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The Drapers Interview- Aigle

The rubber boot brand’s chief executive and design director explain their efforts to raise its lifestyle credentials.

It may be best known for inventing the rubber - or, as we would say, wellington - boot in 1853, but premium brand Aigle is seeking to soar to new heights by pushing into the lifestyle market. The sun was shining across Paris when Drapers arrived to meet chief executive Romain Guinier and design director Gideon Day. Last month, Aigle - which is the French word for ‘eagle’ - opened its refurbished store at 1 Avenue des Ternes, a stone’s throw from the Champs-Élysées.

Guinier, who worked for cosmetics firm L’Oréal for around 10 years before joining Aigle in 2008, is keen to show off the double-fronted, two-level shop. He explains it has been designed to encapsulate the new strategy: “What is key right now is to focus on the design and appeal to existing as well as new and younger customers, who will first make their buying decision based on style, and then function.”

While the majority of the ground floor is given to men’s clothing, it is impossible to escape the famous rubber boot, which is displayed on the ground floor behind the till on a ‘boot bar’ visible from the street. There is another, larger version of the bar towards the back of the shop.

Outerwear, another key category, is prominent, and the footwear offer is quirkily merchandised in a library-style display. A staircase leads up to womenswear on the first floor. This is split across two rooms featuring an old fire place, typically French-style white cabinets, mock rugs painted onto the floor and a large window that fills the rooms with light. In the small room dedicated to kidswear, worldwide bestseller the Lolly Pop boot takes pride of place.

Having turned in the lifestyle direction five or six years ago, the concept is now receiving a further push through the Avenue des Ternes shop as well as at 139 Boulevard Saint-Germain, which had its own refit complete with in-store greenhouse in April 2013.

Day, whose career includes stints at Esprit, Chevignon, Paul Smith and British activewear brand Howies before joining Aigle in 2005, says: “We are trying to make the brand more premium. The whole idea of this shop, St-Germain and our newer openings in Asia is to put the spotlight on the product. The transition is not just about the collection, it is the three-pointed sword of collection, communication, and retail environment. We are working on all three.”

This direction is reflected in the sales split, which has gone from being 70% men’s, 25% women’s and 5% kids’ 10 years ago to now being 60% men’s, 30% women’s and 10% kids’. The category breakdown is 58% clothing, 27% boots and 15% footwear.

Collaborations have played a key part in this repositioning. For autumn 14, Aigle worked with UK outerwear brand Nigel Cabourn on a nine-piece men’s collection, and for spring 15 it has teamed up with contemporary lifestyle label Paul & Joe. The latter range will be unveiled at Bread & Butter Berlin next month and will include nine ready-to-wear pieces: three jackets, one jumpsuit, one dress, one blouse, a shirt, a pair of shorts and a scarf. There will also be three pairs of boots. Wholesale prices start at £30 for a scarf, rising to £120 for a trench coat.

“Our collection is called The Secret Garden, and [Paul & Joe] took our theme in more of an Alice in Wonderland kind of direction. There are prints with a bumblebee, for example, whereas our prints are more William Morris,” Day says. “So you have a military parka that has a printed lining, and a little light rain jacket that is all printed. You have a cropped trench coat with a lining inside and then the three boots, which include a khaki boot with a pink top, an all-over printed boot and an ankle boot.”

The spring 15 women’s mainline, with wholesale prices from £12 for a Norrie T-shirt up to £180 for a Downtown Gore-Tex down jacket, also gives floral prints a starring role.

“We are evolving the brand,” Day says. “Every season we take a step further towards more fashion product, and for spring 15 we have gone a lot further with that. It is about a redefined silhouette. We have worked on oversized dimensions, dropping shoulders, raising hemlines, slightly wider shapes and slightly shorter shapes. We chose a collaboration with Paul & Joe, which is a brand that is all about print, to be the point of the pyramid where it all filters down from.”

The brand hopes the range will strengthen the lifestyle focus, particularly in the more mature European market.

The strategy appears to be working. Last year its consolidated global turnover rose 4% to €155m (£124m), with similar growth expected this year.

Country manager for the UK and Ireland Andrew Townsin spearheads the brand’s efforts on these shores, where it has 350 doors including department stores John Lewis, Harrods, and Fenwick, footwear retailer Russell & Bromley and independents such as Javelin in Suffolk.

Britain is Aigle’s third-largest European market after France and Germany, and accounts for 5% of global sales. This year, it is forecasting sales growth of 32% to €16m (£12.8m).

Guinier says: “This year, for the first time, the UK will be the number one country for Aigle apparel by sales outside of France, so we are achieving the balance we are looking for quite quickly there.”

Vanessa Collen, owner of lifestyle independent Collen & Clare in Southwold, Suffolk, is looking forward to the collaborative range: “For us, the Paul & Joe range will be great. It makes a lot of sense and they will work really well together. When collaborations are done well they can really lift a brand - when Anya Hindmarch worked with Barbour[for autumn 10], for example, that did really well for us.”

However, despite the positive sales figures, Aigle’s lifestyle direction isn’t working so well for all stockists.

Tom Birkbeck, menswear buyer at Scottish department store and countrywear specialist House of Bruar, says: “It has mixed reviews. On ladieswear in the last couple of seasons it has been doing well. Design input into the coats has been good and it is offering something different - toggles down the front of a 100% waterproof coat, for example.

It’s made them very commercial. In menswear it has some core products, fleeces and quilted jackets that sell well.

But the lifestyle part of menswear doesn’t do incredibly well. We are not as lifestyle as some other stores - we focus on country pursuits clothing - and it has certainly stepped away from that market.”

Despite the focus on clothing, the rubber boot remains at the heart of Aigle’s offer and 1.2 million pairs are sold every year. The fact it has kept production of these in-house, at its factory in Châtellerault in France’s Poitou-Charentes region, is a major USP. The factory employs 450 people, with 250 working on the 60-step manufacturing process. They produce 4,000 boots by hand every day.

Guinier admits this is more expensive, but says keeping production of the boots in France is what sets Aigle apart from its competitors: “If you look at the tremendous success we have had in Asia, part of it is related to the decision to keep the manufacturing process in France.”

He adds that, as in the UK, there is a technical skills shortage in France, so Aigle has to train its staff to produce the boots. However, the average length of service for factory workers is just over 20 years, with many having hit the 40-year mark.

The heritage and quality of the product has certainly helped it to translate well overseas, and with 63% of total sales made outside France it is a truly global business. There are 370 Aigle stores around the world, with 77 in France, one in Germany, two in Switzerland and 290 across Asia.

With the Paul & Joe range set to debut next month and plans for further store openings, it looks like the brand is on a strong footing for success.

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