In a coup for the British fashion industry, the high-profile designer is returning to London Fashion Week, unveiling a more tailored collection and even contemplating a permanent move back to the capital.
When Matthew Williamson announced that he would return from New York to show at London Fashion Week (LFW) this season, British Fashion Council chairman Harold Tillman must have felt his work was done.
Williamson is arguably one of the biggest stars in the LFW line-up this season. When he took a brief break from New York to come to London for the 10th anniversary of his label in 2007,
he brought pop legend Prince with him. That sort of publicity – for both the brand and LFW – is priceless, and with his high-profile fan base, you can bank on Williamson to deliver again this time around.
Williamson says it was Tillman who convinced him to return to London to celebrate LFW’s 25th anniversary. “We were flattered to be asked and wanted to be part of this important season. Plus, we’ve done a few seasons in New York, opened the store there in February and launched the collaboration with H&M there, so we feel we’ve had our moment in New York,” he explains, suggesting the move to London could last longer than one season.
“But only if the BFC maintains this momentum,” adds Joseph Velosa, Williamson’s business partner and the company’s chief executive. “It’s important that the February show is given as much thought as the 25th anniversary and that the BFC gets the same – and more – designers to come.”
He has a point. The likes of Burberry, Pringle and Jonathan Saunders can justify skipping their usual (and more commercial) haunts – be it New York, Milan or Paris – for a one-season wonder. But long term, London has to be a commercially viable option to keep big names from straying.
“Now that we have three stores [in London, New York and Dubai], we want to build our wholesale network, so it’s important to be in front of the best buyers and press,” explains Velosa.
The Matthew Williamson brand is stocked in 24 doors in the UK at present, accounting for 17% of total sales. “The recession has hit our wholesale business, with autumn 09 orders down on the previous year. But we closed our pre-season spring 10 books 17% up on last year, which is really encouraging.”
More encouraging still is that the business is set to hit sales of more than £10m at the end of 2009, up from just under £8m for the year to December 31, 2007.
However, Velosa admits that the business will make a loss this year, after it invested in its New York store with the help of TSM Capital, the US investment vehicle that holds a 22% stake in the company. Icelandic investor Baugur, which is in administration, held 26%. That stake is now up for sale, says Velosa.
“There is no difference in the day-to-day running of the business,” he explains, referring to Baugur’s collapse. “It’s harder to get bank loans and credit rating, but we’ll be making a profit again in 2010.”
Williamson adds that the whole business has had to adapt to the recession, including the supply chain and, to some extent, design. “When we buy fabric, we’re more aware of what we’re spending; we’re being more shrewd right across the board,” he says. “Our entry price points have gone down, but then Marigay McKee (Harrods fashion and beauty director) tells me there is still a market for a £10,000 dress – our price structure is really broad now. My job is to inspire my designers, making sure they deliver what I want on price.”
What Williamson wants right now is a slight move away from the floaty, brightly coloured pieces he is known for towards more tailored silhouettes.
“During the last three shows, we’ve moved towards a more rounded wardrobe; we used to be known for being quite holiday-oriented. It’s important to evolve as a designer, while at the same time continuing with your signature,” Williamson explains.
“But the change is also a response to the economic climate. That aesthetic worked when people were less cautious, but now every Matthew Williamson piece is really important because people want value for money and luxurious pieces, and they think harder before
Williamson’s spring 10 collection, which he is due to show at LFW this week, will best encompass this.
Williamson will unveil a “slightly sharper” but “still very feminine” collection, with more emphasis on tailoring and structured dresses on the catwalk. Menswear is also in the pipeline for spring 10, after the success of his H&M collaboration in April. “We’re going to do a small capsule collection of cashmere jumpers, printed and beaded T-shirts and jeans,” says Williamson.
Back at Debenhams
Williamson’s return to London coincides with the relaunch of his womenswear collaboration with Debenhams under the Butterfly by Matthew Williamson banner. The department store operator dropped the womenswear element two years ago to focus on accessories, but reintroduced a 50-piece womenswear collection in 50 Debenhams stores earlier this month. It is an interesting move by Williamson, given that both the brand and Debenhams admitted their first womenswear collaboration didn’t live up to expectations.
“Matthew was busy at Emilio Pucci [where he was artistic director for three years] so not in the UK very much,” says Velosa of the previous collection. “The product began to lose its way and the discounting increased.”
