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Walpole CEO's tactics for building the Brands of Tomorrow

As Walpole’s initiative Brands of Tomorrow turns 10, CEO Helen Brocklebank, reveals her tips for luxury brand success.

Helen brocklebank, walpole ceo3

Helen Brocklebank, CEO, Walpole

What is Walpole?

Walpole is the industry body for the British luxury sector, worth £32.2bn to the UK economy and employing around 115,000 people. Walpole protects, promotes and develops the interests of its 200-plus members, which include Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Dunhill, Harrods and Net-a-Porter.

Tell us about your career. How did you end up at Walpole?

I’ve spent most of my career working with luxury brands, either while running my own luxury content agency, which I did immediately before joining Walpole earlier this year, or in my work in luxury publishing. British luxury is the jewel in the crown of the UK economy and I’m on a mission to get it the recognition it deserves.

Tell us about Walpole’s Brands of Tomorrow programme 

A significant part of our activity lies in nurturing future talent with our mentoring programmes – investing the time, skills and expertise of established British luxury brands in the Next generation.

It is a unique mentoring programme that takes up to 12 carefully selected fledgling brands through a 12-month programme of workshops and mentoring to help develop their business skills and set them on a path to growth. I’m so proud of its track record.

Many now well-known designers and brands have been mentored through the programme: Orlebar Brown, Emilia Wickstead, Private White VC, Osman, Trunk Clothiers and Charlotte Olympia to mention only a handful. In total we have supported 85 businesses.

Wick rtw fw17 0615

Emilia Wickstead, autumn 17

How do you select the brands?

The application process opens in the autumn, when brands are invited to apply via our website. To be eligible, selected companies need to exemplify the highest standards of quality, style and craftsmanship, and aspire to develop into full Walpole members.

Following a rigorous Dragons Den-style pitch process, the judging panel selects 12 brands to take forward with the programme. In 2016, we received around 70 applications for 12 places.

What are you doing to celebrate the programmes 10th anniversary?

We’ve launched The Walpole 100: Secrets of the Luxury Entrepreneurs campaign,which celebrates the extraordinary talent, innovation and creativity of the British luxury sector. The Walpole 100 brings together 50 luxury entrepreneurs, mentors and Brands of Tomorrow participants to create an insider’s guide – the 100 top tips and advice – to what it takes to become a luxury entrepreneur.

What new and up and coming businesses do you have your eye on?

This year’s Brands of Tomorrow intake has been incredibly strong – of the fashion-focused brands, Hillier Bartley, is a great combination of proven creative talent with a new, exciting take. Duke & Dexter has taken the “one core product, a thousand different iterations” trend and made it its own – I like its effortless yet cool bespoke angle, too. Camilla Elphick has a very British idiosyncratic creative edge and I love how each pair of her shoes is a talking point – she adds something both synergistic and fresh to the new wave of upscale women’s footwear

What are the biggest challenges facing British luxury brands at the moment?

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Orlebar Brown

In common with all businesses, Brexit is the single biggest challenge. For the British luxury sector, the big issues are around free movement of people – 30% of the overall workforce are European Union nationals and have an extraordinary skill set and viewpoint that makes British luxury fly. Think what the dream team of Italian CEO Thierry Andretta and Spanish creative director Johnny Coca have achieved at Mulberry, for example: access to, and retention of, luxury talent is a focus. Supply chain issues and free movement of goods are another headache. The Prada-owned British men’s shoe icon, Church’s, makes in Northampton, but its raw materials and finished goods travel all over the continent and the friction-free borders we’ve been used to are critical to the business model.

I’m also frustrated that while Walpole was instrumental in getting sector recognition for luxury in the EU, we now need to do that all again in our own government. However, that being said, luxury businesses take a long-term view of their businesses and brand health – the currency fluctuations [and weaker sterling] have brought huge numbers of visitors to Britain, which has been really beneficial for retail, and, despite the challenges of Brexit, the future looks very strong.

What are the biggest opportunities?

The value of the “British” bit of British Luxury has never been more alluring to customers, which might seem counterintuitive in the context of Brexit, but is nonetheless a big pull. This is particularly evident when it comes to creativity and craftsmanship. What Dunhill is doing with its leather goods manufacturing in Walthamstow is very interesting – expanding capacity, opening it up so that customers can come and see how the making happens. That, combined with a fresh, relevant contemporary design direction and digital storytelling is a good example of a brand focused on the opportunities in the sector.

Charlotte olympia spring 17

Charlotte Olympia spring 17

And digital, of course, taps right into the export-focused luxury business model, offering an amazing global shop window. Brands that have an incredibly slick customer offer online and an experience-led, playful, rich experience in store will win the customer.

What brands or businesses do you most admire in the wider luxury sector?

Gucci has nailed it over the past couple of years. It’s not only the clever, playful aesthetic – it’s innovations such as the wildly successful customisation activity in Harrods this season. In a digital world, where everything can be endlessly reproduced and shared, what you want is something that is uniquely yours – either a product or an experience that only you have with the brand.

Dior is another European heritage brand that’s saying something new and authentic at the moment without losing sight of its connection to its 70-year legacy. Maria Grazia Chiuri taps into a very zeitgeisty activist sentiment by translating Dior’s quintessential femininity into feminism. She sent models down the catwalk earlier this year wearing “We should all be feminist” T-shirts – the slogan comes from the title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk.

Fashion, it seems, needs a very strong point of view these days, and not only from an aesthetic perspective.

Where do you see the future of luxury progressing?

Personalisation is the future – it’s not “luxury” but “my luxury”. Think of Harrods’ new wellness centre, where every treatment from skincare to nutrition is tailored to the customer’s DNA profile, or of Gucci’s DIY customisation, and of Orlebar Brown’s design-your-own #Snapshorts.

Brocklebank’s top luxury tips

1 The product is the keepsake that reminds you of a unique, memorable experience. Luxury has always been about the way you feel, but that is more important than ever before – create compelling experience first, purchase will follow.

2 Authenticity is a crucial connection point for the millennial consumer. Be sincere, be genuine, be honest – but don’t be worthy.

3 Heritage must be a springboard for relevance not a legacy millstone. The past is only prologue

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