With CEO Raju Vuppalapati leading the pack, 85-year-old Australian footwear and accessories brand RM Williams is stepping into new territories
As RM Williams’ chief executive, Raju Vuppalapati, sits with Drapers at private members’ club Shoreditch House in east London after flying in from the company’s base in Sydney just hours before, he explains how authenticity, craftsmanship and a pioneering spirit continue to drive the 85-year-old brand.
In November 2014, L Capital Asia increased its share of RM Williams and became the majority shareholder alongside actor Hugh Jackman and IFM Investors, a global fund manager owned by a group of Australian not-for-profit pension funds. Since then, the Australian boot, clothing and accessories brand has stepped up its rebranding and expansion.
After 85 years, we already have a loyal base of fans and now it’s a question of how to keep them
Vuppalapati is wearing a pair of RM Williams brown suede Craftsman Chelsea boots, which is fitting, as he explains his journey that led him from Cape Town, South Africa, to Sydney, Australia, in 2014: legend has it that the boots are given to young Australian men when they reach 18 to prepare them for their travels. The Indian-born Vuppalapati ended his 19-year tenure at Levi’s as managing director for Australia, New Zealand, Africa and the Middle East, before departing for Australia.
His Levi’s career began in 1995 in the marketing department, then he rose through the ranks in a range positions, including vice-president of Levi Strauss signature brands and vice-president of commercial operations in Australia, New Zealand, and South and sub-Saharan Africa.
“At Levi’s I visited Australia very often and I actually bought a pair of RM Williams boots 15 years ago. The reference point for a great brand in Australia is RM Williams and I had the opportunity to know the brand as a consumer before taking on this role in December 2014.”
As CEO, Vuppalapati first worked on getting the branding and positioning right by examining the market and consumer habits. He then discovered where the company’s biggest strength lies – in its boots – and from there, he put more innovation and energy into that part of the business.
“There is a beauty of what RM Williams stands for, a rugged elegance,” he explains. “You can wear any RM Williams boots at any time, in the boardroom or on the street. Products can go from being very casual to reasonably formal. Simplicity and the design is beautiful.
“It also fits into what Australia is: a casual, effortless lifestyle – an essence of provenance plus attention to great detail and beautifully crafted product.”
1948 drover jackets hr
Vuppalapati realised that storytelling and experience were important to the brand’s history. In Australia, the brand has been going strong since 1932 when the company was established. While living with his young family in the Outback, craftsman and outdoorsman Reginald Murray Williams had the idea to make a pair of boots that was able to stand up to the rigours of Outback life.
“Out in the middle of nowhere, he met horseman Dollar Mick,” says Vuppalapati. “The two played around and made a boot out of a single piece of leather. From there, they made it into a catalogue business and built a whole company around it.”
A retail story around boots thus took centre stage. And the company model is now switching from being distributor led to expanding through stores. The opportunity to tell the story to different people is reflected by the choice of locations.
The boot and outerwear brand had 48 stores when Vuppalapati started, which were focused in Australia. The global portfolio now includes 51 stores in Australia, two in New Zealand (opened in summer 2016) and two in London, on New Bond Street (opened in June 2005) and Westfield Stratford City (September 2016). The New Bond Street store will be refurbished this year and a shop on Berwick Street in Soho is due to open in May.
When he started there were also 440 wholesale stockists around the world. Now there are 800 stockists, including 85 in the UK, where key accounts include Mr Porter, Harrods and Liberty. Wholesales prices range from £80 for a leather stockyard boot with a rounded toe and rubber sole to £200 for the chinchilla style boot. Clothing prices range from £18 for a T-shirt to £60 for moleskin trousers. Accessories range from £10 for a belt buckle to £154 for a leather tote bag.
Now, boots comprise 75% in sales of the business internationally. In Australia sales are split 50% boots, 35% ready-to-wear clothing and 15% craft and accessories, such as belts, bags and wallets. Profit before tax during the 52-week period ending 28 June 2015 was reported to be AUS $56,452 (£35,000) with an after-tax loss of AUS $152,782 (£94,000).
David Morris, shoe buyer at Mr Porter, says: “We’ve carried RM Williams for two years. The brand’s heritage creates appeal and an appreciation for its products. RM Williams continues to remain fresh and appealing to our customer because it’s a versatile and veritable classic. Once difficult to find and formerly limited in regions, Mr Porter has made it available to our global customer base.”
In September 2016, RM Williams opened a store in New York’s SoHo and plans 10 more stores in the US within two years, starting with Boston and Los Angeles. It is now also stocked by Nordstrom in Seattle and Dallas. Another key market for Vuppalapati is Scandinavia, where the brand has had a presence for almost 30 years.
“We want to be sure we’re being deliberate and not too quick – do it properly. This brand deserves that respect,” he explains. “We want to ensure that we are creating a more compelling, enduring story with a stronger presence through stores, through ecommerce, and supported by very specific independents and key department stores.”
Welsh independent footwear store David Roberts in Llandudno has been selling RM Williams boots for 12 years.
Managing director Andrew Roberts says: “The uniqueness of being a single-piece upper and its fitting makes the product best selling for us. They are the best-produced boots in the market. Providing up-to-date materials and finishes, coupled with the authenticity of this brand and its long history keeps it appealing to the customer.”
