Williamson nods. “Trading continues to be tough but I feel we’ve turned a corner. [The recession] has been one of the most difficult times in my career. Every piece we created we had to make extra special, we had to justify it. But I can see light at the end of the tunnel. If we continue as we are, we are going to have a record month at Bruton Street [the brand’s flagship store in Mayfair] by the end of July.”
Chief executive Joseph Velosa, to whom Williamson attributes the success of the brand’s “controlled growth”, agrees that business is picking up. Since the last time Drapers interviewed Williamson and Velosa exactly two years ago, Velosa says the brand has seen “steadier growth”, with order books up between 5% and 10% so far this year on the previous. The UK now accounts for 20% of total sales, up from 17% two years ago. And according to accounts filed at Companies House, total sales grew from £8.2m in 2009 to £8.8m for the year to December 2010. Pre-tax profits stood at £575,821, following the £1.3m loss of 2009.
“Controlled growth” is how Williamson also describes the potential of MW. “We want to wait and see how [the first two collections] go, then we can gauge it and put it into perspective. It would be crazy to throw figures about now,” he says, with what is sometimes a surprisingly sensible and measured approach for a world-famous designer known for his bright prints and heavily embellished dresses.
But it is, arguably, this attitude that has helped Williamson to grow his business. “This country is good at promoting and supporting new talent, but then [designers] get forgotten. But it’s at that stage [when they’ve gone from being an emerging talent] that we need to start thinking more about the business side of things,” he says, adding that the brand wouldn’t have been able to produce MW without Mariela Burani. “We wouldn’t have had the manpower or the funds.”
But they certainly have the creativity. “When it’s a licensing deal, it’s important to keep the creative control because [the licensee] tends to be so commercially driven,” says Hay, who exhibits the same measured and calm characteristics as her mentor.
“Loukia is really the creative brain behind the collection. It’s a one-woman band and I trust her implicitly,” says Williamson, looking across to the smiling, sheepish Hay. “My role is to steer. I’m her editor.”
And if the spring 12 collection is anything to go by, they make a pretty good team.
Matthew Williamson CV
2011 Launches diffusion line MW
2010 Launches menswear capsule collection
2009 Returns to London Fashion Week; New York store opens
2007 TSM Capital acquires stake
2006 Baugur takes stake in Matthew Williamson
2005 Creative head at Emilio Pucci
2004 Opens first store in London
2002 Relocates from London to New York Fashion Week
1997 Founds Matthew Williamson with Joseph Velosa
1994 Graduates from Central Saint Martins College