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Close up: Michele Malenotti, marketing and business expansion director, Matchless

After selling Belstaff, the Malenotti brothers climbed aboard motorcycle brand Matchless. Michele Malenotti brings us up to speed with its plans.

The autumn buying season is nearly at a close when Drapers catches up with Michele Malenotti, board member and marketing and business expansion director of motorcycle brand Matchless. Having taken over the company last year with his brother Manuele, Malenotti has spent an exhaustive season presenting the pair’s debut clothing collection for the brand to UK and international buyers.

As the former owners of British heritage label Belstaff, it’s a process the brothers know well.

Their latest venture sees them refreshing the UK’s oldest motorcycle brand by launching a range of men’s and women’s jackets for autumn 13 (the motorcycles will come later). An advertising campaign featuring Kate Moss
has generated immediate industry buzz, and Drapers is keen to discover whether the collection lives up to the hype.

Immaculately dressed and with a lilting Italian accent, it’s easy to see how Malenotti’s charm has worked to his advantage: he’s bagged the brand accounts for autumn 13 in 15 countries. With heavyweight department stores including Bloomingdale’s in New York, El Corte Inglés in Spain and Selfridges in the UK buying into the collection, it’s safe to say his confidence is high when we sit down to chat.

“We’ve already had a good response,” he says, smiling. “[We have] 150 clients worldwide and it’s only top clients. For a first season we are over the target, and I believe we can grow. The expectation for the first year was €3.5m (£2.95m) wholesale and we’ve made €4m (£3.37m), so we’re over [our target].”

The numbers are impressive for a brand still finding its legs, but it’s Malenotti’s ambition that really strikes a chord. “We’re going to open nine stores in three or four years’ time,” with Milan, Paris and New York as targets, he says.

“We’d like to grow as fast as possible and think we can achieve results very quickly.”

The brand is funded by the Malenotti family, but they are currently securing a further investor. This, Malenotti tells me, will cement plans for London openings - specifically a showroom (in addition to its Milan showroom), a concept store in time for spring 14, and a Matchless museum to highlight the company’s motorcycling heritage.

Big plans indeed, but it’s the ‘heritage’ buzzword that Malenotti insists will be the key to the brand’s success.

Founded in 1899, Matchless is an iconic name that has traditionally produced clothing alongside motorcycles.

Plus, cycling and motorcycles remain highly popular, particularly in Europe, with about eight million people in Italy alone going to work on a motorcycle or scooter, Malenotti tells me. There’s definitely a market there for a label once heralded by the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

“The reaction [from buyers] is fantastic,” he says. “People really feel that this brand is authentic, as you can see the history. It’s a real motorcycle company - it’s not the same as just [offering] clothing.”

Authenticity and heritage trends have dominated menswear over the past couple of years; as Malenotti suggests, “the classic has become fashionable” when it comes to British brands. He acknowledges this means Matchless will be placed in a highly competitive field, but he is nonetheless optimistic regarding the brand’s potential.

“It’s an English brand. Barbour is a competitor, all the English brands are competitors,” he says, shrugging. “But I think the price point of those brands is far away from where we are. The value of [our] leather jacket is much higher.”

Looking through the collection, the quality of the product is indeed impressive, incorporating British leather and washed cotton, all made in Italy. Jersey jackets are treated with a special membrane to render them waterproof, and design details such as covered buttons, iPad pockets, and peaks on hoods make for innovative modern pieces. Wholesale prices range from €98 (£83) for a quilted jacket to €693 (£585) for the top-end shearling and leather collection, pitching at a level Malenotti describes as “luxury urban”.

When it comes to competitors, however, the obvious connection has to be made between the Malenottis’ new brand and their previous ownership of Belstaff, which they sold to Labelux in 2011 for a reported €110m (£92.8m).

Heavy debts were disclosed at the time of the sale, largely blamed on an overly aggressive expansion plan with too many stores opened too quickly. There is a definite sense of déjà vu between the brands, with the brothers even having used Kate Moss in their original Belstaff campaigns. The Malenottis’ Hollywood connections were also exploited to boost the Belstaff label, which appeared in a number of movies. The same approach has been taken for Matchless, with the brand dressing Gerard Butler and Tom Cruise for recent premieres.

But Malenotti doesn’t see Belstaff as a competitor to Matchless, despite the obvious comparisons. He cites Belstaff’s movement towards the luxury sector since its sale as a move away from the identity the Malenottis built of “traditional clothing”, which is where he sees Matchless now. He is, of course, coy regarding the sale of the brand, saying it was “the right compromise”, as Belstaff was a family business with no outside equity. “We learned many things from the experience,” he states confidently. “That’s why the new investor wants us to manage the [Matchless] business.” Although for now, he’s not letting on who that investor will be.

Interestingly, buyers who have bought into the Matchless range for autumn 13 have been quick to cite their admiration for the Malenottis’ running of Belstaff rather than the debt. Moreno Ferraro, owner of Hampstead designer indie Linea Fashion, has invested €60,000 (£50,655) into Matchless’s debut collection. He says: “The [Malenotti] family used to own Belstaff, and then after they sold it Belstaff went in a new direction, losing its core customer. I used to spend half a million euros with Belstaff, and now it’s down to €80,000 (£67,540).”

He adds: “The Malenottis built Belstaff from nothing, and they’re already starting on the right foot with Matchless.

Belstaff left a gap in the market, and Matchless could fill it. But it’s not even about comparing the clothing, it’s comparing the figures.”

Giulio Cinque, owner of Cambridge indie Giulio, told Drapers he hadn’t bought into Matchless for autumn as the range was ready too late in the season, but said he may do for spring 14: “I did buy Belstaff until it was sold as I’m not a fan of the new brand strategy. I was disappointed to see Belstaff sold, as I much admired the integrityMichele kept with the brand. I’m sure Matchless will be built on the same belief.”

In terms of strategy, Malenotti insists the brand won’t mimic Belstaff, and the wholesale operation and bricks-and-mortar retail will be pushed simultaneously: “Being stocked in stores such as Selfridges backs up the brand’s credentials in the market and ensures we present the right image to the end consumer, while our own stores will enable us to communicate our own identity on a global level.” As well as this, Matchless is set to launch a transactional website in June, serving 76 countries.

“It’s not the same strategy as before,” Malenotti says, drawing a line under my questioning. “It’s a new strategy, and the way we present it will be different. With Belstaff, we had to create the identity of the brand before selling it, whereas Matchless already has a strong identity. We just need to communicate that with the consumer.”

And with that, he strides over to the Matchless motorbike in the corner of the room, ready to pose for his photo and looking every inch a man whose confidence knows no bounds.

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