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Aspinal of London's export aspirations

Lisa montague web

After opening an impressive new flagship in the capital, British accessories label Aspinal of London is set to explode on to the international scene. 

Immaculately turned-out store staff are bustling around in preparation for the day’s trading when Drapers arrives early one morning at Aspinal of London’s new flagship on Regent Street. Heavy leather trunks and delicate lilac hatboxes decorate the impressive double-fronted windows.

Inside, a sweeping oak staircase leads upstairs, where chief executive Lisa Montague waits on a blue velvet sofa to talk about the brand’s ambitious plans for global expansion.

We want it to be a place where customers can dwell

This 3,500 sq ft store is something of a departure for the British premium accessories label. Founded in 2001 by entrepreneur and current chairman Iain Burton, Aspinal started life online before opening its first bricks-and-mortar store at Westfield London in Shepherd’s Bush in 2008. Most of its 10-strong UK store estate is considerably smaller than the Regent Street store, at around 1,000 sq ft. But the brand’s burgeoning collection, which includes everything from handbags to luxury leather Monopoly sets, necessitates more space.

“Now that the collection is quite broad, we needed a bigger format to showcase the brand, and there was a search for a real flagship to show what we do,” explains Montague, who joined in September last year from Spanish fashion house Loewe, where she held the same role. The store opened a few months later in December. “I think the scale of it is what makes it really special – we have that double front and the double-height ceiling.”

Working with design agency Caulder Moore, Aspinal has created a sprawling but welcoming space that draws on the brand’s British heritage to recreate the feel of a traditional country house. The store is split into two separate “rooms”: a downstairs “boudoir” featuring pale pink panelling, dressing tables and chintzy animal ornaments; and an upstairs lounge with dark wood walls and low leather armchairs.

“There’s a lovely anecdote about Iain coming to the store on one of its first trading days and seeing a lady from Abu Dhabi, who knew the brand from our stores there, sitting on the first-floor balcony just watching the world go by,” Montague adds. “We want it to be a place where customers can dwell.”

Baptism of fire

Montague was thrown in at the deep end when she joined Aspinal. Within weeks of her arrival, she was overseeing the implementation of a new integrated software system, preparing for London Fashion Week, readying the store launch and heading into her first Cyber Weekend. Thankfully, she had plenty of experience steering premium and luxury accessory brands from which to draw from: she spent six years as the chief operating officer at Mulberry from 2003 to 2009, before moving to Madrid to head Loewe for seven years.

The climate is challenging, but that forces us to be creative

“I was in Madrid for the whole of the Spanish [financial] crisis, so I feel well-prepared for Brexit,” she chuckles. “There were really two chapters of my time there, under two different creative directors. I reconnected with Stuart [Vevers, Loewe’s creative director from 2007 to 2013], who I had worked with at Mulberry, which was a real pleasure for me. Then when he left, we welcomed Jonathan Anderson, which was an exciting step up in pace for my last three years.”

Mini hat box hr

Montague’s roots in fashion stretch back to her childhood. Growing up, her father worked as an agent for British womenswear brands and her mother ran a series of three womenswear and lingerie independents in Wilmslow, Cheadle and Bramhall.

“I was the best-dressed child,” she recalls. “I was roped in as low-cost labour at the weekends to help with the shop and you learn so much just from dinner-table chat.”

She spent the early parts of her career at French fashion house Cerruti 1881. 

Former Harrods fashion and beauty director and luxury consultant Marigay McKee, who worked with Montague at both Mulberry and Loewe, says Aspinal is “lucky to have her”: “Lisa is always on the mark with everything she does. She is passionate in her delivery and her immersion in the brands she runs is complete. She loves product, cares about the detail and is focused on strategy.”

Spanish tradition

Montague, who was born in 1963, says she valued her time in Madrid – she threw herself into the local culture and learned Spanish, which she still speaks at home with her three children. However, the family decided to move back to the UK in 2016 to allow Montague and her husband to pursue new career opportunities, and further the children’s educations.

“Funnily enough, Aspinal was a brand that I really noticed when I came back from Spain, because while I was away, its retail presence had grown phenomenally. I started to notice its presence in London, which is quite strong, and was asking my friends what Aspinal was all about. Then I got the call saying there had been a change in management and that they were looking for a new CEO.” Montague’s predecessor, Sarah Rotherham, left in April 2017.