“The brand has always been designed with purpose and is rooted in craftsmanship,” explains Vuppalapati. “After 85 years, we already have a loyal base of fans and now it’s a question of how to keep them.”
For spring 17, RM Williams head of design Jeremy Hershan went into the archives and refreshed the products with modern fabrics, detailing and a selection of new soles.
Vuppalapati says of Hershan, “He has a strong sense of giving a nod to the heritage but also integrating it into the future.”
Hershan adds: “It was RM’s dream to take the brand overseas and, drawing from my experience, it is about ensuring the brand message stays true and strong, and is relevant to today’s global market.”
More bricks-and-mortar stores in the US and the UK are on Vuppalapati’s expansion and investment agenda, but the L Catterton buyout also offered him a chance to hire new talent to elevate RM Williams into a global premium brand. In addition to Hershan, who joined in November 2015 from Alfred Dunhill (see interview, below), he hired Thierry Pichon from Gucci as chief commercial officer and Philippa Nixon from Fendi as general manager, Europe and USA.
Rm williams autumn 17
The company has also jumped on the personalisation bandwagon. Launched in September 2016 online and in store, a bespoke boot-making service lets a customer pick materials – such as leather, threads, elastics – and colours. The final product is created and dispatched from the workshop in Adelaide within four to six weeks.
Constructed using a machine that is 120 years old and copper screws made in Leicester at IVI Metallics factory, online consumers around the world can choose from 3 million permutations of boots ranging from £570 for leather and suede to £3,500 for crocodile.
Vuppalapati says: “Usually bespoke takes four to six months to produce. But we have the capacity to do it because of the manufacturing that we have.”
Vuppalapati is determined to keep RM Williams’ manufacturing in Australia and is recruiting for the Adelaide facility, which employs 350 people. In a single day, 850 pairs of boots are made on a line of 124 workers in the boot room.
“The quality of the craftsmanship and the attention to detail from the product in the past is fantastic but we lost some of that because the people who had that skill set have moved on or become too old,” he says. “We are working with the government to see how we can sustain it. It requires a commitment on investment to ensure the craftsmanship continues.”
With his unwavering adherence to the brand’s guidelines, Vuppalapati continues to be realistic and is open to the fact that world politics, currency fluctuations and policy changes may prove challenging in the future.
“We are definitely in uncertain times,” he says. “But during uncertain times authentic brands do very well because they aren’t fashion or trend driven.
“Stick to your core, innovate from your core, tell your story and let people naturally embrace the brand. Then, you can be timeless.”
RM Williams factfile
- It takes 80 to 85 handheld processes to make a pair of RM Williams boots
- RM Williams is the only boot maker to use copper screws
- Moleskin is snake bite-proof and saved a man’s life when he wore RM Williams trousers made from the pelts (the thank you letter he wrote still exists in the company’s archive)
- In Australia RM Williams boots are traditionally given on a young person’s 18th birthday to travel the world in
- Fans include Bill Clinton, David Beckham, Daniel Craig, Rachel Weiss, Cilian Murphy, Harry Styles, Zayn Malik and the royal family
- RM Williams boots are worn regularly by the Australian Defence Force, Quantas airline pilots and the Wallabees rugby team
Five minutes with Jeremy Hershan, RM Williams’ head of design
Growing up in Australia, owning a pair of RMs is a rite of passage. I inherited my first pair from my eldest brother and these saw me through my time living as a young apprentice in Antwerp and Paris. When the opportunity arose to lead design during the next phase of the brand’s evolution, I jumped at the occasion. It was a natural move for me and something I was very excited about.
What was your inspiration behind the current, your first, collection?
The first thing I did on joining was embark on a journey to the heartland of the brand, deep into the Flinders Ranges [mountains in South Australia] to see where it all began. Back in [the workshop in] Adelaide, I spent time above our original flagship store in Percy Street, digging through the archives to find pieces of information that would help decode the brand’s future. The result of which is my first collection for the brand for spring 17, which is steeped in the brand’s DNA. The colours and textures reflect the Australian landscape, and iconic pieces from the brand’s past have been reinterpreted through cut, fabrication and detailing for the set the foundations for the brand’s next phase. I also looked at the photography of Max Dupain from the same period to draw from the rugged, masculine, military men, stockmen and drovers depicted in his iconic images.
Which types of fabrics and materials are you using?
I have looked to some of the original sources for the brand, beginning with our moleskin cloth which is woven exclusively by a military contractor in Victoria, Australia. We have partnered with Abraham Moon in Yorkshire, England, for a richly textured tweed-jacketing story, Halley Stevensons in Dundee, Scotland, which is the oldest waxed cotton supplier in the world, for an update on our classic oilskin cloth, as well as Cone Mills in Greensboro, North Carolina, to provide the denim for our new Made in Australia denim line.
What are your favourite products?
From SS17, I’m currently coveting a pair of the rough-out suede round-toe Chelsea boots made in Australia. Our Made in Australia line of denim inspired by the stockmen of the 1960s, and our new signature waxed-cotton Drover’s coat are also particular favourites and likely to become staples of my wardrobe for seasons to come.