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Robert Duffy

Marc Jacobs’ new London shop is tucked away in Mayfair. Brand president Robert Duffy explains why offbeat works.

At first glance, London’s Mount Street does not look like the obvious place for a designer store. The Mayfair location is adjacent to the kind of upmarket antique shops that are bell entry only and sell pieces that would sit comfortably in the surrounding imposing mansions.

Further up the street is a high-class butcher where it is difficult to identify what sort of fowl has been trussed up for the oven, but it is definitely the kind that could be stalked by the customers of the gunsmiths across the way.

Marc Jacobs is the only fashion retailer on the street, but brand president Robert Duffy, in town for the Marc by Marc Jacobs show at London Fashion Week, says that is how he likes it. “When I opened our first store in New York there were no designers in the area. I picked that location 12 years ago because it was the only area we could afford. I remember people in the business saying SoHo will never be a retail destination - but I had the last laugh.”

Duffy is not being disingenuous, and the fact that the new London store is next door to fish restaurant Scotts, recently revived by the owners of The Ivy, means it should not be short of celebrities nor ladies who lunch and - hopefully - shop.

Duffy says: “If I’d had my way, London would have been our first European store, but the guys at LVMH, which is a stakeholder in Marc Jacobs, were quite persuasive about Paris. Every time I asked them to look at a UK site, they said ‘have you looked at this store in so-and-so district in Paris yet?’”

Duffy says sometimes it pays to give in to his French partners. LVMH owns a third of the brand, while Duffy and Jacobs have an equal share in the remainder, but LVMH owns the trademark.

“I think doing Paris first made it easier for me to sell this site to LVMH. I first started looking at it two years ago, but everyone in Paris wanted to see it first, so these things take time. LVMH likes to do the research, look at the real estate across the city and see what we will take per sq ft.

“I did well on the first five stores I opened, so they trust me. They understand that quirky locations work best for my brand. What doesn’t work is if we open in a mall. I’ve had to do it twice in Bal Harbour in Florida and again in Las Vegas. They are both places where the only choice is a mall, and although they make money they just look like any old store. There is a koi carp pond outside one of them, but they lack something.”

The 2,700 sq ft London store certainly does not lack atmosphere, located in a grand former antiques emporium with original fireplaces and stairs.

Duffy says: “I like the area. I like the fact there are children nearby and that there is greenery from the gardens. Marc has yet to see the store but when I rang him to talk about it he said ‘I bet it’s near a garden’ - that was the first time I realised that I often site stores near some open green space.”

The company now has about 80 stores across the world, with only eight of those wholly-owned. The mainstay of the retail business is through licensing in Japan via its partner Mitsubishi International. It also deals with ImagineX in China and Club 21 in Singapore. Duffy says: “I can’t remember the company names of all our partners - there are so many of them - although I do know the names of the individuals who run them. We also have stores in Dubai, Lebanon and India.

“Our retail growth via franchises has been phenomenal. It’s the nature of the business’s history that we have so many stores in the Far East. Before we had a store in New York we had two in Japan, and we had relationships with the franchisees long before we got involved with LVMH. But the retail side exploded when we joined forces with LVMH.”

Duffy is keen to give the French fashion and luxury goods group its due - without it, he says, the brand would be nothing in terms of retail. But he admits it hasn’t always been an easy relationship, particularly at the beginning. “Now that we make money it’s a lot smoother. They like us a lot more,” he jokes.

He can joke because the business is doing well. LVMH does not split up its businesses’ results so he is unable to give figures, but sales and profits only took off after the business broke even four years ago. “When I talk to design students, they go pale when I tell them it took us 24 years to make a profit. We only started making money in real terms two years ago.”

He describes the two collections Marc Jacobs and Marc by Marc Jacobs as totally complementary. The customer group for both, he says, is fairly ageless, but the Marc Jacobs customer is looking for a certain level of quality in the construction of the garments. “We have been open here for just over a week and have had to take a couple of garments out of the window to be sold. One was an £8,000 Marc Jacobs dress that had 30 velvet-covered buttons with loop closures down the back. That’s the kind of garment where you must have a dresser, and it sums the label up. Marc by Marc Jacobs is much faster - it’s trend driven but still has really broad appeal.”

Diffusion range Marc by Marc Jacobs produces the biggest profit, with lower prices, higher margins and much larger volumes. Duffy says that it is difficult to be precise about the sales split because the Marc Jacobs Collection accessories collection is a real money-spinner. “If you were just talking about ready-to-wear, Marc by Marc Jacobs would account for 80% of sales, but with Marc Jacobs handbags it is about a 60/40 split.”

Duffy says there is still plenty for him to do at the business. He has been pushing LVMH to give the go-ahead for a third line. “I want to do something less expensive and reach a broader audience.”

LVMH might be persuaded. “Chairman Bernard Arnault is a very open man and never says no. So I will continue to push it.”

You sense Duffy is no pushover. “I totally respect the people I work with and that sometimes they need to keep a lid on my expenses, but at the same time it’s my occupation to think out of the box. I know that spending an extra £10,000 on something can generate an extra £100 million of sales and that spending more on a show will generate the right kind of critical reaction. So I will stand up for it.”

And with that he takes his leave to check on the progress of the not inexpensive 800-guest Marc By Marc Jacobs after-show party at London’s Connaught Hotel.

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