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The Drapers Interview - Jürgen Leuthe and Diane Sykes, Hauber

Helped by sales manager Diane Sykes, Jürgen Leuthe is giving the 144-year-old label a new lease of life.

At its peak in the mid-1980s, womenswear brand Hauber was stocked by 1,000 retailers across the UK, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but by 2011 this had fallen to 350. Imbued with history - it was launched in 1870 by Ferdinand Hauber, founder of textile dynasty Hauber Group in Nürtingen, southern Germany - its traditional aesthetic fell out of favour as women began to seek trend-driven styles suitable for all ages.

Hauber was seen as the company’s classic label; a bit like mainstream German brand Gerry Weber, only more expensive. Its days seemed to be numbered, with its owner focusing instead on growing its relatively newer brands - sports medical aids company Sporlastic Orthopaedics, which it bought in the mid-1970s, and premium womenswear label Luisa Cerano, launched in 1998.

However, that all changed in 2012. By this time Hauber Group was in the hands of Ferdinand’s fourth-generation descendant Walter Leuthe and his two sons, Michael and Jürgen. While Walter heads up Luisa Cerano and Michael runs Sporlastic, Jürgen was appointed as chief executive of Hauber in 2012 and tasked with turning around its fortunes.

“We saw there was a GAP in the market for upper casual [womenswear],” Jürgen Leuthe explains. The family looked at its resources - including its headquarters in Stuttgart where it undertakes all its product development and sampling - and decided it would be a waste not to try to grow the brand.

The family floated the idea with a few of Hauber Group’s long-standing retailers in Germany, who agreed there was room in the market for a brand that was trend-driven but still high quality. This encouraged them to invest “a couple of million” in turning Hauber around. Leuthe will not be drawn on the precise amount invested or disclose details of its financial performance, but says it is now stocked by 500 retailers worldwide - and that number is growing steadily.

It is expected Leuthe will eventually take control of both fashion brands, ahead of his father’s eventual retirement and once Hauber is properly established. He has been preparing for the role for some time: before studying economics at university in Nuremberg and the Italian city of Pavia between 1998 and 2003, he did a retail apprenticeship with German store group Engelhorn from 1996-98. In 2004, he spent a year interning at Harrods before joining Germany’s CBR Fashion Group in 2005, working on the product development of its women’s young fashion label Street One. He joined the Hauber family business in 2008 as marketing director of Luisa Cerano.

His first challenge on taking the helm at Hauber was to improve the product, and he brought in fresh blood by employing five new designers. The result is a more contemporary feel - the designs are trend-driven and less stiff and structured. The spring 15 range is dotted with cashmere cardigans, soft leather jackets, printed jeans and on-trend boxy tops.

The brand now has adjacencies such as Diane von Furstenberg, Marella and Marc Cain in many of its independent stockists. Leuthe is also modernising the way product is styled and photographed by shunning studio space in favour of outdoor shoots in locations such as Paris.

But there have been some difficult decisions - including exiting some of Hauber’s more traditional retailers, such as Lambi’s of Lampeter in Ceredigion, De Gruchy in Jersey and Knowles & Gaston in Ballymena, Country Antrim, Leuthe says: “We had to be ruthless. We need to work with modern retailers to see growth.”

He has also moved away from using agents where possible, growing his in-house sales team. He has taken on three German sales representatives in the last few months: “We felt the agencies weren’t doing enough, they weren’t as focused on the brand.”

With its two-year turnaround plan on the verge of completion, Hauber has also ramped up its UK presence. It has boosted its stockists from 20 in 2012 to 70 - a number it plans to double in the next two years - after investing in a shared showroom with Luisa Cerano on London’s Wells Street, just off Oxford Street, and employing sales manager Diane Sykes in February 2011.

Sykes has nearly 30 years’ experience in wholesale womenswear, including five years with Oui Group, another German family business. Before that she headed up Alterna’s (previously L’Ultima) sales team for eight years and was sales manager for US brands Albert Nipon and Nolan Miller.

Leuthe believes the UK is key to Hauber’s expansion: “We wanted to make a comeback in Europe, so the UK is important because it’s a very tough but good market. There is a lot of business to do here.”

With Sykes’ help, he wants to grow the brand organically, reaching customers through word of mouth. But he admits this can be frustrating. Global growth has been slower than he would have liked, partly because Hauber Group does not take out bank loans - instead, the family prefers to invest its own money and retain complete control. Because of this the funds to launch a big marketing campaign are not available, Leuthe says, but he stands by the strategy: “It takes time to become an established brand.”

Outside the UK, his ambitions include venturing into the Netherlands, France and eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, where Hauber plans to work with agencies until the brand is more established: “Luisa Cerano is already doing well in those countries and there is no reason Hauber can’t have a share of that market.”

The brand now has 15 showrooms globally, more than 500 stockists, and its transformation is nearly complete. While Luisa Cerano is more formal and premium, Hauber has gone down the sport luxe, high-quality casual route. “It’s for women who are a little bit more sporty but still want quality,” Leuthe explains. The brand wholesales at between £21 for a T-shirt and £120 for a jacket, with the spring 15 collection ranging up to £143 for a printed coat. It offers an average 2.8 mark-up.

The new direction appears to have gone down well in the UK, with sales increasing by 75% in the last three seasons. Independent stockists include Courtyard in Guildford, Surrey, Michelle B in Barrowford in Lancashire and Ambers of Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Norwich department store Jarrold will introduce Hauber this autumn. Buyer Denise Green remembers it as it was before: “It was very classic; it wasn’t doing anything Gerry Weber couldn’t do at half the price.”

However, she stumbled across it again at last season’s Scoop trade show in London and was “pleasantly surprised”: “They have come back with a lovely collection. It has a contemporary twist and any age seems to be able to wear it. I think a young girl would look preppy in it and an older lady would look quite stylish. It’s beautiful quality.”

Leuthe says he’s pleased with its progress, although the collections are still being refined: “We’re not quite there with the product. Our responsibility to the retailer is to give them a collection in which every single piece is special.” Sykes says with a laugh that his expectations are too high, pointing out that the first refreshed collection for autumn 13 attracted 110 new customers across the UK and Europe.

Leuthe and Sykes’ priority over the next year is to build on this momentum, bringing in a steady stream of business from independents. They are determined not to let the brand fall out of favour again.

“We’re constantly talking to our partners, finding out what they need, what’s going on in the market and making sure we’re on trend,” says Sykes. “We’re being much more proactive.”

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