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The Drapers Interview: Gilles Laumonier, Lee

After 125 years of making jeans, Lee is being led into uncharted territory by European boss Gilles Laumonier.

Gilles Laumonier, Lee

Gilles Laumonier, Lee

Following some difficult years, US denim brand Lee is now in better shape and has big ambitions, says its European president Gilles Laumonier - and he is keen to show it off.

Arriving at its new store at 33 Neal Street in Covent Garden, Laumonier apologises profusely for being late due to problems with his Eurostar train, having travelled from his home and business base in Brussels. He takes in the store for the first time - it opened in mid-November after relocating from a temporary shop one door further down - with pleasure.

The 1,130 sq ft two-floor space feels light and airy thanks to white paint and stripped pine flooring. Quilted men’s jackets and worker-style checked shirts in autumn colours are displayed on mannequins to the front of the shop floor, while a multitude of jeans line shelves towards the back.

Prices start at £25 for a T-shirt and go up to £340 for a parka, while jeans (which make up around 65% of sales)range from £75 to £115, with 12 fits and 50 finishes for men and 15 fits and 60 finishes for women.

Womenswear, a growing category that accounts for about 30% of the UK business, is on the lower ground floor.

“It looks pretty good, don’t you think?” asks Laumonier, explaining that this is the fifth in the roll-out of a new retail concept that launched this year, following two in Paris, one in Warsaw and one in Antwerp. “We used lighter woods and materials, so it feels a lot more contemporary, and I think this sleek, clean, sophisticated look sums up where we are as a brand right now.”

Before Laumonier joined in 2009, he says Lee had lost its identity and faced the squeeze from both upper-tier brands, such as J Brand and 7 For All Mankind, and lower-tier offerings from the high street. However, he now feels the brand has returned to where it should be and is working on plans to expand its reach further.

“Now we have got our retail model right and our product line is better than ever, we have the right formula to open franchise stores,” he says. “We’ve just started out on this journey and we’re in discussions with franchise partners in the UK and Ireland.”

He is cautious about revealing his ambitions as this is uncharted territory for Lee so the process is starting from scratch, but he does have a mid-term target of around 20 partner stores in the next three years in major cities such as Manchester and Birmingham.

Lee has 150 UK stockists, including Selfridges, Debenhams, John Lewis, Urban Outfitters and independents such as Oi Polloi in Manchester and The Priory in Bridlington, east Yorkshire, in addition to two standalone stores in Neal Street and Westfield London. The company is considering opening a few more UK stores, but has no confirmed plans as yet. It also launched its first transactional website, covering eight countries including the UK, in September. The UK makes up 15% of Lee’s European business.

At present, the UK business is 90% wholesale and 10% retail. “Going forward, the majority will still bewholesale and own retail will be a small portion,” says Laumonier. When pressed about the brand’s intentions, he adds: “If you look three or four years ahead, I’d anticipate own retail would account for 20%.”

Laumonier was brought in to lead the European business five years ago from his position as worldwide general manager of VF Corporation stablemate, backpacks and luggage brand Eastpak. “After the success I had with Eastpak, they asked me if I could take over Lee to revamp the brand and relaunch it.

“First, we reviewed the marketing and the product line and, unfortunately, I had to restructure the company at the beginning, including making some redundancies, because it was not in a good shape. It was a hard job and I was like the bad boy joining, but it was needed.

“The second step was to give a new vision and energy to the brand, which we started in Scandinavia with a strategy to come down geographically through Europe. Now we are at the stage to focus on the UK and Germany.”

Laumonier is chatty, charming and puts you immediately at ease, while his passion for what he does is immediately apparent. Although he says he is never satisfied, he admits he’s happy with the progress made during his five years in the role.

“I’m the guy whose motto is that good is not good enough and that perfection does not exist, so all the time I am pushing for more. I’d say we are at 90% of what I want to achieve. We have to constantly renew ourselves and look for better, but I think we are really where we should be. So now it is my job to maintain that and push even further.”

He says the brand is now working more closely with its wholesale stockists, using “a lot more science” and data to analyse what the ideal product mix is and to ensure better performance. It is also more discerning about its stockists as the market gets tougher with more competition, choosing to work with those retailers with whom it can have a closer relationship.

The UK denim market was valued at £2bn in 2013, up from £1.9bn in 2012 and £1.8bn in 2008, according to research firm Euromonitor International. Diesel is the market leader, followed by Levi’s and VF Corporation (which owns Lee and Wrangler). Fast Retailing (owner of J Brand and Uniqlo) and Arcadia (whose businesses include Topshop, Topman and Burton), are fourth and fifth in terms of value market share.

Laumonier will not give exact turnover figures but says Lee is a small player with low single-digit percentage market share, compared with the likes of Diesel and Levi’s. He explains: “I’m trying to take what could be perceived as a handicap as an advantage - we are small and agile so can be closer to the market than anyone else. We are playing at full strength and that is helping us to come back on the scene. We try to be more relevant locally with what we do [through working closely with stockists and using the findings from its own stores] and there is a lot of growth potential.”

Phil Hazel, owner of Birmingham menswear independent Liquor Store, says Lee holds its own in the shop’s denim room alongside brands such as APC, Edwin, Levi’s and Nudie. “Lee sits in the £80 to £130 price point - a key area - and it is a solid product for us. It has a couple of good fits such as a slim tapered style, which does very well.”

Shane Kingdon, manager of independent Hub’s menswear store in Stoke Newington, east London, agrees Lee’s pricing structure and quality makes it accessible: “We have stocked Lee for years and it is our bestselling denim brand. Customers don’t think twice about paying £80 for a pair of jeans, whereas at £140 they might. Lee also repeats and refreshes key styles each season.”

Collaborations have also helped to create a buzz at both retail and consumer level. Most recent is another tie-up with directional independent Other/shop in Soho for a women’s capsule collection of 10 styles. The Other x Lee range retails at £45 to £125 and was launched at the temporary store at 35 Neal Street on November 27, which runs until January 4.

It follows the 125 Years collection, launched in selected stores in October, in which industry names such as Donwan Harrell, creative director of premium denim brand Prps, and Emma François, founder of womenswear brand Sessùn, rework key styles, with jeans priced at £110.

The range is stocked in Harvey Nichols and Harrods, which, while not a long-term focus, made customers and retailers look at Lee in a new light. Laumonier says: “It really is the final confirmation of the brand’s transformation.”

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