The chief executive of Lee Cooper, Andy Dunkley, sets out the denim brand’s ambitious global plans under its new owner.
For a 105-year old east London brand which started out as a uniform manufacturer for British troops in the First World War, Lee Cooper is a much different proposition today.
In fact, UK sales from Europe’s oldest denim brand only account for 5% of overall turnover, which largely come from its major stockist Sports Direct - the brand declined to give full stockist details. It’s a far cry from its 1950s heyday when, according to Lee Cooper, the brand was “embraced by 80% of the UK market”.
Sach Kukadia, founder of etailer Secret Sales, which stocks Lee Cooper, says the brand’s “limited distribution in recent times has affected its positioning”. He adds: “Consequently the consumer’s perception of the brand has diminished and requires attention.”
Lee Cooper chief executive Andy Dunkley admits the UK is “financially less important” than international but defends the brand’s domestic positioning: “UK sales are at their highest level since the 1990s. We have invested in product and homegrown creative talent at record levels through our east London offices, and are seeing significant return on that. The brand is at its highest-ever sales level globally. These figures are all indicative of the success and popularity of the brand in today’s market, both internationally and in the UK.”
Dunkley is keen to emphasise that Lee Cooper’s London roots are at the heart of the company. “The East End is essential for the brand,” he enthuses. “It’s where we come from, it’s where the label originated and it happens that there are still some fantastic creative people [here].”
The label moved its head office to Shoreditch in 2010, and although Dunkley won’t reveal how many people are employed at its HQ, he says: “It’s great to work with people who really understand the brand and are inspired by it; it really bolsters the creativity of Lee Cooper around the world and pushes us forward.”
With more than 500 stockists and 46 licensees selling in more than 100 countries, it’s clear that Dunkley is eyeing international markets for further growth and expects to grow international sales by double digits. He says that in the coming year Lee Cooper plans to launch in South America, targeting Colombia and Argentina, as well as venturing into Australia and the US.
He stresses that the move into the US will not turn Lee Cooper into a “cowboy brand” and welcomes the “challenge of communicating the label’s recognisable values” to the American consumer in order to distinguish itself from homegrown denim giant Levi’s.
The international push comes on the back of the brand’s acquisition by US licensing firm Iconix Brand Group in February for $72m (£46.2m). Speaking about the deal, for which talks had been ongoing since 2010, Dunkley says: “It is a continuing relationship in terms of investing, marketing and product development. They are very supportive and want Lee Cooper to continue to do what it has been doing.”
The brand, whose wholesale price range starts at £15 for T-shirts and goes up to £35 for jeans, expects turnover in 2013 to top $500m (£321m), up from $430m (£276m) last year, with double-digit growth set to continue for 2014.
Operating profit rose double digits in each of the last three years, and in the next five years Lee Cooper aims to hit sales of $1bn (£641m).
While Lee Cooper’s Britishness has been instrumental in growing its international distribution, Dunkley says he is cautious to avoid “brash” imagery of “double-decker buses and red telephone boxes” when relaying the brand’s message to customers around the world.
“There is a balance. Lee Cooper is from London and inspired by the city but I don’t want it to be ‘of London’. I want to move things forward,” he insists.
This attitude was at the forefront of Dunkley’s strategy to rebuild the denim brand when he joined as chief financialofficer in 2008. A self-confessed fashion novice, the former chartered accountant was promoted to chief executive within six months and set about “revamping” the label.
“It has the most fantastic heritage but I felt that was all that was left of the brand. We were unfocused on who our consumer was, so we were doing too much design, too much of everything. Lee Cooper hadn’t been updated and although history gives you an entry to the customer and an authenticity, you have to keep moving on,” he says, referencing the brand’s strategy to tackle overseas markets and online.
Dunkley concludes: “We’ve been around for 105 years but we are not selling to the same consumer that we were in 1908. It is key to make sure a brand with this level of authenticity is still pushing on and evolving.”