Sales at Aspinal soared by 24% to £29.4m for the year to 31 March 2017, compared with 2016, and its adjusted EBITDA grew 20% to £1.8m in the same period. Retail like-for-like sales and online sales were also up, by 8% and 36% respectively.

Montague’s brief is to build on the growth and “transition from being a well-kept secret in the UK to be a truly present brand internationally”. Aspinal currently works closely with a franchise partner on two stores in Abu Dhabi and one in Kuwait but the rest of the world remains relatively untapped when it comes to bricks-and-mortar stores. 

“We have the wonderful opportunity of having a blank slate from which to grow,” Montague says. “We’re looking at online partnerships in China, because of course in China you have some very strong platforms and it is a vast country geographically, as well as the scale of the population. There’s a great appeal for the brand in Asian territories – not only in China, but Greater China, south-east Asia and Japan.”

Paris match

Montague is particularly excited about the brand’s pop-up in Paris at French department store chain Galeries Lafayette. The pop-up will run from early February to the beginning of April – a period that spans both Chinese New Year and Paris Fashion Week. Montague hopes it will give a window into Aspinal at a time when Paris is buzzing with international visitors.

Further opportunities for the brand lie in new wholesale partnerships. It has 70 stockists, including Selfridges, Fenwick and Harrod and added ten John Lewis stores as stockists from last month. Aspinal also has 10 concessions in House of Fraser stores around the country.

The affordable luxury sector has more opportunities for growth than perhaps some others

“We have a super business in the UK, which is more or less 50% online and 50% bricks and mortar,” Montague explains. “John Lewis has a very loyal customer base and we are both very strong British brands. It is known for exceptional quality and value.”

Hat box collection v2 rgb

Hat box collection v2 rgb

Montague describes Aspinal’s proposition as “affordable luxury” and sees the sector as a sweet spot in an otherwise challenging retail environment. The brand’s gifting offer, which includes wallets, passports covers, key charms and hipflasks, makes up around half of its overall business. Handbags, the other half, are its fastest-growing category. Retail prices range from £35 for a leather key charm, rising to £495 for a small women’s handbag and £595 for a men’s travel bag.

“I do think the affordable luxury sector has more opportunities for growth than perhaps some others,” says Montague. “Clearly economic uncertainty in the market is not good for anyone, but for a smaller brand like us, the macro-economics should be less important because of our own expansion opportunities.

“The climate is challenging, but that forces us to be creative. I’m a little bit glass half full: I see every threat as an opportunity. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, it’s difficult,’ and stay still, but then the world passes you by. It’s my job to ensure we keep driving the business forward.”

Fashion has that left brain, right brain thinking. It is the perfect balance for me

Luca Solca, senior luxury goods analyst at investment company Exane BNP Paribas, also sees growth ahead for British brands, thanks to international demand: “Chinese consumer confidence remains high, and both the US and European markets are experiencing a cyclical recovery.

“The sky should continue to be blue for luxury goods. British style and tradition stand high in international consumer’s appreciation. The opportunity for British brands is to interpret those values by making them modern and relevant in the current world.”

Helen Brocklebank, chief executive of luxury trade body Walpole, agrees, and adds that she admires Aspinal’s ambition: “The product and the price point mean it is a brand to watch. The British luxury sector is much broader than its European equivalents: it stretches from the very high-end super-rich, to customers who don’t want to spend £3,000 for a handbag but are still aspirational and have a thirst for quality.”

Retail is never easy, but with much of the world still left to explore, there are plenty of opportunities for Aspinal.

Montague relishes the journey ahead: “Fashion has that left brain, right brain thinking. It is the perfect balance for me. The seasons and collections are ever changing, although sometimes we do find ourselves wishing our lives away. I’ll write the date and find myself putting 2019, because that’s where my focus is right now. But that’s what I love – the permanent juggling.”

Montague’s Aspinal of London hero pieces

Aspinal trunk 1 bordeaux croc

Aspinal trunk 1 bordeaux croc

Mini Trunk Clutch £450

Launched in 2015, Aspinal of London’s vintage-inspired box bag has since taken on a “life of its own” and become a brand signature, Montague says. Available in an array of colours and finishes, including forest green, crocodile print and patent tortoiseshell, the bag can be worn cross body or hand held.

Hat box mini 4

Hat box mini 4

Mini Hat Box Bag £495

Aspinal has added a circular take on the trunk clutch for spring 18. There is particular demand for the product from Asian consumers, and Montague can often be spotted carrying the style in black.

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