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The Drapers Interview: Radley's Lowell Harder & Natalie Bolton

Radley spring 16 collection

Radley’s Australian founder and her design director are building a great British export brand.

Natalie Bolton and Lowell Harder of Radley

Natalie Bolton and Lowell Harder of Radley

“We didn’t know the success of the business was going to be like it is,” says Lowell Harder with a smile.

Dressed in a petrol blue Cos blouse and frameless glasses, and sporting a glossy dark crop, the Australian founder of British handbag and accessories retailer Radley looks across the rows of smart totes, bucket bags and butter-soft leather backpacks gracing the walls of her company’s Islington office.

“The craft of working with leather, shapes and patterns has always been my thing. I’ve never considered myself that commercial, but we must have been because we’ve sold millions of bags.”

Established in London in 1998, Radley is the bestselling British handbag brand in John Lewis and House of Fraser. The company celebrated its third year of consecutive growth in 2015. Sales rose 2.8% to £64.4m for the year to April 30 2015, up 5% on a like-for-like basis. EBITDA surged by 27% from £4.3m in 2013/14 to £6m.

So Harder’s revelation to Drapers is a surprise.

“I’m retiring,” she says. “There is no date set, but the time has come when I want to do other things.” Harder grins, looking considerably younger than her 68 years.

I’m extremely competitive and I always wanted Radley to stay true to its principles of being honest and real

Lowell Harder, Radley

“I don’t feel this old, but it’s a young person’s world, especially with all the travelling involved in the role. I don’t want to do all that. Nat has always been what I call my ‘exit strategy’.”

“Nat” is Harder’s design director, Natalie Bolton. She has been with Radley on and off for 13 years, after joining in 2002 as a senior designer, progressing to design and development director in 2008. She left in 2010 to go freelance, only to return as design director in 2014.

Bolton’s mission is to refocus the brand on what it does best and explore new opportunities. For example, non-leather was a key focus for autumn 15. Nylon and canvas styles allowed the team to experiment with shapes such as backpacks (£30.38 wholesale) and totes (£23.08 to £45.77 wholesale).

“The nice thing is you can create these oversized bags, which if you were doing them in leather would cost £1,000. We can make a fantastic tote with trim on it, in a great print, but it’s under £100,” Bolton explains. “Diversifying into non-leather also helps in our international markets, where the climate is hotter. They still want our core elements, but we can tweak the offering a bit.”

Succession planning has brought further appointments to Radley’s top team in 2015, to leave a secure foundation after Harder’s departure. In May,

Sofa.com chairman Justin Stead joined as chief executive, followed by former Timex president Alan Stone-Wigg, who was appointed to the newly created chief operating officer role in October. From January, Stone-Wigg will lead the brand’s retail, ecommerce, wholesale and international divisions.

Dark age

This new era for Radley is a million miles away from what Harder calls “the dark period”. In December 2009, she took a step back from the business, resigning as a director, following fellow director Roger Best who resigned in May, and making way for a new team headed by chairman Paul Mason and chief executive Sven Gaede. Retaining their investment, Harder and Best watched on as Mason and Gaede steered Radley away from its heritage and design origins in a “cheap and cheerful” direction focused less on leather goods and diversifying into products such as scarves and slippers. Key people left, among them Bolton.

Harder is unwilling to say more about the situation but explains that, after sensing the brand needed her input again, she re-took control in 2012. Best was appointed a director in February 2012, the same day Gaede resigned. Harder regained her director status in June 2013, and sought to refocus the brand on its core values.

The strengthened team is a statement of intent.

“I’m extremely competitive and I always wanted Radley to be the best and stay true to its principles of being honest and real,” says Harder.

Owned by Exponent Private Equity, Phoenix Equity Partners and the company’s management team since 2007, Radley is targeting own-retail and online growth both at home and abroad. To help drive this ambition in the summer it hired Cavendish Corporate Finance to seek new investors to raise an undisclosed sum, although no action will be taken until after Christmas.

Radley has plans to expand its 33-store UK portfolio by a further 10 stores nationwide over the next five years, but declined to reveal specifics. It also operates 13 shop-in-shops across Germany’s Karstadt department stores. Stead reports that, as a result of overseas expansion, Radley now operates in 15 countries. It has three standalone stores in Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, and in other markets is growing its presence through distributors. He says the brand can be bought at 120 retailers worldwide.

Radley launched its first ecommerce site in 2007 and now ships to 47 countries. It has local language sites in Japan and Germany and these, together with its main UK site, attract 8 million visitors a year. Online accounts for 17% of total sales and is growing. The plan is to treble online sales by 2020, says Stead, which in 2015 alone rose by 19%.

Radley sees the website as a “global flagship” and its biggest opportunity online to grow international sales, which rose by a third in 2014. It is keen for further global expansion, particularly in Asia and in the US, where it is in preliminary discussions to develop a wholesale business based in Dallas, Texas.

While still meaningful, the wholesale business is smaller than it was 10 years ago,as Radley has focused on own-retail and online.

