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The Drapers Interview: Belstaff chief executive Gavin Haig on retail in the fast lane

Belstaff chief executive Gavin Haig

After a somewhat bumpy ride, Belstaff chief executive Gavin Haig is steering the British lifestyle brand towards the finishing line in style.

Few things are likely to link A-list actors, American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and the Pope – least of all a heritage brand founded in Stoke and famed for its biker gear. Nonetheless, attracting wearers as diverse as these has been one of Belstaff’s notable achievements.

The premium lifestyle brand has a rich and storied past, steeped in the spirit of adventure and worn by explorers and fashion enthusiasts alike. Yet, despite establishing Belstaff as one of the most recognisable motorcycling brands in the world, chief executive Gavin Haig is ready to open the throttle on the business’s off-road offerings.

Belstaff

“We’re a challenger brand,” says Haig, speaking with the competitive grit of any racing driver. “We want to emphasise that yes, we’re a heritage brand, but we’re not all about motorbikes and four-pocket jackets; we’re a full lifestyle brand and we’re ageless.”

Belstaff has spent the past couple of seasons reinventing itself. What started as the world’s first manufacturer of waxed cotton motorcycle jackets in 1924 is now a global fashion business spanning clothes, shoes, bags and accessories for both men and women. And the transformation is far from over.

When he joined from his role as international managing director of Cartier in July 2014, Haig set about repositioning Belstaff away from the luxury end of the market. In addition to improving sourcing and establishing new suppliers, he focused on reducing the amount of hardware used on the brand’s jackets, taking a less literal interpretation of its motorcycling roots.

Price points today are around 25% lower on average across all categories than they were four years ago. Wholesale prices for waxed cotton jackets start at at £174 and leather jackets start at £345.

The brand’s spring 16 menswear collection is evidence of an effort to modernise still further. The process under way involves revisiting materials, weights and functions used on key styles, delivering new products such as trans-seasonal summer nylon jackets (wholesale from £152) and updating archive styles such as field jackets by using super-light bonded suede (wholesale from £458).

Updating classic shapes also forms part of the autumn 16 collection, with a greater breadth of outerwear, including down and rubberised denim, as well as innovation in silhouettes, embracing aviation and military influences as well as its moto heritage.

“The world is becoming a warmer place, so there’s a lot more to do in outerwear and leathers to innovate and make them transitional, giving them a longer wear time,” explains Haig. “These lighter styles have also helped to lower price points, opening us up to a whole new wholesale and retail customer.”

Belstaff is also extending its territory beyond the male-dominated arena of motorcycling tradition, pinpointing womenswear as a key growth area.

“The product mix today is 75/25, very much geared towards men. We want to make that more 60/40 and we think we can do that very quickly. The category grew faster in the month of December than in any other,” he says.

Belstaff: Then and now

Belstaff: Then and now

In September 2014, the business hired former Paul & Joe design director Delphine Ninous as vice-president of women’s design to spearhead the growth. And the commitment to this category was reinforced with the appointment of actress Liv Tyler as its new ambassador and creative contributor in September 2015. The actress has created a 12-piece capsule collection alongside Ninous, which will be unveiled during London Fashion Week next month, comprising ready-to-wear (wholesale from £150) and outerwear (wholesale from £345).

Under both categories, Haig says the design team has only scratched the surface of non-core categories such as denim, sportswear and knitwear, which have been key in making Belstaff a lifestyle brand. During spring and autumn 15, these lines grew at three times the rate of outerwear to make up 25% of ready-to-wear.

Matt Horstead created Dartagnan, a premium menswear indie in Chichester, West Sussex, off the back of brands like Belstaff. He says expansion in this area has “made the brand far more accessible to various shoppers throughout the seasons”.

“They now need to market themselves beyond [current brand ambassador] David Beckham, so people are aware of what else they offer,” he adds.

Elsewhere, particular attention is being paid to Belstaff’s footwear category, where sales have increased 200% year on year. As part of this push, Belstaff will launch a 120cm x 120cm footwear table in Selfridges in February, while also working towards shop-in-shops for clothing in Selfridges London and Birmingham.

“Selfridges only has four branded locations on the open floor, so it’s quite something for them to invest in us,” says Haig. “Footwear is absolutely in our DNA – as evidence of that in 2015 we celebrated 60 years of the Trialmaster boot.”

To tie in with the launch, Belstaff has teamed up with British photographer Rankin to produce a dedicated campaign. Shot beneath a glass floor, the imagery features English adventurer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and second-generation stuntman Riley Harper. It is a campaign that showcases Belstaff’s history as much as it indicates its future.

