The chief executive of AllSaints explains how he is building the international profile of a proud British brand through a creative, digitally focused strategy
“We have matured as a business and become global in sight,” says William Kim, the former Burberry executive who has been leading AllSaints’ renaissance over the last three years.
With stints at Gucci, Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen under his belt, financial and digital expert Kim may have seemed an unusual choice for chief executive of east London label AllSaints when he was tasked with rebuilding the business on a digital infrastructure and positioning it on an international stage by private equity owner Lion Capital in 2012.
But three years later, clad head to toe in the label’s distinctive black layers, Kim is pleased to report that the strategy is working: the 21-year-old business posted the biggest EBITDA in its history for the year to January 31, up 41% to £24m on full-year sales of £231m.
Classically schooled in accountancy and international business at the University of Colorado, Kim believes a successful retailer model is based on a diversified portfolio.
It’s that wonderful edgy look of east London, with Paris sophistication meets LA cool
His strategy, developed alongside Lion Capital’s co-founder, Lyndon Lea, is to balance the business across numerous product categories, international markets and multiple channels.
“A lot of brands do well in one market and appeal to one subset of society, but that’s a dangerous business model because we know what can happen if that market struggles,” he says, referring to the waning popularity of the collegiate style of US young fashion brands such as American Apparel and Abercombie & Fitch.
AllSaints was established by founder Stuart Trevor in 1994, who eventually sold his stake to controversial fashion financier Kevin Stanford in 2005 for an undisclosed amount. A year later, Icelandic bank Baugur bought a third of the business from Stanford. The company rapidly expanded but struggled with cash flow and was rescued from the brink of administration by a consortium led by Lion Capital in May 2011.
Through its various ownerships, AllSaints has retained its individual look but Kim says the collection has moved on apace under Wil Beedle, the menswear designer who was promoted to chief creative director in June 2012.
“It’s a styled look – it’s that wonderful edgy look of east London, with Paris sophistication meets LA cool,” says Kim.
“Even in my time, we have been challenged that we were always somewhere between dark grey and black but now there is a beautiful colour palette. Similarly, once we may have been seen as mainly for special occasions, but now you can wear us to work – it’s a very sophisticated look.”
A suede high-waisted skirt with an A-line split is a key style for women for autumn 15, paired with a silk vest or shirt, waist belt and lace-up ankle boot, while for men a military bomber jacket in khaki is teamed with skinny jeans and an oversize T-shirt.
Everybody is asking if we’d be interested in a wholesale relationship for our ready-to-wear men’s and women’s collections
Honor Westnedge, lead analyst for clothing and footwear at Verdict Retail, says the brand has expanded its appeal: “AllSaints has been quite clever to shift the brand over the last few seasons to draw in a broader customer base, moving away from the niche positioning it once had, which was very edgy with a predominantly dark colour palette.”
Petah Marian, senior editor at trend forcasting agency WGSN agrees: ”Expanding further beyond its traditional leather and distressed garments is also a good move. Its traditional customer is growing up, and in order to hang on to that shopper, it needs to grow with it, while still remaining true to the DNA that brought that consumer to the brand in the first place.”
Kim believes AllSaints has no direct competition, arguing that it is more fluid than his previous luxury peer group as European contemporary brands are not typically as well known in America, or US brands in Asia where AllSaints is looking to grow, while others are stronger in one category or for one customer.
“We have an even split between women’s and men’s against an industry standard of 3:1 and it is no longer dependent on one category of the leather jacket,” he says. “When you look at outerwear, leather, knits and dresses, that’s two-thirds of our business in womenswear. And it’s the same for outerwear, leather, knits and wovens on men’s. All of a sudden you start to see that it is a beautifully balanced business.”
Accessories all areas
AllSaints makes 94% of its sales through ready-to-wear and 6% in non-apparel such as footwear and accessories but Kim sees potential to increase that to 20%-25%. For autumn 2015 it has collaborated with Seoul-based manufacturer Simone on the Capital Collection – a 50-piece bag range for men and women for priced up to £328 at retail, sold in AllSaints stores.
The Capital Collection is sold in Selfridges in the UK and Nordstrom in the US marking AllSaints’ entry into wholesale for footwear and accessories
A footwear collection for spring 16 will follow, developed with US-based Camuto Group. It will also be wholesaled to selected partners.
