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Bag to basics

After growing unhappy on the sidelines, Radley’s founder and former chief executive have returned to recapture its affordable luxury roots.

So at home are Roger Best and Lowell Harder at Radley, sitting in the showroom at its London HQ drinking coffee, it’s hard to imagine the pair have ever been away from the business. Harder says the handbag and accessories brand’s office at Mornington Crescent (in a building shared with etailer Asos, as well as Drapers) is a far cry from Radley’s beginnings in an old milk dairy in Willesden, northwest London.

The move to the Mornington Crescent office was made in 2006, and by 2009 Radley was turning over about £70m and was considered the most popular handbag brand in the UK.

It was at this point the pair decided to take a step back. “I enjoy playing golf and quite fancied playing a bit more golf,” jokes Best. Harder says she had been looking to buy a home in the Cotswolds, “so it just seemed like the right time”.

“I’d built an exit strategy as I knew that one day I would want to take a step back,” she explains. “I had a very good design director [Natalie Bolton] working under me and I had set her up to carry things on once I’d left.” However, Best adds that unfortunately, Bolton didn’t stay.

The pair retained their investment in Radley and so continued to take an active interest from a distance. “It’s fair to say that we weren’t entirely happy with the direction the brand was going in under the new team [headed up by chairman Paul Mason and chief executive Sven Gaede],” says Best. “So I was approached and asked if I wanted to come back as chairman and interim chief executive. I came back in January this year and then in March Lowell joined me again.”

Mason left earlier this year to focus on his role as chairman of toy brand Mayborn, while the reasons for Gaede’s departure were unclear. He is now retail development director at retail outlet operator McArthurGlen.  

When pushed by Drapers on what they were unhappy with under the previous administration, Harder says the brand had lost sight of its mission and who its core customer was. “It was trying to be something it wasn’t.

I guess it had lost some of the fun,” she says. “There was also an issue with quality. The product that was coming out just wasn’t the same quality as it used to be.”

Harder explains that she and Best have been busy making key changes in order to, as they put it, “get the brand back on the right track”. The process has involved changing the spring 13 collection so the focus is once again on bags and small leather goods [rather than newer introductions such as shoes and watches], as well as streamlining the distribution channels and introducing a more premium range into the collection.

“It all got too wide, they were trying to do too many things with it,” says Harder. Best adds: “Additionally we needed to look at our distribution network. It had got too big and when something like that gets too big, you lose control of the brand and the brand identity.”

As a result, he explains, Radley took the decision to pull out of Debenhams.

“That was quite a big thing for us to do but it will help us with where we want the brand to be,” he says. Autumn 12 will be the brand’s last season in the department store chain, a move which contributes to Radley cutting its number of doors from about 1,000 in autumn 12 to around 400 for spring 13.

Controlling the distribution network is something John Lewis buying and brand director Peter Ruis approves of. “Distribution is now tighter, which works better with our customer who is always after something unique,” he says.

Best says communicating that Radley is an “affordable luxury premium brand” is the message they want to get across. This was, after all, the original brand positioning when Harder launched it in 1998 after becoming “fed-up” with seeing bags in the same colours – such as black and navy. Instead, she wanted to create something different and colourful.

“I asked a handbag factory I was working with at the time to teach me everything I needed to know about making handbags and it went from there,” she recalls. “I had to persuade John Lewis to buy a very small number as a test to see if they sold, and they just flew.”

Radley remains a staple brand in the John Lewis portfolio today. Ruis describes it as a brand that has “real customer loyalty” among John Lewis shoppers.

Such was the brand’s success that by the time Best joined in 2005, group turnover had reached £30m. “I had a background in fashion and was looking for a new challenge. Lowell needed someone with a business head to help her run things while she focused on the creative side, and help take things to the next level,” he explains.

The pair are now intent on returning the brand to its affordable luxury roots, and as part of that push have created the premium range for spring 13, which has seen the price architecture widen at the top end. “We will still have our entry-level product,” says Harder. “But now we are going up to almost £400 which is a big deal for us considering we used to think we were pushing the boundaries at £250.”

Radley will continue to work with model Laura Bailey, the face of the brand, for spring 13, something which began for spring 12 under brand director Lorraine Pringle, who joined in September 2011. Bailey has since gone on to launch her own line of bags for Radley this season. “Lorraine [Pringle] has done a fantastic job at getting Radley more recognition from the fashion press with things such as the Laura Bailey campaign,” says Harder. “We just need to make sure we carry on with that now and look at doing more things like that.”

Pauline Gebbett, owner of accessories indie Hide All, which has two stores in southeast London, feels positive about Radley’s spring 13 offer, the first full collection under Best and Harder. “We’ve enjoyed Radley throughout the seasons but the range coming up for spring 13 is really exciting and it also looks very commercial,” she says.

Lowell and Best have also appointed a new design director, Sarah Edwards, and devised the concept of a creative hub. Nick Vance, who was originally sales and marketing director back in 2006, has also rejoined Radley, as marketing director, and will form part of this hub along with Harder and Pringle, who is stepping back to take on the role of brand consultant for two days a week as she also pursues her own projects. The design team will also form part of this creative hub as will the PR team, which will be taken in-house from the start of next year.

“The idea is for everyone who has anything to do with the creative energy of this business to all be working together,” says Harder. “Those teams were all separate in the past and it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Best adds that a new chief executive has also just been appointed, though he declines to reveal who. “Lowell and I will still be involved but I’d quite like to get back to playing golf,” he jokes.

Both Best and Harder are obviously excited about the future of Radley, and it seems they’re not the only ones.

“Best and Harder are the brand and they can bring the right focus to it,” adds Gebbett, a sentiment Ruis agrees with. “When the brand was truly flying, Roger and Lowell were at the helm, so it gives me a lot of confidence to see them back,” he says. “I look forward to the next few years.”

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