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The gloves are off

Dents has a 230-year history of glove making. But chief executive Robert Yentob tells Lucia Cockcroft that to strengthen its hand, it must modernise and get its fingers on the broader accessories market

It could well be a scene from 1777, the year a man named John Dent left his apprenticeship in Worcester and decided to launch a company specialising in premium handmade gloves.

Rows of factory workers sit sewing, with expressions of intense concentration etched on their faces. A wrong move during the cutting and sewing process means starting again from scratch - a less-than-viable option when each pair of gloves takes up to four hours to make.

But this is not a scene from the 18th century. It's a day in the life of modern-day Dents, at the firm's UK factory and head office in Warminster, Wiltshire.

Little has changed in Dents' glove-making process since the 1770s, apart from the use of sewing machines, which were invented in the mid-19th century. Up to 50 pieces of material are used for one pair of gloves, and two gloves are effectively made for each one - the lining, typically made of silk and cashmere, is treated as a separate piece so that fit and comfort are of the highest possible standard.

After the lining is inserted, the glove is carefully ironed on an electrically heated brass hand in a process known as laying out. Then, before being packed off to be sold, each glove is carefully inspected for quality control. It is rare to find an imperfection, but if this happens it is rejected immediately.

The attention to detail lavished on the glove-making process is integral to Dents' cache as a premium brand, 230 years after the company was born. Unsurprisingly, the business trades heavily on its heritage and reputation, putting a focus on craftsmanship and quality to provide a point of difference against the high street and newer rival glove brands.

Unusually, Dents has no direct branded competitor at its price level in the market. Its gloves and accessories (which account for 55% of the brand's sales) retail at department stores and independents in the UK and internationally, with the export business accounting for a whopping 90% of sales. Japan, the US, Belgium and Russia are its biggest customers.

Robert Yentob, Dents' charismatic managing director (and brother of Alan Yentob, the BBC's creative director), says there is a reason for this: Brits tend to value the brand's heritage less than foreigners, "The UK market isn't always prepared to pay for quality," he says.

Given that Dents' competition includes just about every shop selling gloves, this perhaps isn't surprising. An average pair of Dents gloves retails at £100; the most expensive pair goes for £299 at Selfridges. Why would someone fork out this much, when they could easily spend far less?

Yentob is emphatic that customers are getting what they pay for, and after viewing first-hand the time and care injected into the process, it's difficult to argue with him. "We are giving good value considering how much work has gone into the products. We are offering value, style, quality. Customers know they get quality and reliability," he says.

He admits, however, that modernity and design haven't been at the top of Dents' agenda - a shortcoming that is now being addressed. The company's website at www.dents.co.uk looks contemporary enough, but making sure the rest of the business is brought into the 21st century too is now a top priority.

Two areas are key to the modern face of Dents: accessories and design. Although the company is known primarily for its gloves, accessories have always been integral to its offer and now comprise 55% of total production. Factories in Hungary, the Czech Republic, Italy, India and China manufacture the brand's accessories.

Dents' full collection spans gloves, hats, bags, pashminas, scarves and small leather goods for women, and gloves, hats, bags, belts, scarves and leather goods for men.

Yentob admits that this year will see a drop in glove sales for the "first time in years" and puts this partly down to global warming and the fact that people simply need them less.

But in general, he is happy with financial performance. Sales to the year ending January 31 2007 came in at £9.5 million, a marginal rise on 2006 (£9.2m) and 2005 (£9m). Profit margins hover at about 10%, says Yentob, and the year to 2008 should be up again, "although to be honest I'll be happy if it's the same," he adds.

Many would say that the decision to focus on the crowded accessories market is a brave and potentially risky one, particularly as the brand is overwhelmingly known for its gloves and the accessories market is overcrowded with British heritage brands.

But the impression Yentob gives is that there isn't really any choice, in the face of warmer winters and a tough business climate.

"Gloves aren't a reliable, indefinite business stream," he says. However, he is clearly under no illusion that cracking the market will be easy.

"The difficulty comes in getting people to buy from us instead of our competition. We have to show that we can transfer what we have with our gloves - design, quality and service - to other products."

The main accessories push comes in the form of women's bags, aimed at the 25-plus female and stocked in department stores and indies. The company has taken on two full-time designers to work on the collection.

"The aim is for our bags to be functional and fashionable - quality mixed with style," says creative director Deborah Moore. "The handbag market is tough, but we don't expect overnight results. I think people recognise the Dents name and have had a good experience with us."

Despite the challenges, the results, although from a very low base, appear promising. Apart from a slight slide in recent months, handbag sales have grown by 40% each season.

The second focus for Dents is in design. The team is now eight-strong, including new arrival Max Leung, ex-head of design at Billy Bag. who is heading the bag collection and bringing a more contemporary focus to the range.

Yentob says: "We are trying to get the brand to be more trend-driven. Everyone requires fashion nowadays as part of the design package, and no one regards themselves as an older person, even if they are over 50 or 60."

That's true enough, but Yentob admits there is a fine line between trading on the brand's heritage and presenting it in a contemporary light. "It's a question of finding that balance - they can then marry together," he says.

DENTS: THE INSIDE INFORMATION

- Dents was founded in Worcester by John Dent in 1777. The business thrived, and by 1839 his sons John and William were exporting gloves internationally. Further growth came in the 1850s, when the firm was bought and renamed Dent, Allcroft and Company, giving it access to warehousing and offices. At that time, the company produced men's collars, cardigans and jackets.

- The company's network of factories and offices expanded, while it continued to trade on the craftsmanship of the traditional English glover working with the world's finest leathers.

- Dents moved to its present head office in Warminster, Wiltshire, in the 1930s, around the time it acquired West Country glovers AL Jefferies. Dents' position was cemented four decades later, when it acquired its principal competitor, Fownes. The company is now part of the Dewhurst Dent Group.

- Dents has 110 staff, 70 of whom are based at the head office and main factory in Warminster. It has three London showrooms and factories in Hungary, Italy, the Czech Republic, India and China.

- Gloves form 45% of the collection - the other 55% comprises bags, hats, pashminas, scarves and small leather goods.

- It takes 32 different operations and up to four hours to manufacture a pair of gloves. About 80% are made from sheep's leather from north Africa, supplied and tanned by Yeovil-based Pittard. The rest are made using skins from the peccary, a South American mammal, and North American deer skin.

- The style and design of the glove is determined by the "pattern" - a flat, thick piece of card in a glove shape. A different pattern is used for each size, and varies according to the type of leather used.

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