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Bags of potential

Repositioning British heritage brand Tanner Krolle as a must-have accessories label is a tough task, but chief executive Martin Mason and creative director Manuela Morin are relishing the challenge

Luxury accessories brand Tanner Krolle is one year into the most exciting chapter of its 150-year history. Previously a bespoke luggage supplier for the royal family and a handbag manufacturer for Chanel, the brand is now looking to reposition itself at the forefront of luxury British accessories.

"We refer to ourselves as a '150-year-old start-up business'," explains chief executive Martin Mason. "It is difficult to relaunch a brand that already has such a rich history."

Mason is referring to his task of completely overhauling a company that traded at a loss in 2005/06 with a turnover of just £1.8 million, and has, in Mason's words, a "very small" share of the luxury accessories market.

Tanner Krolle's bespoke luggage has graced royal trains, planes and automobiles since 1856, when master saddler Frederick Krolle founded his London leather goods factory to serve upper-class travellers. As the first name in luxury leather, success was swift and long-lasting. In 1991 the Krolle family was approached by French fashion house Chanel to become a key supplier for its handbag offer, and Tanner Krolle became part of the Chanel Group.

Keen to get back in touch with its British roots, Tanner Krolle was sold to Rupert Hambro & Partners in 2003 and relaunched by then-chief executive Guy Salter as a high fashion brand. The business launched two UK standalone stores and forged international distribution links, but sales slowed and Tanner Krolle was ripe for a private equity takeover.

In 2005, New York-based private equity fund Albion Investors bought a majority stake in the business from Rupert Hambro, who still owns an undisclosed minority share, and now aims to reposition the brand's product offer and ethos.

"Tanner Krolle's relaunch after its time with Chanel had what I'd call a punky, funky feel to it," says Mason. "I don't think it sat well with its true skills - great British craftsmanship and a history of working with prestigious clients."

This focus on manufacturing and creating product for a high-end target market are key to Mason's repositioning strategy. Formerly sales and marketing director at Mulberry and before that business development manager at John Smedley, Mason joined Tanner Krolle as chief executive in February 2006, tasked with steering the brand to the forefront of desirable accessories. "I went to Mulberry to help it reposition as a strong British brand, so this role suited me perfectly," Mason explains. "I know what makes the UK luxury market tick and how to best adapt a heritage brand to suit this."

Mason's first task was to sort out the staff infrastructure and employ a creative director who shared his brand vision - a distinctively British label with a modern twist. Manuela Morin joined the business a month after Mason, moving from her role as head of accessories design at Stella McCartney. Morin says it was the scope of the task that made the job so compelling and wooed her from Stella McCartney. "The challenge of creating a new handwriting while having a heritage to draw on is unique. Most luxury brands would have a set structure and image already in place," she says.

Mason says sorting the product was a priority, so Morin's appointment had to be quick. "I told our PR not to send out samples," he says. "Because I didn't want us pushing the product until Manuela had designed her first collection and we had it how we wanted the press and public to see it."

Morin got straight to work, producing a capsule handbag collection for spring 07. This resulted in Tanner Krolle's first ever waiting list for its white leather Eva tote. The full autumn 07 range includes more than 50 handbags and a capsule footwear collection of 20 shoe and boot styles, which Mason is confident can live up to spring 07's promise. Morin says: "I wanted to create a modern product that found a unique balance between fashion and timelessness.

"We're at the beginning of creating the brand's character. For example, we're using a matt finish called Matt Palladium on the metal bags' fastenings, which is derived from the luggage. It'sa typical Tanner Krolle finish and is unique to the brand - it's subtle and sophisticated as well as luxurious. We're also using a square motif from the luggage and redefining it in different shapes, using it as closures on bags through the collection to link each family of product together," she says.

Footwear is forecast to make up 5% of sales when the first full range is launched for spring 08, and there are plans to widen the collection next season, with a men's footwear offer to follow in the future. Handbags will comprise between 75% and 80% of the offer, with the rest made up of luggage and bespoke travel goods.

In a market where there are already many luxury accessories brands, Mason and Morin are keen to stress that it is Tanner Krolle's 'Britishness' that will make it stand out. "Weare competing with Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton, so our USP has to be our London-based design. All of our bespoke luggage is made here, and we want to offer a fashionable take on that high-end British craftsmanship," says Mason.

