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James Lakeland

He set up his eponymous womenswear brand 13 years ago and has been involved in every aspect of the business, but with a fresh identity for spring 09 James Lakeland insists he has never been happier with its collection.

After three days on the ground selling his spring 09 collection at trade show Pure and participating in trend presentations, James Lakeland, owner of the eponymous mainstream womenswear label, is back in his London showroom and is still selling.

The buyers from womenswear indie Jane Young in Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, have an appointment – and after lunching on strawberries, salmon and avocado salad, Lakeland whips around the showroom, pulling out potential pieces for their order. Some they snap up, others they decline, but they soon agree on a perfect selection for the store’s clientele.

It may sound like a typical scene, but considering that Lakeland and his team design, produce, run a wholesale business, a retail arm and a number of concessions, his presence on the sales floor suggests an endless energy for the job.

“My role has changed,” he says. “When I started it was with my mum and my sister, so I did everything, but now the business has grown and I can’t do everything – but I oversee everything. I’m very busy but I have managed to create a good team.”

It is 13 years since Lakeland left his job as a supplier to luxury labels including Aquascutum and Burberry and started the James Lakeland brand at the age of 25. The brand began with a small wholesale range and now has more than 150 accounts in the UK and Republic of Ireland, as well as a handful of stockists in the Middle East and Greece.

In 2004, Lakeland opened his first standalone store on King’s Road in west London, which he closed in 2005 after the rent was dramatically increased. However, in the past year the brand has opened four stores – a flagship on New Cavendish Street in central London and others in Silverburn in Glasgow, Bushey Heath in Hertfordshire and Pinner in Middlesex. It also has 10 concessions, including House of Fraser on London’s Oxford Street. Another concession is due to launch in Fenwick at Brent Cross in north London on September 1.

“A lot of people think we are all over the country when in fact we have so many areas that are under-serviced. We are looking really closely at that. We are seeking new stockists in the UK, while Ireland is being taken care of by an agent and he is doing a very good job.

“We are happy with the number of our own stores but we are being cautious – we want to make sure our stores work. We are looking to expand with other customers and if they want to open up a James Lakeland concession in their shops then that would be very exciting for us.”

Spring 09 heralds a new, more contemporary look for the brand. Lakeland explains that the makeover is one of a number of image overhauls that the label has experienced, but he is now satisfied that it has found its distinctive position.

“When we first started we were perceived as young, trendy and too expensive. Then we were seen as too commercial and after that too old. Now we are finding our feet and are branding ourselves as being contemporary, wearable, glamorous fashion with a twist. It has been a huge leap to get there.

“We now have a definite look – we have created the James Lakeland look – and it has taken years to do that.”

Lakeland says the image revamp is the result of two years of planning, during which he focused on creating a distinct style, modern branding, a clear retail image and a forward-thinking approach to marketing.

“Fashion is much more contemporary nowadays and we’ve fitted straight in and managed to do a more contemporary look, that suits women of all ages. The collection is not alienating women who are 40-plus or women who are under 40; we can dress the mother and daughter. No one wants to look old any more. We listened to that, took it on board and achieved it.”

The collection’s youthful handwriting is encapsulated by pieces such as ruffled silk dresses and 1960s-style bell-shaped cropped jackets in bright colours. A subtle 1970s nautical theme sees high-waisted jeans teamed with a cropped blue leather jacket. Vivid floral and animal print dresses, classic linen jackets and trousers and an array of cashmere wraps and loose-knit cardigans cater for a more mature customer.

Spring 09 also marks the development of occasionwear sub-brand James Lakeland Luxury, in which origami folds are used on dresses, pure organza jackets come in decadent colours, and elegant detailing adorns silk and sculptured styles. Priced higher than the mainline, the Luxury range retails for between £350 and £850.

“It is a luxury, sophisticated, simple and beautiful special occasion range, for mothers of the bride or groom,” says Lakeland.

Creating high-fashion marketing campaigns and advertising in glossy fashion magazines including Vogue and Tatler is also central to the James Lakeland strategy. It is part of a plan to position the brand alongside the likes of MaxMara and Joseph. “We are not competing with Chanel, but I want us to be seen as one of the major womenswear brands. I have ripped the whole advertising image apart and made it sophisticated and very of the moment. We had a Vogue fashion editor styling for us in the campaign and a fabulous photographer.”