Suzanne Harlow, group trading dir-ector at Debenhams, agrees, adding that the collection became “too casual – not in keeping with Matthew’s main line”.
But a different execution this time around could add nicely to both parties’ bottom lines. According to Debenhams, its Designers At range is achieving double-digit like-for-like growth, and dresses in general have been one of the department store chain’s strongest product categories, Harlow says.
Williamson responded with a dress-heavy collection, targeting a younger, more trend-led customer. And according to one industry insider he could pocket up to £2m a year from the deal.
Velosa smiles: “[The collaboration] is definitely in the cash flow projection.”
Boost to business
But is Williamson not concerned that the partnership could dilute his main line?
“When we collaborated with H&M I was worried it would have a negative effect on the main line,” he admits. “Why would a woman buy my [main line] kaftan when she could buy an equivalent for £40 at H&M? But the opposite happened. We had the biggest upturn in sales at the Bruton Street store from January to June than we’ve ever had in that period in five years. They are different customers.”
True, but what sets Williamson apart from the other Debenhams designers – and indeed many of his peers – is his ability to make beautiful high-end, design-led pieces that are also so commercial. While most high-profile fashion houses will see their dresses worn by celebrities on the red carpet, Williamson manages to exude a democratic glamour through his collections. Singer Cheryl Cole – one of the hottest celebrities of the moment – looked utterly gorgeous and yet completely at ease wearing one of his dresses during the TV show the X Factor.
“I think I am a commercial designer and I don’t think that’s a bad word,” says Williamson. “But we don’t actively pursue the PR endorsement. Sienna [Miller] has to look great so when she wears my designs it’s because she wants to.”
It is Williamson’s link with celebrities and the “good advisers” he surrounds himself with that is key to his success, says luxury fashion consultant and designer mentor David Jones, who
also taught Williamson and Velosa before the brand was launched.
“I remember when they were on my fashion management course. Joseph came to all the classes but Matthew only to the more product-focused ones. They run a very good business, and Matthew has the charisma to pull anything off.”
Williamson and Velosa agree that each has his own role to play in the business, but that both bounce ideas off each other before they go to anyone else. “I’m the creative one, he’s the business brain – but there’s a huge overlap and we spend a lot of time working together,” says Williamson. “Joseph has the ability to apply logic and common sense to what on the surface people think is a flippant industry, but it’s like anything – you make a product and you need to know how to sell it.”
And it is that perfect combination that Williamson urges young designers to think about. “There are thousands of creative people out there who have real talent, but talent is only 60% to 70%,” he explains. “If you don’t have the business acumen, then you need to find someone that does.”
Williamson makes it sound so simple, but immense talent combined with razor-sharp business skills is a real find. And he forgot to mention the star quality behind those chiselled cheekbones and piercing blue eyes.
Who is your fashion mentor? I have quite a few but it is probably my mum. I have a close relationship with her and she has encouraged my ambition right from when I was a little boy.
What is your favourite shop? L’indie in Bologna in Italy. It’s a fashion, interiors and music shop, and the store itself is beautiful. I also like how the buyer edits the range.
What has been the best selling product you have ever worked on? It was a black and white, peacock printed dress that Sienna [Miller] wore to the opening of the Bruton Street store in 2004. We had so many orders for it that we couldn’t make enough.
What has been your proudest achievement? The fact that I’m still in business. And that I wake up most days wanting to go to work.
Which designers do you admire? Alexander McQueen for his creative vision and single-mindedness, Ozzie Clark inspired me and I enjoyed working with Zandra Rhodes.
Which designers do you tip for success? There are so many talented young designers in the UK, like Christopher Kane, Jonathan Saunders, Richard Nichol and Erdem.
What would be your dream job (apart from you current position)? I am doing my dream job, although sometimes it’s more like a nightmare. But it has been my dream since I was a little boy.
I would like to open my own hotel too – somewhere hot, like Spain or Greece. But I wouldn’t want to run it.
2009 New York store opens
2007 TSM Capital takes stake in Matthew Williamson
2006 Baugur takes stake in Matthew Williamson
2005 Made creative director at Emilio Pucci
2004 Launched first store, in London
2002 Relocates from London to New York Fashion Week
1997 Founded Matthew Williamson with Joseph Velosa
1994 Worked with Marni and Monsoon Accessorize
1994 Graduated from Central St Martins, London
UK and Republic of Ireland stockists
Harvey Nichols Cricket
Caroline on Water Lane