“Everybody is asking if we’d be interested in a wholesale relationship for our ready-to-wear men’s and women’s collections, but at present we think they have to be sold by our stylists, so it is a retail and franchise-only model,” Kim explains. “But with handbags and shoes, if you look at the wider luxury and premium contemporary brands, they do a significant amount of business through the wholesale channel, so it makes sense for us to explore it.”
Kim says the bag collection has been very well received, both by the industry and consumers, and it will continue to grow for coming seasons.
“We barely had enough for our own retail because we sold out of six options so quickly. So the name of the game is to increase production and expand,” he shrugs.
He is methodical yet spirited, with the polish that comes from years spent at some of the world’s most prestigious luxury brands, yet he seems right at home in AllSaints’ Shoreditch headquarters in a boardroom-come-office that is also home to prototype shop design features and rails of product.
Kim worked across Asia, Europe and the Americas for Burberry, including senior vice-president of digital based in London, before taking the helm at AllSaints. He also spent seven years with the Gucci Group in various international markets across brands including Stella McCartney and Alexander McQueen.
Born in Guam, a tropical island US territory located in the western Pacific, and of Korean descent, Kim has lived all over the world and currently lives a short drive from AllSaints’ east London base, which he does each day in a classic Mini. It makes a change from where he previously lived while at Burberry, close to Richmond Park in leafy southwest London, he laughs.
But he loves the area and believes it is paving the way globally in fashion creativity and digital prowess.
“We have some fantastic homegrown talent such as [global director of digital and technology] James Wintle, who started in stores and just celebrated 10 years with us. Our average age is 27 and we have a very young, passionate and global culture, where 14% of our corporate team started their first day in stores.”
We’re launching into Japan next year, digitally first, and then we’ll be looking at five or six stores
He is most animated describing how AllSaints uses Google Apps for Work, embracing cloud-based working to unite its 2,700 employees in 16 countries. There are communities for different parts of the business, such as a group for visual merchandisers who can watch short videos of how stores should look when new product arrives each month from around the world.
And it is this type of creative thinking on a global scale that Kim believes will be fundamental for further international expansion, which is high on his agenda.
The company has 38 standalone stores, 13 concessions and three outlet stores in the UK, 46 stores in the US and two in Canada, as well as 29 stores in continental Europe and Asia.
Kim sees huge opportunities in Asia: AllSaints opened its first stores in South Korea last year and launched into Taiwan this year.
“Now we have nine stores in Korea and we’ll have three stores in Taiwan by the end of this year,” he says. “We’re launching into Japan next year, digitally first, and then we’ll be looking at five or six stores, with an eventual market of around 30 to 40 stores over there too.”
AllSaints opened its first franchise store in the Middle East with partner Majid Al Futtaim at the end of September. The 6,000 sq ft store at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai marks the first step in a franchise agreement that could see up to 20 more stores in the next three years, with key targets of United Arab Emirates, Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
On its home turf, Kim believes there is still room for growth and the company is eyeing four potential locations for stores. Yet it is not a decision he will take lightly – stores have to be “true to brand” for customers to immerse themselves in the full AllSaints experience.
“If you look at what has happened to society from 2010 to now, first the tablet has transformed everything we do, and now we are living and working on smartphones,” he says. “Second, mall traffic has been hit, and that’s a general trend, so consumers are approaching your brand very differently – less through malls and desktops, more through social media, which is a big focus for us.
“So we believe in key markets you have to have a 100% direct distribution model, which means we own all the inventory through our direct-sourcing approach, and all the employees have been through AllSaints training, plus we design and prototype every fixture and fitting in our construction lab in Maidstone. It is no longer enough to just create beautiful product – you have to create beautiful environments too.”
AllSaints has chosen to own and operate its own web platform, rather than investing in real estate, which it tends to lease, and invest in in-house coding talent, so it is “as agile and dynamic as Facebook”.
Kim’s passion is infectious but he must be tiring to keep up with. Fresh from a whirlwind trip taking in Dubai, Singapore, Tokyo, Tapei and Seoul in just nine days, he says: “Having the opportunity to be at Gucci during its transformation, Burberry at its peak and to help establish labels like Alexander McQueen, you come to work not because you have to but because you want to.
”My mantra is: ’Let’s not just have another brand – let’s have something that we can all look back at and tell our grandchildren that we were part of this amazing journey.’ Our number one enemy is time.”
And with that, we say our goodbyes as a line of employees wait by the door with laptops and tablets in hand, waiting for the next board meeting to start.