While celebrity promotion is used by other brands, it is a form of advertising in which Lakeland only has a mild interest. “Cherie Blair has worn our clothes, Posh Spice wore one of our dresses a couple of years ago and TV presenter Kate Garraway and singer Michelle Heaton have worn our clothes,” he lists. “We are not hankering to be that designer who has every single celebrity wearing our clothes. We want to be available and marketable and worn by women who absolutely fall in love with it.”

The credit crunch is not concerning Lakeland, who says that strong sales reports from his independent stockists around the UK have given him confidence. He reports that a store in Newcastle upon Tyne has had a 95% sell-through of his brand at full price, while one in Sevenoaks in Kent only had two James Lakeland pieces left before its summer Sale. He also says that half-year sales figures for his store in Pinner, Middlesex, are up 42% year-on-year, while his concession in House of Fraser’s London Oxford Street store is up 30%.

“We will always have casualties in a credit crunch and a recession,” he says. “But people still get married, people still go to the wedding, people still have their 18th and 21st birthdays and they still have balls and proms. They have to go to their first interview and buy their first suit. People still live their lives, so I don’t think the credit crunch has destroyed the market, you just have to be that much better retailing and managing your brand. Brands which are old-fashioned and haven’t moved on are unfortunate casualties.”

He explains that in the current tough trading climate it is important to focus on helping the brand’s stockists achieve success. “We have given our stockists the service, we have let them reorder and have given them whatever they need. We have also exchanged the merchandise they can’t sell for new merchandise.”

According to Lakeland, the brand’s customers range from women in their 20s to women in their 90s, and range in size from eight to 30. “Women love the fact that the brand is made in Italy and they know where the garments are coming from. There is none of that worrying about whether it is ethical – we are manufacturing in the most expensive country in the world and we have very high standards, so of course it is ethical – so it is very confident women who will invest in the James Lakeland brand.”

While manufacturing in Italy comes at a price, Lakeland says his customers are concerned about the cost of their purchases but are still willing to spend more for quality. “I still think that if you buy something cheap you are buying something expensive, because it doesn’t last long,” he says.

When it comes to design, Lakeland does not view the brand’s broad market as a challenge, but revels in creating looks that flatter a variety of shapes and ages. “I start off with the fabrics. The look is sophisticated but wearable, and has a twist to it in the colours and the fabric. It isn’t a casual look. Even on the casual side, we still do a sophisticated casual. It has an element of glamour to it.”

He explains that prints, draping, pleating, doubled jersey and sculptured elements are common elements in his designs. “We really study all the models and add in all the design features to make a garment what it is,” he says.

The brand has launched a transactional website, but Lakeland says it is only a small part of the business. There is a select range of clothing for sale online, but he says the site is used primarily as an advertising tool to direct business to the brand’s stores and concessions. “The website is small and the online customer hasn’t affected the customer in our boutiques,” he says.

While he clearly loves his job, Lakeland confesses it is not without its challenges. He cites jealousy as a negative aspect of his working life. “People become jealous and start to say ‘ooh, he’s so rich’, rather than thinking ‘he’s growing his business, he’s employing 90 people and feeding 90 families’. I have all that pressure on me and people don’t look at it like that. They look at the glitz and glamour and bright lights and don’t see all the hard work involved in getting the money in, making sure the production is right and the quality is right and that nothing goes wrong. They don’t see that pressure.”

Although he admits he can be sensitive to gossip, he says he has the ability to forget and move on. “I take things to heart, but then think if they don’t care I’ll just have to move on and learn from it. Even with my collections I’m very good at moving and changing and I think that is one of my strengths.”

A few days later, Lakeland is still selling. He meets clients at the Moda exhibition in Birmingham to present his range, before jumping on stage to do another trend presentation. Despite his enthusiasm for a sale and willingness to immerse himself in his business, he says it is simply his love of fashion that gets him out of bed in the morning. “I just love clothes,” he says. “I can look at clothes and still get excited, even after all these years.”

With this level of passion, James Lakeland the person and James Lakeland the brand should only continue to flourish.

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