The chief of indie favourite Masai is scouting for multiple and department store stockists as part of an expansion that has been giving him sleepless nights
Sune Bjerregaard is fresh off a flight from Copenhagen when Drapers meets the chief executive of The Masai Clothing Company at its London studio in well-heeled Parsons Green.
Racking up air miles is all part of the easy-going Dane’s job at the womenswear brand. Created in 1992 by Danish siblings Hans and Nina Rye, Masai – the founders liked the name because it is easy to pronounce in many languages – has far outgrown its native Scandinavia and is now sold in 1,300 independent retailers and department stores in 25 countries, including France, Germany and the UK.
Group sales hit 368m DKK (£41.95m) in 2014/15 and since it launched here eight years ago, the UK has grown into Masai’s largest wholesale market. Although it declined to break down UK sales figures, the brand has around 300 UK stockists, a number that is a source of pride for Bjerregaard.
“It’s very unusual for a Danish company to have that many stockists in the UK,” he says. “It’s a lot for a Dane. In fact, it’s a lot even for a British company, so for a Danish one it’s particularly good. When we first came in to the market the brand was completely unknown, so we had to do it the hard way by knocking on customers’ doors.”
Masai has come a long way in the UK since its early days. The brand has become a firm favourite with independents – it is a regular in Drapers’ weekly reports of independents’ bestsellers – and it beat Ted Baker, Paul Smith and Joseph Ribkoff to be named best womenswear brand at the Drapers Independents Awards 2015. Part of its success, Bjerregaard argues, is its loyalty to the Rye siblings’ original vision and brand purpose of creating clothes for “every woman rather than women who look like models” in an industry dominated by brands making younger – or, as he puts it, “sexier” – styles. Customers are encouraged to layer Masai pieces to create a relaxed, bohemian feel and oversized silhouettes are a key part of its collections. Wholesale prices range from £12 for a jersey top to £70 for outerwear.
We want to have a closer dialogue with department stores to expand our business through them
“No matter what size you are, you can fit Masai,” says Bjerregaard. ”We’ve kept the brand DNA very tight and when a customer comes into our showroom or a retail store, she knows exactly what she’s coming in for.”
Brenda Powell, a senior sales assistant who specialises in Masai at Welsh independent Nicholls, says the brand has performed consistently well since it was introduced to the store four years ago: “Customers had to get used to the layering and the looser styles but now that they have, it does brilliantly for us. There’s just so much customers can do with the products and the brand has a really good following. I wear it to work myself, which encourages customers to buy more.”
Change is in the air at Masai. It has just marked its first year with new owner Silverfleet Capital, a private equity firm that bought the brand from its founders for an undisclosed sum last June. Bjerregaard, who joined in 2012 and was previously managing director at fellow Danish brand Jackpot, says he was recruited with the goal of growing the business and selling Masai in mind.
“I was employed four years ago as part of the strategy to sell the company,” he explains. “The founders had been wanting to exit the business for a long time, but in 2008 the financial crisis hit and nothing could be sold. It can be very difficult to sell a company with just founders. Private equity want to expand the business and, although the founders also wanted to do so, it was already very profitable, so they were less prepared to take risks.”
Consumers here are accustomed to a culture of mail ordering, which we don’t have in Scandinavia
Masai is pushing forward with ambitious plans for growth following the sale. Having reached its self-imposed limit for stores in Denmark with 11, it plans to open up to 10 new sites in Sweden – where it has eight – and Norway – which has three – every year for the next couple of years.
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There have long been rumours of a UK standalone store and, although Bjerregaard says it is not a top priority, it is also not something he rules out.
However, for now, Masai is focusing on expanding the wholesale side of its business by launching into more large multiples and department stores. The brand is already stocked by the Fenwick Group but is looking at “all the major players” on the British high street as prospective partners.
