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Asbed Momdjian

After a turbulent few years for World Design & Trade (WDT), owner of Firetrap and Fullcircle, its founder is reigniting his ambitions via a short-order strategy and retail growth

Rewind two years and World Design & Trade (WDT) founder Asbed Momdjian was flanked in his head office in Park Royal, north London, by some of young fashion’s leading lights.

Pan Philippou, former boss of Diesel North America, was his chief executive at the brand house. The UK sales director of Firetrap, which WDT owns, was the widely respected Colin Clarke, Sjors Bos had been brought in from Nike to grow Firetrap overseas, and the former head of womenswear retail at Marks & Spencer, Myriam Ben Yedder, was heading up Fullcircle.

Looking from the outside in, it seemed like a dream team. Then one warm morning in August 2009, it was announced that Philippou was leaving. A series of high-profile exits followed, with all of the above bar Ben Yedder leaving WDT in quick succession. All left to pursue new opportunities.

A full, 90-day review of WDT, led by Momdjian, followed and the sale of the business’s Sonneti brand to JD Sports Fashion was signed off in May last year. Then, five months ago, much to the surprise of stockists, the menswear arm of Fullcircle was shuttered after showing no growth for two years.

This turbulent overhaul was designed to create a better-focused, fast-fashion business; but initially it left staff at WDT reeling and the market confused. Today, the dust has settled and the result is a streamlined WDT trading two brands - Firetrap and Fullcircle womenswear.

“We had massive ambitions and it was time to put in a certain structure to handle that,” says Momdjian in his soothing Armenian tones. “That’s when we became too top heavy. [The restructure] wasn’t anything to do with talent - there were just too many layers. Today it’s a very flat structure and the best team we’ve ever had.”

Straight talking

These words are likely to sting those who have left WDT over the past 18 months. But it is clear when Momdjian talks about the sale of Sonneti that he is more “pragmatic than emotional” when it comes to business decisions.

Momdjian is notoriously thought of as shy - stand-offish even - and rarely does interviews, yet he is anything but cold. He talks of finding Ben Yedder as if he has discovered the light to his lamp. “I’ve been waiting all my life [for her],” he laughs, deflecting genuine emotion.

Ben Yedder was drafted in from M&S in 2008 to run Fullcircle. Momdjian says she has “proved herself”, which is why she has been given the top job overseeing Firetrap as brand and retail director, while Momdjian is in charge of Fullcircle.

Although he has no plans to retire, Momdjian says a succession plan is important. He is proud of how autonomous the WDT structure has become - and, importantly, he seems to have learnt how to let go and delegate.

“The trick is to make quick decisions. If Myriam wants to make a decision, she doesn’t need to ask me,” he says.

The Fullcircle business model will change dramatically in January 2012, and WDT’s quick decision-making skills will be put to the test. The plan is to turn Fullcircle into one of the market’s first short-order contemporary womenswear brands, with two forward-order and four short-order collections annually. “There is nobody that gives quality-designed product at short order [at the premium level of the market],” he says. “We saw a gap and that’s what we’re working towards.”

But there are risks involved in moving a business that has traditionally been forward order into a short-order product cycle. “We’re talking about real cash money here,” says Momdjian. “There are two things that can go wrong. You can buy short [under buy] or you can buy something that doesn’t translate. That’s a big risk.” WDT works with 30 factories on Firetrap and Fullcircle, and between five and six factories per category (jersey, denim, jackets etc). Most, he says, have “bent over backwards” to help him realise his fast-fashion ambitions.

Hot property

At Firetrap, which has more than 300 UK stockists, growth is slated to come from UK wholesale, retail and overseas expansion. Global sales of the brand grew 32% last year and similar figures are expected this year. UK sales are budgeted to grow “a conservative” 16% and a Dublin showroom is about to open.

Sales are split 70% wholesale to 30% retail, but the team is moving towards a 50/50 model. To this end, Firetrap (which only currently operates stores in the UK and Republic of Ireland) is about to embark on an ambitious overseas retail push and has just signed a lease on a store in Los Angeles. Stores are planned for Russia, India and the US, and 10 stores will be open overseas by the end of 2012.

Momdjian is confident that Firetrap will translate overseas. He and Ben Yedder define the brand’s “DNA”, in unison, as “modern, industrial utility-inspired designs, inspired by London with a rock ‘n’ roll spirit”. He admits the brand’s identity and handwriting needs reasserting following the restructure, and he will invest 60% more into marketing Firetrap than he did last year.

“At times we were maybe not true to our heritage and DNA,” he says. “We made the mistake of chasing the market instead of staying steadfast.”

As the interview winds down, Momdjian has relaxed. “I love this business,” he says sincerely. “I couldn’t be in the cans of beans business. This industry is always changing - what else can one ask for?”

CV

2010 Sonneti brand sold to JD Sports Fashion; Fullcircle menswear shuts

2004 First Firetrap store opens on Earlham Street, London

2002 WDT opens its London head office

1995 Fullcircle launched

1993 Firetrap launched

1983 WDT first makes a profit, on £1m turnover

1982 Sonneti brand is founded

Asbed Momdjian and Myriam Ben Yedder on…

Firetrap’s customer…

Myriam Ben Yedder: It’s a broad church. Some stockists want younger, more commercial product, but retail is more fashion-led. The truer we are to our identity, the better results we are seeing. We are pushing the boundaries a lot more than before.

The cotton price increases…

MBY: We’ve seen small price hikes in some cases; in other cases we’ve taken a hit on margin. We have a good, better, best model. T-shirt prices are the same as last autumn, but some jacket styles have seen a 5% to 8% price increase.

The recession and independents…

Asbed Momdjian: There aren’t that many indies closing in our customer base. The number we lost was not that significant given the severity of the recession. Both indies and multiples are essential for the industry. They are the heart and soul and I can’t imagine one without the other. You need the exposure and volumes from multiples and you need indies to take the risk and give the service.

Setting up Firetrap…

AM: In 1989/90 there was a severe recession and the market was looking for a new bottoms brand, and it was the right time to introduce it. Sonneti [which already existed] was an Italian-sounding name and the future was a strong, aggressive-sounding brand name.

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