“We are sold in 34 John Lewis department stores on a concession basis and all 58 House of Fraser stores as a wholesale account, as well as seven Fenwick department stores and 82 other department stores nationwide. We also sell to 180 independents,” says Stead. He adds that duty-free sales at airports and on board planes are a growth area, and World Duty Free is one of its biggest wholesale customers.

In 2007, independent chain Browns was the first department store in the country to present the Radley shop-in-shop concept at its York store.

Buying controller Karen Dhir has since noted a shift to more subtle branding in new collections, using marketing to emphasise the heritage: “It seems that Radley has gone back to basics with more focus on core product. The Border and Millbank collections, together with the non-leather lifestyle collections, especially totes, have been key this autumn 15 season, appealing to the true Radley customer.

“With the recent demise of other lifestyle brands, there is a great opportunity for Radley to develop the non-leather bags and accessories, which all hit a great price point. To continue to develop stylish collections with more subtle branding that appeal to the younger, more fashionable customer is essential to secure future success.”

The popularity of the non-leather styles is also noted by House of Fraser head of buying for fashion accessories brands and concessions, Louise Bailey: “The House of Fraser customer loves the quality and functionality of Radley handbags, as well as the fun prints and, of course, the Radley dog. Millbank is our biggest family and colour within this is doing well.

“Non-leather is performing really strongly for us, which is interesting, as it’s a fairly new product type for Radley, so it’s great to see the reaction. The new brand direction has seen a good reaction and has attracted a younger, more contemporary customer. The collaboration with Jonathan Saunders is a great way to attract press and draw new customers in.

Radley spring 16 collection

Radley

Radley spring 16 collection

Although 85% of the business is in handbags and small leather goods, Radley has diversified by licensing watches and eyewear. In 2015, the company signed a partnership with British fragrance house Broad Oak for a perfume collection and extended its luggage range through a tie-up with Hertfordshire-based licensee The Pelham Group.

Radley describes its core customer as a lady who loves investing in premium British brands with quality and individuality. For the past four seasons, it has also been targeting a more trend-led customer, who uses social media to find the latest key pieces.

This quirky British woman was the inspiration for Radley. Aged 22, Harder left her native Perth in Australia, travelling around Europe in a camper van, before settling in London in 1969.

“I loved London and the quirkiness of the English,” she recalls. “The English have got this hidden sense of humour and, when you eventually get it out of them, it’s great.”

By 1984 mother-of-three Harder was looking for a new challenge. Trained in architecture, but with no fashion experience, she set up a stall on Camden Market selling a friend’s Indian-made natural leather products. This introduction to the world of leather also led to Harder’s meeting with the factory in Kolkata that remains her main supplier today.

“My supplier absolutely loves leather and understands the creative world. He said to me: ‘I’ll teach you everything you need to know and within two years we’ll have a brand’. I absorbed everything from him,” Harder says.

Determined to have British branding, she was inspired by the public school regattas her sons rowed in: “I visualised all the schools they would be rowing against and thought ‘I like that name Radley’ – and we just went with it.”

Brit pop

From the start, the brand was designed to offer British women excitement and colour in accessories, using the best leather and practical design, at an accessible price point. Wholesale prices for spring 16 range from £23 for a small Cheshire Street shoulder bag to £115 for the Grosvenor saddle bag.

“I used to get really cross at what these department stores put on the shelf because I knew British women wanted something different. They had black, brown and blue bags – that was it. I’ve never approached the business as a money-making thing. I just wanted to have some fun, so I thought: ‘Let’s take the risk’.” Starting with six groups of three or four bags, Radley went bold, producing black bags with turquoise linings and colours under the straps.

“House of Fraser said the customer won’t buy it: ‘You’ll have to take that colour off’. Eventually, I convinced Caroline Overton at John Lewis [now own-brand manager for fashion] to buy it sale-or-return in 1998. She said yes and the result was phenomenal. We couldn’t produce enough.”

Two years in, Radley launched the cross-body Pocket Bag that remains its bestseller to this day (£34.23 to £41.92 wholesale).

“As a brand you want that iconic piece,” says Bolton. “We have such a vast history of beautiful constructions and the factory we work with has every pattern, so we can reinvent them.”

Grosvenor

Grosvenor

The Grosvenor saddle bag

This is true of the Grosvenor, the soft leather saddle bag first designed by Bolton in 2008. The style has been re-imagined to reflect the “Non-conformist” theme for autumn 16, which references characters throughout history.

Radley is reaching out to new customers with collaborations, including its latest limited edition link-up with designer Jonathan Saunders. Phased in two drops for autumn 15 and spring 16, the 16-piece collaboration references Saunders’ graphic style through woven sections in orange and bold monochrome (£25 to £95.77 wholesale).

With so much on the horizon, Harder seems relaxed about stepping back.

“I’m very happy with the structure of the business. I love Justin Stead’s direction and, if I were 10 years younger, I’d love to work with him. But I’m very happy Nat is finally taking over. Although, I will probably pop in every now and again.”

 

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