Liberty’s chief executive is charged with leading its renaissance, which kicked off with a revamp of its flagship store
Liberty, the 133-year-old luxury fashion emporium, relaunched its new-look flagship last month on London’s Great Marlborough Street, but the revamp is more than skin deep. Since the appointment of Frenchman Geoffroy de La Bourdonnaye as chief executive from luxury group LVMH in July 2007, the business has also overhauled its management team and brand portfolio.
Liberty has the kind of heritage and global brand recognition that most fashion businesses would kill for. But the company has struggled with its direction under a series of chief executives over the past decade. When de La Bourdonnaye joined, the AIM-listed business had just reported a pre-tax loss of about £2.2 million. Its maze-like mock Tudor store was in danger of hindering its directional fashion aspirations.
De La Bourdonnaye is the man charged with turning this around. He was brought in by chairman Richard Balfour-Lynn, owner of property group MWB, which holds a 68% stake in Liberty, to help develop the business as a global brand.
The first step has been to return the business to the original concept of founder Arthur Lasenby Liberty. De La Bourdonnaye says: “The concept of the business was originally to have beautiful exclusive things that you cannot find anywhere else. Things that were a little avant-garde, but importantly were affordable and accessible. We don’t want to have a stiff upper lip attitude.”
Yasmin Sewell, former fashion buyer at independent designer boutique Browns, was brought in on a consultancy basis, and de La Bourdonnaye credits much of the store’s revamp to her vision. The new-look shopfit retains most of the building’s Grade-II listed features, including its dark wood panelling, and is now made up of a series of themed rooms, with an entire second floor given over to womenswear.
The first floor houses rooms called International, Avant Garde and Creative, featuring brands including Balmain, Christopher Kane, Eskandar and Handwritten.
The second floor comprises an Essentials room, Contemporary and Directional Contemporary areas, featuring the likes of American Vintage and Vivienne Westwood’s Anglomania label. The store also boasts a luxurious shopping room for the VIP treatment and a stylist service. In line with the changes, staff are receiving extra training to boost customer service. The overall effect is a more focused, spacious and uncluttered shopping environment, with clearer navigation.
Liberty now has fewer womenswear brands (about 90) but has bought more deeply into the ranges. The menswear floor in the basement, which sells the likes of APC and Alexander McQueen, was not part of the revamp. De La Bourdonnaye explains: “We already had a lot of credibility for our men’s fashion, and we wanted to achieve that with our women’s.”
Liberty’s management team was also overhauled. Last November, the company drafted in Edwin Burstell, a vice president at US retailer Bergdorf Goodman, as buying director across the company.
Stephen Ayers, who joined from Selfridges early last year, is menswear buying director. Guy Hipwell also joined from Harrods as director of internet, supply chain and retail merchandising. “If you want to do new things, you need new people,” says de La Bourdonnaye. “This team is great and their impact in terms of the buying and the product is only just being seen now.”
De La Bourdonnaye is passionate about the Liberty brand and product, and words like ‘avant-garde’, ‘fabulous’ and ‘luxury’ trip off his tongue. He says Liberty is “not a department store”, preferring to compare it to boutique-type retailers. “We are not a small Selfridges, we want to be a larger Collette [the directional Parisian boutique],” he says.
His appointment chimes well with the business’s aspirations to build Liberty as a global brand. His international background is strong on product and branding, having been at the LVMH group as president of the Christian Lacroix brand for four years.
With about 70% of Liberty’s turnover coming from its Great Marlborough Street store - the rest comes from its wholesale Liberty of London brand and store, its fabrics division and its online business - strong retail skills are called for. De La Bourdonnaye acknowledges this. “You need an eye for product, but everything we do has to be commercially driven,” he says.
One commercial opportunity for the business is the development of its own brand Liberty of London, for which a standalone flagship store opened in London’s Sloane Street last July. The range is based around accessories - scarves, handbags, swimwear and ties, but also includes T-shirts and shirts. Launched in 2005, it is now distributed through more than 100 international stockists.
However, some observers have claimed the group has been slow to capitalise on its brand equity. One brand manager says: “The Liberty brand and prints have worldwide recognition, but they still have hardly any product. Surely the margins it could get on a full collection would be a clear win.”
De La Bourdonnaye says growing the Liberty of London brand is a major focus and a new sales and distribution director, Fabio Guidetti, was appointed from Pringle, where he was head of international sales. De La Bourdonnaye says: “We need to get the core brand right as the foundation for expansion.”
Liberty’s fabrics business is performing well, with an established international market, especially in Japan. A transactional website, launched last July, has also been a hit with shoppers, says de La Bourdonnaye.
However, de La Bourdonnaye is aware that even shoppers at the luxury end of the market are feeling the pinch in the recession. A larger proportion of the business’s fashion offer is made up of brands from the lower end of the retailer’s price architecture. The recession has also halted a long-planned potential sale of the business by owner MWB. The group said in April that it would postpone any sale plans until an economic recovery.
Annual figures were due as Drapers went to press. Pre-tax losses for the six months to June 2008 were £9.2m, but included a £2m investment and one-off restructuring costs of £900,000. In January, Liberty said sales for the 10-month period were ahead year on year.
De La Bourdonnaye is resigned to the fact that his task of developing the Liberty business will be under the spectre of the recession, but says he feels confident the right elements are in place. He says: “The impact of everything we have done is coming through. The whole strategy had to be set for the core of the brand and until we had a renaissance with the flagship we could not push it globally or online. This is really the starting point.”
- 2007 Chief executive, Liberty
- 2003 President, Christian Lacroix, part of the LVMH group
- 1991 Senior vice president of merchandise licensing for Europe and then managing director of Disney retail and supply chain at Eurodisney
- 1986 Marketing manager and then country director, Pepsico
Who is your fashion mentor?
I think Miuccia Prada is really the Coco Chanel of our generation. She constantly reinvents fashion in a way that is immediately commercial.
Miu Miu is an incredible success. It’s a totally new brand, not a second line, but a brand in its own right that is well positioned for the challenges of today.
What is the best-selling product you have ever worked on?
Plush toys [US term for cuddly toys] when I was at Disney, especially the fab six products: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Donald Duck and Daisy Duck. The seven dwarfs were also very successful.
Which brands and designers do you most admire?
For couture, it would be Christian Lacroix, and for ready-to-wear it would be Balmain and Christopher Kane for women. I am also a massive fan of [Savile Row tailor] Spencer Hart bespoke.
What has been your proudest work-related achievement?
I was president of the Christian Lacroix brand at Louis Vuitton, and I helped the brand reclaim its own independence and identity.
Which is your favourite retailer and why?
The Apple Store. It is a revolution of ease, education and excitement. I also love the newly opened Merci store on Boulevard Beaumarchais in Paris, which is owned by the Bonpoint family. It is a fantastic concept where a share of the profits goes to a children’s charity in Madagascar, and has such an effortlessly executed visual identity.
What would be your dream job outside of fashion?
I would be a photography curator. I am an avid collector of black and white photography, from artists such as Mona Kuhn, Bill Brant and Edward Weston, and I’m hoping to add an Irving Penn to my collection in the near future.