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The Drapers Interview - David Walker-Smith

David Walker-Smith and his team have begun to transform Fenwick on Bond Street - but there is lots more to come.

There are some British institutions that are such a part of the fabric that people feel they own a bit of them. This family feeling can be a double-edged sword - along with the unerring loyalty and love, criticism comes more readily - but on the whole it’s a pretty good place to be.

Fenwick of Bond Street is one such place, but with the changing demographics of its local customer, managing director David Walker-Smith and his new team have a challenge in keeping the old guard onside, while appealing to Russian socialites, Middle Eastern oil billionaires and Chinese shopaholics.

Regulars did not shy away from making their views known when Walker-Smith made some initial changes, such as the introduction of music.

“I received quite a few letters asking me to switch it off - and I realised very soon it was the wrong decision,” admits Walker-Smith, the former Selfridges executive buying director for men’s, beauty, fragrance, home and technology, who took on the top job at Fenwick in January 2013, replacing Jill Strieder, who passed away the previous summer.

“Shoppers come here for a different way to shop - they want the calm, they don’t want their senses to be distracted or overloaded,” he says.

It is this responsiveness, he believes, that allows the team to feel its way through the many changes they are making, although when it comes to product he claims the customer is more receptive.

Now a year into the role, Walker-Smith says he is “a couple of steps forward” in the transformation of Fenwick’s “jewel in the crown” - Bond Street is one of 10 stores in the Fenwick portfolio.

The most significant step was last summer’s swathe of hires, bolstering his team with young, hungry buyers keen to give Fenwick more fashion credibility. Adam Kelly - who worked under Walker-Smith at Selfridges - was brought in as fashion and beauty director; Georgina Coulter joined as buying manager from My-Wardrobe.com; and Mia Fenwick, daughter of company chairman Mark, moved from the Brent Cross store to become Bond Street’s buying manager for beauty. She has since been promoted to take on responsibility for handbags and small leather goods.

Between them they have sought to establish just what the local shopper wants from them, and introduce something a bit more directional and luxury.

“There is a natural style that a lot of our customers have, and we need to work with that when we buy, but they are not frightened of colour or bold print. So we push them a bit and that’s what keeps them engaged,” says Kelly.

“So far they have really engaged with us,” adds Coulter. “New season sales have been good so far and I think it’s because they’re not afraid to try new things. Every time we have a new collection in store, we get the designer or supplier to come and meet the staff, so they are really trained up on product. Customers want to know the background to something new, so it’s key that we offer that.”

It’s not just the consumer that has responded well. Brands are now knocking on Fenwick’s doors to get in, Walker-Smith notes with pride, while those that were already stocked are enjoying the fresh direction.

Men’s premium casualwear brand Orlebar Brown is one of the brands to feature in Fenwick’s white concept that was launched for the start of this year. The concept - a store-wide initiative encompassing clothing collections to smoothies made with almond milk and yoga classes - is to celebrate the redesign of Fenwick’s logo for the Bond Street branch.

The fresh look inverts the department store’s usual white-on-green colourway to green-on-white for all its branding, including the Fenwick bag and - Walker-Smith’s particular pride and joy - the new flag.

Orlebar Brown founder Adam Brown says he has “definitely felt a change in direction” since Walker-Smith joined. “There is a greater sense of creativity and appetite to embrace new brands,” Brown explains. “I think and hope that David being there will help reinforce our brand and, together, see it expand within Fenwick Bond Street and the group. In terms of account size it is not at the same level as a Mr Porter or Harrods, however we hope, with David’s help, we can reach those levels over the next couple of years.”

Anton Llewelyn, managing director of Tiger of Sweden distributor Social Brands, has also seen signs of the success Walker-Smith enjoyed at Selfridges with his “unique penthouse-to-pavement vision”.

“A contender for the best store in London in the very near future? Definitely,” he says.

Although Walker-Smith enjoys the accolades, he is keen to distance himself from his previous role. “Fenwick is in a unique place because of its location and its heritage. This isn’t a paint-by-numbers approach - just because I’ve done it in a certain way before doesn’t mean I’ll do it the same way here,” he says. “What I’m really enjoying is creating something new, using the lessons from all our backgrounds. ”

If you haven’t visited Fenwick of Bond Street recently you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise. It feels tighter and more coherent, moving from the chic “everyday wardrobe” first floor, to the more directional second floor, up to denim and streetwear on third.

Walker-Smith says the third floor was “what I grabbed hold of first”, refreshing the presentation of denim labels such as Paige and J Brand alongside trend-led labels like House of Hackney. I ask if he is looking to Selfridges for inspiration with the focus on jeans and casualwear, but he is adamant that’s not the case.

“When the whole world talks about something you have to do it, but this is very much the Fenwick edit; it’s not scary for our customer,” he says.

The second floor has received even more attention with product “streamlined”, brands dropped and new names introduced.

Emerging French designer Cédric Charlier is one of the additions to jump out, with bold colours and prints across outerwear, knits and dresses, while Brazilian-born Barbara Casasola’s white-themed capsule collection grabs the attention, sitting alongside established names such as Jonathan Saunders, Marios Schwab and Vivienne Westwood.

The team has also introduced a concession by luxury eveningwear retailer ON Motcomb (which has its own store on Motcomb Street, Belgravia), selling evening gowns by the likes of Carolina Herrera, Zac Posen, Jason Wu and Marchesa that retail for anything from £2,000 to £6,700.

“That’s a completely different price point to what we’ve had here before, but the response we have had as given us the confidence to seek even more,” Walker-Smith explains.

The first floor has been given injections of Scandi brands such as Tiger of Sweden and Dutch atelier Stills, with a broader collection of Joseph, as well as Eileen Fisher, Goat and Sonia by Sonia Rykiel. The team has also introduced a year-round cashmere bar where the shoppers can seek out perennials.

In the basement, menswear and kidswear have received less attention, although new brands such as Richard Nicoll, Margaret Howell, Mr Start and Huntergather have been added to men’s. But the focus on the other floors is understandable, given womenswear makes up 85% of the store’s turnover.

As a private company, Fenwick, which had group turnover of around £290m in 2012-13, does not share sales data, but a spokeswoman confirms that in Walker-Smith’s first year, the 12 months to the end of January 2014, revenues in Bond Street rose 8.1%. More will be revealed when the business publishes its figures in October, but Walker-Smith adds that Bond Street had its best-ever Christmas, with a strict Sale period and no discounting before December 27.

“We are establishing ourselves as a luxury destination, so we have to stay true to ourselves and our new brand image,” he says.

“From now on, we’ll only be having short, sharp Sales.”

Instead of resorting to discounting, Walker-Smith and his team are hoping to woo customers with more store-wide initiatives, following the white concept. For London Fashion Week, which started this week, the store’s windows feature five-foot line drawings of five designers - Marios Schwab, Sophie Hulme, Sarah Angold, Hannah Coffin and Mother of Pearl designer Amy Powney - by resident illustrator David Downton.

Supermodel Helena Christensen is making a personal appearance for a Triumph event at the store and there are plans to run events around the Olivier Awards later in the year, and Walker-Smith hopes to dress some of the winning actresses on the night.

“You can see where our energy is coming from,” Walker-Smith says. “We are affirming where we already exist. Fenwick has only ever been a whisper, but now we are getting slightly louder. We’re hoping the echo will draw in the wider audience.”

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