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An Englishman in LA

Reiss founder David Reiss is focused on global expansion, but without losing the quintessential Englishness that has made the brand so popular

As Kate Moss hosted the launch party for her Topshop collection in New York earlier this month, another British retailer, Reiss, was preparing to unveil its first Los Angeles store. But as the supermodel and pals sipped cocktails in the Big Apple, a more frantic scene was unfolding on the west coast.

"It was absolute panic stations. There was a big opening party on the Thursday and, as of Tuesday, the store still hadn't been signed off by the local authorities," says founder and managing director David Reiss from the relaxed and decidedly more British environs of London's Bloomsbury Ballroom. He has just been showcasing Reiss's autumn 07 collection to London's fashion media.

But in a true Hollywood ending, the LA store secured a last-minute sign-off and more than 400 of the city's movers and shakers came to the Reiss launch.

While Topshop owner Philip Green has enlisted Moss, the world's most photographed model, to boost pre-launch US hype, this is too brash (and some might say expensive) an approach for Reiss, a designer bridge brand known for understated English elegance.

Or is it? "The whole world is celebrity-driven. It's a fact of life," says Reiss. "We felt the time was right to open a flagship in LA, the home of celebrity. We've never shouted about it, but we've actually got a lot of A-list customers."

To prove this, he hands Drapers a run-down of the retailer's celebrity shoppers. It's an impressive list, including Nicole Kidman, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. Reiss is particularly excited about Desperate Housewives actress Nicolette Sheridan's recent visit to the new LA store, during which she bought 13 dresses.

"We want to market ourselves as a worldwide brand," says Reiss. "We are becoming associated with celebrities - we're not talking Z-list here - and we want the world to know these people shop with us. Being understated is one thing, but getting the world to know about us is another."

Reiss is not alone in this aim, with handbag retailer Mulberry also seeking the help of the A-list in cracking America. Mulberry chief operating officer Lisa Montague agrees that getting celebrities on board is essential for entering a new market and, like Reiss, she felt it was important to target LA. Mulberry sponsored a room in celebrity hang-out Soho House during this year's Oscars and it now counts Brooke Shields and Mischa Barton among its followers.

"The US is one of the main luxury markets in the world, worth EUR53billion (£35.8bn). You've got to build a brand there and explain who you are," says Montague. Before opening its first stores, Mulberry tested the waters by selling through New York department store Bergdorf Goodman. "The US downtown shopper understands the vintage English style," she adds.

Reiss was counting on this when the brand entered the US market head first, opening a New York flagship in 2005. The success of that store gave the retailer confidence to open in Boston, San Francisco and Washington. LA was its seventh US store and two are set to open in Miami and New Jersey.

So why is the US such an attractive market for niche British brands? "It is a fairly low-risk market with a lot of high-income consumers," says Tim Sleep, director of retail at consultancy Ernst & Young. But he warns: "The US is fine if you have a really strong brand pull. Luxury brands will do well if they have brand recognition. But because it's so vast, you need a huge amount of brand awareness, so you're almost starting again."

This was the case with Reiss. But, true to its style, the retailer decided to let its product do the talking when it entered the US. It decided to eschew marketing, as it does in the UK.

"A lot of retailers that are very successful in Europe automatically assume they will be successful in the US. That's not what we did," says Reiss. "I took my top creatives to Tokyo for an inspirational trip before we opened the New York store, to make sure we offered them something very special. New York is the most competitive marketplace in the world and we wanted to give them a new level of excitement. It took off from day one."

It's not only retail customers that are excited about the brand, says Reiss. He claims he is constantly being circled by private equity and trade suitors. That's not surprising, given Reiss's growth potential and its success in the UK. Operating profits for the year to January 31 were up 30% on the previous year, nudging the £10m mark, and turnover for the same period was up 25% to just under £57m.

He says: "Last year we were approached by one of the major American clothing companies - a billion-dollar brand. The bosses showed me a billboard in Times Square for which they pay US$1m a year. They thought that, of all the European brands, we had most potential as a global brand, and wanted to open 200 stores in the US in a very short space of time.

"We got involved in serious discussions and were very close to tying things up, but, come December, I just turned around and said: 'The timing isn't right'."

This anecdote would leave many rag-trade entrepreneurs choking on their business breakfast. But Reiss says he shunned the greenbacks because he is determined to see through his five-year plan (now in year two) to open 250 stores worldwide.

