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Lisa Montague

After making Mulberry the accessories label of choice for fashionable celebrities, the chief executive of Loewe is hoping to repeat that success with the Spanish brand

Lisa Montague has a lot on her plate. The chief executive of Loewe is on a flying visit to the UK for the opening of the Spanish luxury accessories brand’s first standalone store in London. And there is a lot riding on its success.

Since the 1970s, Loewe has had an on-off retail presence in the capital - its previous store on Bond Street closed about seven years ago.

At the time Montague was still at the helm of British accessories brand Mulberry, so is reluctant to comment on the closure. “It was a big store, with a big collection,” she says, slightly nervously, to an audience that includes not only Drapers but Loewe’s in-house and London agency PRs.

But Montague hopes the new store (pictured) on Mount Street in Mayfair will be permanent. “Mount Street is very residential, the heritage heart of luxury, which fits well with our brand,” she says.

The 1,000 sq ft store was designed by Peter Marino, the architect behind Louis Vuitton’s London flagship on New Bond Street, which opened to critical acclaim last year.

Although Mount Street is no stranger to luxury labels - Christian Louboutin, Lanvin and Rick Owens all have stores there - its mixture of retail, art galleries and restaurants makes it a less in-your-face location than, say, Bond Street, and could be just right for Loewe.

“Loewe is not a global brand; it has a strong Spanish heritage so it struggles to find a viable niche [outside the country],” says Luca Solca, senior analyst at investment research firm Bernstein Research. Spain is the brand’s biggest market, followed by Japan. The UK makes up just 2% of sales.

“It needs to become a higher-end, niche brand, like a Bottega Veneta, but I don’t think the execution has been in that direction,” Solca adds. “With competition from brands like Gucci, Prada and Louis Vuitton, Loewe needs to play on a different price level, with higher product content. [Even at] £930 [the entry retail price of Loewe’s iconic Amazona bag], it risks being mainstream [within the luxury sector].”

Craftsmanship is key

Montague is keen to point out the level of craftsmanship and high-quality materials behind Loewe’s bags as unique selling points. “Loewe has an 165-year heritage. We only buy the top 2% to 3% of available nappa leather and scarcity sometimes is an issue, so we buy forward as much as possible.”

But if super high-end is what Loewe is - and should be - going for, then arguably it’s worth it. Pick up one of Loewe’s bags, and its butter-soft leather feels as if it will melt in your hands.

Those familiar with the work of Stuart Vevers, creative director of Loewe, will recognise his handwriting in the brand’s collection. He and Montague, while former creative director and chief operating officer respectively at Mulberry, were credited with making the British luxury brand a favourite among fashionable celebrities including Alexa Chung who, after carrying its numerous styles, had a bag named after her under the now creative directorship of Emma Hill.

Vevers is now using his talents for giving heritage brands a contemporary twist at Loewe. But has he - and Montague - achieved this yet?

“We’ve made a start,” says Montague. “Stuart is extremely good at preserving a brand’s DNA and modernising it. My job is to take that forward and communicate it across the business.”

With the Amazona bag, which celebrated its 35th anniversary last year, Vevers created a limited edition for this season that retains its classic design but with fluoro pink handles for an on-trend touch (pictured).

One brand consultant says Loewe has “absolutely turned itself around” since Vevers and Montague came on board, going from “old-fashioned luxury to fabulous, understated elegance”.

But has that opinion filtered down to the UK shopper, who may not be familiar with the brand? Montague admits she is still trying to find out more about the Loewe customer in London, the only city where the brand has a

presence in the UK. It also has concessions in Selfridges and Harrods.

“The Mount Street customer is more local. I’m dying to ask our customers which other brands they buy,” she says, hoping to get a better idea of where Loewe could sit in the UK market.

Celebrity spotlight

Montague says actress Sienna Miller and designer Victoria Beckham have both been seen wielding a Loewe bag, but is unsure whether the Amazona could have the same impact as the Alexa, when it became the season’s must-have bag. “We name our bags because it’s easier than calling them Q8154,” she jokes, revealing the wit that Drapers first encountered when she was at Mulberry. “The Amazona is a sophisticated, discrete bag.”

Understanding the end consumer will be important for Montague, who maintains that a retail strategy will be key for Loewe in the UK. Although it has 100 wholesale stockists worldwide, none are in this country.

Montague says the retail versus wholesale strategy is looked at market by market. “Italy is a country with lots of boutiques but few department stores,” she says, explaining why the wholesale strategy is stronger there.

She hopes to add another three UK stores to Loewe’s 140-strong global portfolio. “I want Loewe to be really famous worldwide, a destination for luxury leather,” she says. “I want to give it the future it deserves.”

CV

2009 Chief executive, Loewe

2003 Chief operating officer, Mulberry

2000 Mulberry director, Como Holdings (UK)

1995 Managing director, Cerruti 1881 Femme

1992 International sales manager, Cerruti 1881

1989 Vice-president sales, Cerruti 1881 Femme

1986 Sales director, de Keyser Group

1985 Sales manager, Ronald Samuels & Co

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