The news that veteran footwear chain Ravel is to vanish from the high street, to be replaced by its parent Clarks’ fascia, highlights the middle-market footwear sector’s unforgiving climate
After a tough few years, Ravel has shut up shop. To some in the industry it marks the end of an era, while to others the chain is just another victim of footwear’s increasingly squeezed middle market.
Ravel, a small nationwide chain selling young fashion footwear, was founded in 1934 as an independent retailer. It gradually grew in popularity, and in the 1960s was known among hip Londoners for its on-trend offer.
But the Ravel we see today has changed dramatically since its 1960s heyday and has shown a marked deterioration over the past four years, according to sources and former employees. The retailer has been touted around the market to potential buyers, but failed to attract any interest. This season’s product offering was, it seems, the final nail in the coffin.
Peter Bolliger, chief executive of Clarks, which owns Ravel, said in a results statement last week it had been another tough year for the chain. Despite shutting some unprofitable stores and tightening costs, Ravel failed to hit the targets it identified last year, the first year of its turnaround plan.
“Ravel was unable to establish a convincing product proposition, notably in its dominant women’s category,” Bolliger said last week. “It lost further ground to rivals such as Office and value-oriented retailers such as New Look.”
However, one ex-Ravel employee says retailers such as Office and New Look should have been a peripheral concern for the business which, when he worked there, had a high mid-market offer. “It shouldn’t have been affected by that,” he says. “Those players should have been at the cheaper end of the market. Ravel should have priced out that threat.”
Another factor in the chain’s demise could be the fact it was run from Street in Somerset, say sources. Clarks, whose head office is also in Street, relocated Ravel’s headquarters there in 1999 from London’s Conduit Street in a bid to cut costs.
“That move meant it lost its way,” claims one footwear executive. “Ravel had trouble attracting the right buying and merchandising staff, as good people didn’t want to leave London.” The move was criticised at the time, but the business had to tighten its belt after a difficult trading period.
The turn of the millennium seemed to signal a turnaround for Ravel, when in 2003 it reported a profit for the third year running.
But it was too little, too late. As the chain began to tread water, non-specialists upped the ante and last week Ravel became the latest casualty in the ever-more competitive fashion footwear sector.
“I knew Ravel was having a torrid time, but I didn’t know it was that bad. Styling and colours in the last range were off the wall - it tried to be different, but lost its way. Ravel was the young fashion leader in the 1960s and 1970s, with good buyers and real vision.”
Daniel Rubin, managing director, Dune, and chief executive, Browning Enterprises
“Ravel is another victim of the middle market. It’s a shame, because it has a tremendous reputation. But young fashion is difficult - even we find it tough. Ravel represented London street fashion in its heyday, and that’s what it was known for.”
Michael Ziff, chief executive, Stylo Group
“It’s sad, but within the footwear sector, fascias operated by parent companies come and go. Suppliers know that Ravel has had a question mark against its future, but it is interesting to put it alongside the change going on in the market at the moment.”
Niall Campbell, chief executive, British Footwear Association
“At its peak, Ravel was a fashion leader, but it lost its edge. A small firm in a huge business like Clarks will find it tough to succeed. You need an autonomous team that can make radical decisions. It shows how tough the business is and is a lesson for retailers with a similar structure.”
John Egan, chief operating officer, Shoe Studio Group
“Ravel was a true fashion leader at the height of its popularity. It was the footwear name that everyone - from shoppers to fashion industry players - aspired to follow.”
Malcolm Collins, buying, merchandising and design director for accessories, New Look
UNRAVELLING THE PAST: RAVEL’S STORY
- The footwear business that became Ravel opened in 1934. Founded by a married couple, Mr and Mrs Erwin Wise, the two entrepreneurs opened two shops in the London suburbs under the name The Tower Boot Company.
- By 1952 the couple were running five Tower Boot stores. Mrs Wise also ran a London hat shop, which she later turned into the Mondaine Shoe Shop. Mondaine claimed to be the only retailer in the UK to make made-to-measure formal evening shoes.
- By the early 1960s the Wise family was running eight shops in London, trading as Painet, Regent, Star and Mondaine. They then decided to branch out and bought a shop on Oxford Street called Chaussures Raoul. The business expanded throughout the 1960s as it rode the wave of the decade’s fashion, and the name was changed to Chaussures Ravel later that same decade. The family’s other shops were also converted to the new fascia, and the name was changed to Ravel in the late 1960s.
- In 1967, Clarks bought a 47% stake in the business. The Wises retired in 1974, and Clarks took ownership of Ravel.