He is not the type of businessman to hand over the reins to a corporation, particularly if he is retained as part of the deal. "I've always been very decisive, and when I push the button, things happen very quickly," he says. "Once you are part of a major player, decisions are much slower and more fragmented."

Reiss is not always comfortable to delegate, having been burnt in the past when the retailer launched womenswear in 2000. "I've always been very hands on when it comes to product. For the first time I was bringing other people on board to drive the brand and mistakes were made," he says. Unhappy with the womenswear offer, he stepped in and adapted the range to better suit his vision for the brand.

Although Reiss is clearly the heart and soul of the business, he is unwilling to talk too much about his personal life. He says: "I've always been quite private. In the States they want to know who the face of the brand is, but I've always hidden behind it."

Reiss has long had an interest in what people wear. He joined the rag trade at a young age, running a shirt manufacturing business when he was in his 20s. He is coy about his age, but admits he has been in the business for more than 30 years.

The eponymous retail chain has its origins in London's business district. "I started off in the City in Bishopsgate," explains Reiss. "My father ran a gentlemen's outfitters store in the early 1970s and when he passed away, I immediately bought the shop next door and transformed it into a contemporary menswear offer."

The first Reiss menswear store opened in 1975 selling branded product. By 1980, it had a flagship on London's King's Road and had become wholly own-label by 1992. Today, it has 65 stores worldwide, including shops in Sweden, China and Malaysia, and of the 250 it plans for the next five years, 50 will be in the US.

From the grey skies of Bishopsgate in the City of London to the non-stop sun of Los Angeles, Reiss has always tried to adhere to a strong brand ethos. "We're trying to achieve affordable luxury whatever the market. We have 20 house designers who travel the world looking for inspiration, from vintage, from archives, from libraries, from fabrics. It is a purely individual offer. We nod at trends, but the inspiration comes from within," he says.

This was apparent at the Bloomsbury Ballroom catwalk show, which showcased an expanded offer for the global marketplace. Eveningwear and accessories are two areas of particular focus. Womenswear pieces include chic dresses constructed from oversized metallic sequins, worn with black patent heels.

Reiss says: "We are renowned for our tailoring, skirts and knits, but not so much for luxury women's eveningwear. That has become a major part of our offer. It's such an important part of everybody's wardrobe - you have to have those wild, going-out pieces."

The retailer is not only expanding in the US. It will open two stores in Hong Kong this autumn and build on its presence in the Middle East. Closer to home, it is in talks with big department store groups in France and Italy to launch concessions.

However, Reiss is determined to keep the brand on the boil in its home market. It will open its first standalone accessories stores in London at the end of August - premises in Islington, Hampstead and central London are already lined up.

In October, it is planning to unveil a new storefit at a 25,000 sq ft site in central London formerly occupied by the London College of Fashion. "It's the biggest thing that's going to happen to us this year," says Reiss. "It's going to be a whole new vision of the brand - a much lighter, cooler approach: a beautiful, clean space with beautiful clothes." Elements of this new look have already been included in the LA store design.

The retailer has also overhauled its pricing architecture to keep up with a changing consumer landscape. "We often get people saying 'we want to buy Reiss, but it's out of our price range', so we have brought in more entry price points," Reiss says.

Such a move risks cheapening a brand that focuses on the upper mid-market, so Reiss has introduced a wider range of premium product, starting at £500 in the UK for men's suits.

This end of the pricing spectrum suits the retailer's US clientele, who on average spend double that of their British counterparts in Reiss stores. "The Americans look at us as a designer brand," says Reiss. "They look at the aesthetics of the stores and the whole environment. The whole collection has a designer feel about it."

Reiss has also made an impact on his US customer base - according to his colleagues, they see him as a "dashing Englishman". Perhaps unwittingly, Reiss is bringing his own touch of celebrity to a global brand.

REISS: GLOBAL PORTFOLIO

US: New York (West Broadway, Bleecker Street and Columbus Avenue), Boston, San Francisco, Washington, Los Angeles

Middle East: Dubai, Abu Dhabi

Europe: UK, Sweden, Ireland

Coming soon: Hong Kong, France, Italy, Miami, New Jersey

Current store count: 65

Target store count: 250.

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