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Walpole CEO: How British luxury is adapting and thriving amid Covid-19

Helen Brocklebank, chief executive officer of Walpole, the official sector body and voice of UK luxury, discusses British luxury brands’ ability to adjust to change and grow. 

As I write, more than 20 thousand people have now died in the UK as a result of coronavirus. In the face of such human tragedy, health and safety has quite rightly become the priority for individuals and businesses alike. Luxury in a time of such necessity seems like a direct contradiction.

Yet the economic cost of the crisis has hit the British luxury sector hard: the twin engines of luxury in the UK are retail and hospitality, fuelled both by a strong export market, and the attraction of the UK for affluent overseas visitors. The lockdown has closed all hospitality businesses, and all but essential retail, both in the UK and all around the world. No more travel, no more international trade.

Has British luxury put itself into hibernation, sitting it out until shops can open up again and people will start to travel? Absolutely not. Despite not being able to do much business, this most creative and entrepreneurial of sectors responded by reaching out to their communities, to the NHS, to the vulnerable.

Burberry and Mulberry repurposed their factories to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline NHS workers, while perfumier Miller Harris donated its entire stock of soaps to Age UK. Jo Malone switched from producing candles in its Petersfield factory to making hand sanitiser. Turnbull & Asser has turned its workshop over to making scrubs.

In addition to housing NHS staff from St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, hotel Claridge’s delivers daily packed meals for more than 500 NHS workers and community support teams across London via Meal Force. Watch brand Bremont offered to put its manufacturing facilities to work as part of the Ventilator Challenge UK project.

Even the smallest and newest luxury brands in Walpole’s Brands of Tomorrow cohort are contributing: for every pair of trousers sold, womenswear label Dai gives a pair to an NHS worker; knitwear brand Country of Origin pivoted completely to making hand sanitiser; Anna Mason London is making masks. Across the industry, luxury businesses of all sizes are doing what they can, where they can, in the national effort. This is the spirit of British luxury.

At the same time, I’ve also been extraordinarily impressed by the leadership shown by British luxury’s CEOs. They moved quickly to secure and shore-up their operations, taking difficult but necessary decisions, but also looking ahead into an uncertain future. Luxury will change – high-touch, highly personalised in-store experiences will be more difficult to deliver in a context of prolonged social distancing.

How does Harrods, for example, as the largest luxury store in the world, do business if only five thousand customers are allowed in the shop at any one time? To put that into context, pre-Covid-19, around 70,000 customers would be in Harrods on the first day of its Sale. And although waiting in line outside Supreme, or even Gucci, was once a sign of being at the bleeding edge of fashion, it’s hard to think how key shopping destinations like Bond Street and Bicester Village will work if only two people were able to go in each boutique at any one time.

And how does one square the fact that sustainability is still an essential future tenet of luxury with the fact that brands will be left with huge amounts of unsold inventory from the spring 20 season? Luxury attracts leaders who are highly skilled at adapting to the needs of a constantly evolving global customer, but with unimaginable disruption to every single aspect of their brand, from supply chain to customer behaviour, those who able to adapt fastest to the whole picture will be those who emerge from the crisis sprinting, not limping.

As a sector, we are using this time to look hard at what luxury can and should mean going forward. There are cornerstones that can and must be maintained so they can be switched back on once we are through the critical phase. The chancellor’s Job Retention Scheme has been fundamental to keeping the tremendous dedication, talent and commitment of a highly skilled, highly regarded workforce in the brands, to ensure that the very best of British goods and manufacturing keep their place among the very best in the world.

Luxury is and always will be a people business. We rely on the exceptional talent, skill and consistency of those men and women across the industry who are able to elevate what they do to an art form. They make the useful beautiful and the beautiful useful – there is a role for moments of both in life. But things will be different, and the agility and creativity that typifies Britain’s luxury sector will be central to making an opportunity out of a crisis.

The speed at which luxury embraces ecommerce will accelerate, and management consulting firm Bain’s prediction that 25% of luxury sales will be transacted online by 2025 looks like it will be achieved by the end of 202. In China, for example, Tmall’s Women’s Day (8 March) luxury sales were up 40% on 2019, and WeChat luxury fashion mini-program traffic in February was up 59% on the previous month, McKinsey reports.

British luxury has, particularly in the last 10 years, come to rely heavily on an international customer, but Walpole predicts a renewed emphasis on the domestic market and many businesses will be looking to brands with a strong local customer base like Boodles and Fortnum & Mason for a model.

Yet, in an age where everything has been digital, the human will become infinitely more precious. Digital makes everything seem infinitely replicable and mass produced –- things that are anathema to the luxury customer looking for something unique and special. The luxury transaction may be completed more frequently online, but the role of bricks and mortar in creating a unique and meaningful experience will increase, rather than decrease, as fewer people are able to access it in a socially distanced world.

Luxury in a time of uncertainty may well prove its importance in people’s lives. But one thing is certain, of all business sectors, the long history of many of Britain’s luxury brands suggests it has a uniquely Darwinian ability to adapt and thrive.


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