On the ropes in the UK just a year and a half ago, Kookas now back in fighting shape and talking of expansion under its managing director.
When Guy Critchlow joined Kookan 2006, the retailer was losing favour on the high street. The business’s design personality was missing the mark with trend-hungry UK shoppers and it also had problems with sizing and fit.
In January last year, French parent KookaA failed to renew its licensing agreement with UK partner Forminster, whose subsidiary Adjustbetter subsequently went into administration, putting a big question mark over the retailer’s UK future. However, Kookas French management team continued to believe in the UK.
They were not alone, and within days of Forminster’s demise, a joint venture was set up between UK investment vehicle Amery Capital, KookaA and brothers Michael and Maurice Bennett, who had earned wide respect in the fashion retail industry for their work at Warehouse, Oasis and Coast, and for turning around the fortunes of niche womenswear retailer Long Tall Sally.
The new UK Kookaeam proved to be an irresistible draw for Critchlow, who joined as managing director.
Critchlow’s time at Marks & Spencer in the 1990s, working in merchandising, buying and strategic planning roles, meant that he was familiar with Amery Capital founder Maurice Helfgott, who was previously executive director at M&S. Despite not being close colleagues while at the high street chain, they share the same mix of youthful drive and corporate thinking.
However, Critchlow says it was essentially the potential of Kookathat attracted him to the challenge of turning it around in the UK. “There’s a strong heritage in the brand,” he explains. “Its Frenchness, its uniqueness. It was created to be an affordable fashion brand in the 1980s and was the forerunner of the concept of accessible designer labels. In the last few years that potential hasn’t been realised.”
Critchlow declines to comment on the performance of the firm’s previous distributor, Adjustbetter, part of the Forminster group. However, Adjustbetter’s decision to handle more of its own sourcing, instead of only buying directly from the international collection, was not seen by Kookas current management as the best way to represent the brand.
When he took the reins at KookaﬠCritchlow’s priority was to perform a root and branch review of the business. “We went through all of it – stores, product and customer service,” he says. “The international collection has a good core, so we wanted to go back to the heritage of the brand and what made it strong in the first place. The current collection is sensuous, feminine and more sophisticated than before, with a unique handwriting and a core customer aged between 25 and 40. The knitwear has always been great in terms of both quality and value, and even at its most basic level, Kookan France doesn’t compromise on that.”
When KookaK formed, it took on 42 shops and concessions in the likes of Debenhams and House of Fraser. These were cut back to 37 when expensive and under-performing stores were closed to create a workable base for a review.
The KookaK senior team now includes head of product Emma Churchill, head of retail Ty Edwards, and financial director Sam Duffy.
Critchlow is keen to point out that the present business relationship is different from the previous arrangement. “This is a 50/50 joint venture, not a franchise partnership,” he says.
“We work very closely with the design team in Paris. Our head of product speaks French, and I speak French, so we have very good communications and a lot of input and influence on the collection.”
According to Critchlow, the product in UK stores is now much more similar to the internationally sold French collection. “If you visit a Paris store you will see the same garments; the colour palette is the most different thing. Also, occasionwear and accessories are bigger strengths for the UK market, along with prints which you can work well here.”
Critchlow responded immediately to negative feedback on the fit of garments and believes the issues have been resolved. “People can’t believe the fit when they try it,” he says. “We had a customer who was pregnant who bought some jeans, and then in the same day brought her friends in, and they also bought some. It’s about achieving a perception change.
“Some prices have dropped by 10% over the past 12 months, while the quality has been maintained. There is new stock in store every 10 days, and of course the knitwear is stronger than ever.”
The decision to take the product back to its roots was bold, but Critchlow says it is paying off. “There is always a risk in doing something like this,” he explains. “We are trying to get in new customers who don’t realise what the brand is really about now, but we are still in the same locations. The motto is ‘every customer, every time’. When someone comes in the door, whoever it is, he or she could be a Kookaustomer.”
Amery Capital’s Helfgott says of Kookas current product: “The knitwear is unparalleled, while occasionwear is just starting to go in-store and looks great; it is an improvement on last year.
“We want to get out in front of people. Kookaas always punched above its weight in design reputation and we believe in the team in Paris. The product now is feminine, with a great handwriting, so people can really start to appreciate the offer. We will continue to develop the product and open concessions.”
Kookaow has nine standalone stores in the UK, with no immediate plans to open more. However, a new shopfit was launched in its Brent Cross store in north London in September. Moving away from the old white box look, it features a full glass frontage and has a brown and beige interior. The result is a warmer and more inviting feel, which is more in keeping with its international stores.
The look will be put into new concession openings – which Critchlow says are imminent – following sales growth with retail concession partners.
He says: “When we first took on the business, we were in neutral territory with retailers. There was an element of faith. They knew we had a good team but hadn’t yet seen what it could do. But we are 25% up like-for-like for the year to September. In department stores we are in the top three brands in terms of sales densities, and shoppers keep telling us how surprised they are at how much they like the Kookaroduct.
“We opened 14 more concessions and 15 more will open next spring. That’s not us saying it’s selling – that’s retailers saying they want to put us in more stores.”
Kookaas 390 standalone stores and 650 concessions in 37 countries. According to Critchlow, the UK features in Kookas top five markets in Europe, with a turnover of £20 million. He also expects KookaK to make a profit early next year.
International brands in the UK can have mixed fortunes. While the likes of H&M and Zara power ahead with their competitively priced fast fashion, retailers such as Morgan and Esprit are still struggling to win over UK shoppers to the same extent. But Critchlow maintains that Kookas handwriting is strong enough to carve a place for itself.
“Whether you’re an international brand or not, the customer has to understand you, and the product has to be wearable. If you bring an international collection into the UK it has to be relevant. If you have to change the ingredients too much, you should ask yourself whether it’s the right thing to do.”
Critchlow believes the foundations are in place to start expanding the brand. More concessions will open to increase customer awareness of the new KookaﮠHe is also aware that the product needs to be developed and strengthened.
“French brands are hot at the moment and there is a movement where people want that individuality,” says Critchlow. “There’s lots of untapped growth potential in accessories and footwear. We will be online with a transactional website by next autumn, for which we have high expectations. We also want to build the occasionwear and partywear side. We have a collection going into stores now which looks particularly good.
“In terms of repositioning a brand, 18 months is a short time. With the Bennett brothers and Maurice Helfgott, we have a mixture of retail and sourcing expertise, plus incredible energy.
“There’s no shortage of resources either, as Vivarte, which owns Kookaﬠis a very big company. We are not short of aims for what we can do with the brand.”