Morin explains: "The history is such an attractive element, both in terms of the product's look and the story behind it. The extensive archives have been inspirational for my designs, and this integrity is what will put Tanner Krolle back on the fashion map."

The collection's rich colourways are drawn from Tanner Krolle's archives, while offerings such as the Eva bag, which comes in zebra-print leather with a hot pink lining, nodto the catwalks. The brand hopes new colours and limited-edition versions of staple styles will ensure the fashion element can be up to date.

Travel goods buyers are already keen for Morin's new wares, with Tanner Krolle poised to go into the revamped travel and luggage section in Harrods when it opens in September. Jon Crossick, retail director for Case London, which runs Harrods' travel goods concession, is optimistic about the brand's sales potential.

"We will place Tanner Krolle in the Luxe area to reflect its contemporary feel, but will ensure that it still sells the more traditional travelling business pieces too," says Crossick. "We are looking forward to working with the brand on bespoke items - Tanner Krolle is known for creating special pieces that our customers will feel proud to own."

But Crossick believes the men's range still needs work and points out that, despite the brand's English heritage, customers still demand practical luggage. "The brand must be aware that heritage also needs a hint of modern-day tradition. Pieces on wheels, for example, are something it could look into for the future."

As well as Harrods, Tanner Krolle is also spreading its wings further afield. This autumn, Morin's handbag range will go into New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, Emporio in Belfast, Quartier 206 in Berlin and Harvey Nichols in Hong Kong. "We are very aware of being placed in the right stores next to the right product," says Mason. "Growing internationally is vital - we'll be inviting more overseas buyers to see our collection in Paris in September."

On the subject of building relationships overseas, the new transactional element of the Tanner Krolle website, which went live in April, is already having an impact. "Our first sale on the website was to a customer in Australia," he chuckles. "Despite being under the Chanel umbrella for 10 years, people know our name and we've had some great press. It shows how much potential there is for overseas growth."

The transactional website is part of Mason's plans to improve customer communications, showing what the brand is now offering. In the first month after the site launched, it generated 7% of Tanner Krolle's total retail sales. "The figures were great, but we'll probably aim for about 5% in the future. The site is vital for getting the brand out there for all to see, but it is a bonus rather than a specific focus of growth or an area we are totally reliant on. We just want people to have access to the label."

Tanner Krolle's UK distribution is tightly controlled, with the brand only available in Harrods and its two standalone stores in London's Burlington Gardens and Sloane Street. Mason says that aside from the overseas push, there are no immediate plans to expand its UK store count. "More Tanner Krolle stores are in the business plan, but we want to get two strong seasons of the product under our belt before we think seriously about opening more stores," he says. "The first steps for us are building a bigger wholesale business via finding the right international partnership."

Mason says he wants Morin to get two full collections under her belt - autumn 07 and spring 08 - to be sure the product is right. Thiswill put the brand in the strongest possible position to widen its distribution. "Tanner Krolle is aiming for a turnaround, and it's going to take longer than the year that Manuela and I have been here for it to take effect," explains Mason. "Manuela has just launched her first full collection for autumn 07, and this season we'll see our figures start to increase.

"It feels like the beginning for us and we still have an awful lot to do, but Tanner Krolle is definitely a name to watch out for."

CAREER HISTORIES

Martin Mason

February 2006-present: Chief executive officer, Tanner Krolle

2003-February 06: Sales and marketing director, Mulberry

2000-03: Sales and marketing director, Pringle of Scotland

1995-2000: Business development manager, John Smedley

1992-95: Area sales manager, French Connection

1989-92: Various roles at menswear brand Matinique, part of the InWear Group

Manuela Morin

March 2006-present: Creative director, Tanner Krolle

2002-March 06: Various roles at Stella McCartney, rising to head of accessories design

2000: Founded ready- to-wear and accessories label LaFlesh. Also worked as a freelance designer for accessories brand Tod's and designer label Roberto Cavalli

1993-2000: Designer, rising to the role of head designer, at Bottega Veneta in New York and Milan.

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