Bjerregaard is keen to stress that Masai is not turning its back on independents. Indies, he says, come into Masai showrooms around the world every day and will remain an important part of the business. However, he argues that the retail landscape is changing and that the brand needs to work with bigger partners in order to grow:
“We want to have a closer dialogue with department stores to expand our business through them. Of course, we want to stay with the independents and serve them, but the market is very tough for indies at the moment and we also need to go into the larger department stores. Previously, the company hadn’t wanted to go in department stores because it was seen as putting all the eggs in one basket and too risky. That strategy did spread out the risk, but it also limited growth.”
It is a strategy Masai is also using to break into the US market. Although Bjerregaard remains tight-lipped on the name of its partner, he says Masai opened its first account with an American department store earlier this year.
Growing its online offer is another important step in Masai’s plans for growth. A transactional website was launched in Denmark last month and will be introduced in the UK in late 2017.
“We need to make sure we do online in the right way,” Bjerregaard says. “There are a lot of things that can go wrong and shopping online in Sweden and Denmark is not as huge as it is in the UK. Consumers here are accustomed to a culture of mail ordering, which we don’t have in Scandinavia. We expect online to be big business for us – 10% to 15% of sales for the first year of business and then to grow from there.”
The recently appointed country manager for UK and Ireland, Christian Lawaczeck, adds: “We have to test every aspect of the digital business. There are a lot of things we need to consider. We know that the British customer can be an expensive customer to keep happy online. They like to order multiple items and then send them back at the last minute and we will need to reintegrate returned stock back into the supply chain. All of this will be tested in Scandinavia and then scaled up for the UK.”
Bjerregaard emphasises that, while Masai is carefully expanding within department stores and strengthening its online offer, its growth strategy is still focused on its “all-important” independent stockists. He believes the higher visibility of Masai online and in department stores will grow brand recognition – and therefore sales – for all of its customers.
“When we announced we were launching online in Denmark and Sweden, there were customers who were not very happy about it. But we’re not the first. In fact, we’re more or less the last brand to go online. It’s an everyday thing and I think, if you’re professional, you can see the potential of the brand having more exposure. What will be interesting for us will be to see what type of consumers buy us online and whether it is the same as those going to a multi-brand store.”
Change at the top
A series of changes have also been made to Masai’s senior management team over the past year. As well as Lawaczeck, Masai has hired a new chief financial officer Theis Bruun, who joined from Diesel, chief operating officer Per Ellison and head of marketing Pernille Lund. The shake-up was necessary to “take Masai to the next level”, Bjerregaard says, but he admits the changes have caused him some sleepless nights: “When you have strong people coming into the company, they will always like to put their own handwriting on a brand and we don’t need that.
When we announced we were launching online in Denmark and Sweden, there were customers who were not very happy about it
“We need to make an evolution, not a revolution. I must say ‘it’s a very good idea, but it’s not Masai’ about 10 times a day. I know exactly what Masai is, I know exactly where we came from and I know exactly what we need to change. I’m sleeping much better now, because I can see the collection is where it needs to be and that all the initiatives we’re introducing were the right decision.”
Britain’s shock decision to leave the European Union could have also caused the chief executive of a European brand with such a strong presence in the UK to lose some sleep. However, Bjerregaard remains characteristically level-headed about the potential impact on the industry.
“I can get frustrated about some of the rumours going round, which end up hurting the market. With Brexit, people are afraid of what’s going to happen but hopefully there will just be a little noise in the market, and then things will move on. The only real consequence we’ve seen so far is that the value of the pound dropped. There’s still growth in the stock market. Life goes on and tomorrow is a new day.”
Despite the changes at Masai, Bjerregaard says the company has retained its strong family-run sentiment.
“I gave our new owners a tour of the company recently and they commented on how happy and dedicated everyone at the company is. That makes me very proud and being part of Masai’s success makes me proud, too. There’s a lot going on and I think great potential for more sales.”
It is undoubtedly an exciting time to have the top job at Masai. The next year promises to bring about big shifts in the brand’s strategy and approach, but Bjerregaard says he thrives on change: “I love that in retail you can never lean back and say now things are going smoothly. Every day you are measured on your performance in retail, whether it’s through your daily figures, whether you are able to ship the right merchandise at the right time, or how customers are reacting.”