Belstaff has embodied the spirit of adventure for more than 90 years. The brand, which was founded in 1924 by rag trader Eli Belovitch and his son-in-law, Harry Grosberg, in Longton, near Stoke, was initially only worn by bikers, soldiers and aviators. Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, was a loyal customer, as was Che Guevara and Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set both world land and water speed records in 1964.

But since bridging the divide between niche market and mainstream appeal, Belstaff has widened this customer base, helped by appearances in films including The Great Escape (1963), Mission: Impossible III (2006) and I Am Legend (2007).

Belstaff: Then and now

Belstaff: Then and now

And the brand is not only popular in Tinseltown. The former pope, Benedict XVI, reportedly wore a bespoke Belstaff jacket made from soft cotton, with a white corduroy collar and cuffs, during winter walks in the Vatican gardens.

However, for all its endorsements, the business has not always had a smooth ride. Belstaff was hit hard by the textiles crisis of the 1990s and ran into financial difficulty, forcing the closure of its Longton factory, after previously shutting its Silverdale site.

The business was acquired by the Malenotti family in 2004 before being sold seven years later in 2011 to Labelux, the Swiss luxury conglomerate that owns shoe giant Jimmy Choo and luxury accessories brand Bally, in a €110m (£97.9m) deal.

Belstaff is understood to have made losses of several millions in previous years but, although he declined to give up-to-date figures, Haig says revenue was up about 30% in the first 11 months of 2015.

“Our first priority, after change in management in July 2014, was to generate growth and understand the potential of the brand,” he says. “We have moved from single-digit revenue growth in 2014 to in excess of 25% for this year and are planning for double-digit growth again in 2016. We are on track towards positive financials, through a twin strategy of revenue growth and re-structuring.”

As Drapers went to press, Belstaff was in the process of moving its legal entity back to the UK from Switzerland, making its full accounts available.

Today, Belstaff has five standalone UK stores – three in London, one in Manchester and one in Glasgow – plus an outlet at Bicester Village. Its Bond Street flagship, a 25,000 sq ft trophy building, set a record for the highest rent paid on the street, costing £3m a year on a 20-year lease in 2012.

Haig says the plan is to maintain a selective portfolio, but the business is looking for one or two more stores in key UK cities.

Belstaff Bond Street

Belstaff’s Bond Street flagship set a record for the highest rent paid on the street in 2012

Belstaff is now well into a plan to regain its UK independent stockists – many of which it lost when it was deemed too luxury – after relocating its global headquarters to London from New York in 2014.

“We definitely actively go after premium independent accounts,” says Haig. “When you go to an independent, it’s usually the owner’s money that they are putting into stock, so they are very good at pushing brands and getting behind them.”

Belstaff has 90 accounts in the UK, 80 of which are independents such as Stuarts London in Shepherd’s Bush and Northampton-based Thackerays. The rest are department stores and multiples such as Harvey Nichols and Harrods. Haig says he is happy with the distribution of menswear, but he is aiming to double the number of womenswear accounts from 15 to 30 as this part of the business grows.

The brand is also highly popular among its bigger accounts. “Ever since we launched Belstaff on the site, they have performed consistently well for us, with a strong sell-through season upon season,” says Mr Porter buyer Robyn Ferris. “Like most retailers, the Racemaster and Roadmaster are hero pieces for consistent sales. However, we see a real demand from customers for special projects and that’s what drives the brand for us.”

Outside the UK, Belstaff plans to push further internationally, scouting a mix of owned and franchise stores, while also expanding online and through wholesale to department store and independent retailers in Asia, the US and Europe, including Germany.

Asia forms arguably the largest part of the international expansion plan. In 2014 it opened three shop-in-shops in Seoul. In July 2015, the company established Belstaff Japan KK, a wholly owned subsidiary, and opened its first store in Macau in October. Haig adds that the company has four additional committed shop-in-shops in the Asia-Pacific region, and two to three more are in the pipeline.

The way Haig speaks and the pace at which the business is evolving makes it clear that, even when looking to the future, Belstaff is a brand built to work at speed: “We’re going to be on a journey for the next six or seven years – we’re going very fast. In three years we’ll have laid the foundations for the plan, but vision doesn’t have a timeline,” he says.

Belstaff has been on the practice track for several seasons now. Haig’s long-term plan to establish it as a brand worn not just by revolutionaries, aviation pioneers and motorsports heroes may take it into the fast lane, but it will by no means be the finish line.

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