Bags of growth ahead for Mulberry

The luxury British retailer is going through an exciting transition, as Bruno Guillon explains to Laura Chesters during a tour of new Somerset factory

The models of fashion week have skulked away, the fashionistas have hotfooted it to Milan, followed by Paris, and the bloggers and hangers-on have dispersed.

You could be forgiven for thinking that the hullabaloo of London Fashion Week would have barely registered in a sleepy, slightly soggy corner of Somerset. But visit two buzzing buildings – one near Bridgwater and one in Chilcompton – and you would be proven very wrong.

Mulberry’s two factories, where the luxury brand’s “it” bags are hand-made, stream the fashion group’s shows and events on to big screens.  Posters of its latest ad campaigns are plastered all over the building and news of recent store openings fill the notice boards.

Even though it didn’t hold a fashion show this year – it is waiting until it finds a new creative director to replace Emma Hill, who left last autumn – Mulberry still made the headlines during Fashion Week as it unveiled a new range of bags designed by the model of the moment, Cara Delevingne.

At the factories, Mulberry’s chief executive, Bruno Guillon, wants all its employees to understand what the company is about.

He said: “The DNA is British. This is the heart of the brand.”

Now the Somerset stitchers and sewers have doubled in number in the biggest single investment in UK fashion manufacturing in recent years. Last summer Mulberry opened a second factory and hired and trained locals from scratch. By the summer it will have 330 people making bags in its new Willows factory, adding to the 270 people in its original Rookery factory. It is now one of the biggest handbag manufacturers in Europe.

But it is this detail that is causing problems for Mulberry. The arrival of Mr Guillon, a Frenchman, at the authentically British brand has upset some of its loyal fans. After three profit warnings since he joined in March 2012, Mr Guillon is under pressure from Mulberry shareholders and the fashion world.

Mr Guillon was hired to take Mulberry upmarket and make it a global luxury brand, but progress has been slow. He stands accused of alienating existing shoppers while failing so far to win over new ones with his higher-priced bags – such as £1,600 for a Willow Tote. The bags made in the UK cost more to produce, so the prices have gone up. But hang on, wasn’t Mulberry always a British-made brand?

In fact, up until two years ago less than 20 per cent of its bags were made here. After the opening of the second factory last summer, more than 50 per cent of the bags are made in Britain, and that is why they are more expensive. Mr Guillon explained: “The price of quality leather hides has risen more than 20 per cent a year and we are now making more in the UK. So prices have to rise.

“When you see the time and skill that goes into these creations, you understand the cost.”

He said his bags are actually a “super bargain” compared with rivals that make their bags in Asia. Last week on a tour of the Somerset factories – dressed exquisitely and complete with a Mulberry man bag (the Matthew, which Mr Guillon says is the “perfect 24-hour bag”) – he raved about the quality of the products.

Some of its most complicated bags can take around seven hours to make – in 41 steps – and the leathers used are high end with everything from cow, goat and ostrich to alligator. Looking at the delicately weaved and plaited handle of a Dorset bag – cost: £595 – with group supply director Ian Scott, Mr Guillon declared the brand’s  identity is wholly British and it is important to invest here to retain that. Mulberry has spent £7.5m building the Willows factory near Bridgwater – a state-of-the art facility that recycles rainwater and is complete with solar panels – and won another £2.5m in government funding to train deprived people in the area.

At the Willows, a new batch of apprentices started the five week training this month; they will eventually master some of the steps to making a Mulberry bag. The craftspeople work in teams and the retail prices of bags are displayed in clear  view to remind them of their worth and also the value of hitting targets and keeping their work precise.

On many of the 41 steps there is less than a half-millimetre margin of error and rejects get sent back by the quality checkers, who inspect every single bag. Bridgwater has high levels of unemployment and deprivation. Mr Scott said that more than 1,300 people turned up at an open day held by Mulberry with the local college and over 3,000 applied for the 300 jobs available. Of the current employees at the Willows, 20 per cent were previously unemployed for more than six months.

Mr Guillon admitted that hiring and training them is a risk. In the last batch, he said, two people didn’t stay on after the five weeks of training. But the apprentices can rise fast and one of the recent intake has already been made supervisor.

Another of Mr Guillon’s initiatives is that he has put a stop to bags being made for the discount market – the designer outlets such as Bicester Village – so now only faulty or end-of-line leftovers will be sold in outlets. Mr Guillon is a fierce believer in not discounting and Christmas sales were hit because rivals had gone on sale early while Mulberry waited until Boxing Day. He said: “These people in the factory work so hard, we do not want to sell these bags at a discount. And if you discount, the margin is reduced.”

Mr Guillon is also cautious about relying too much on one moneyspinner. “‘It’ bags are good but they are also dangerous,” he said.  A successful brand should have a “portfolio” of bags. “We shouldn’t become dependent on one bag only”. The Bayswater makes up about 27 per cent of bag sales but its Alexa, which accounts for around 12 per cent of its business, caused it to run into trouble in Korea. It was so popular there for a while that when the trend waned, its overall sales were hit badly. He said: “We want the brand to be talked about, not just individual bags.”

Although he is obsessed with the Britishness of Mulberry, this doesn’t mean its new designer has to be a Brit. Mr Guillon is now shortlisting potential candidates for the post of creative director. He says “talent” is the requirement, not nationality.

He takes any criticism about his strategy in his stride. As an avid sportsman, he loves a challenge – he trains for Iron Man competitions in his spare time and has tried everything from heli-skiing to kite surfing and has even survived an avalanche while skiing.

His taste for adventure is also fulfilled in his regular trips abroad looking for new stores for Mulberry.

Mr Guillon might be on a mission to take Mulberry into the future but he has not forgotten its past. He often praises founder Roger Saul, who was ousted in a boardroom coup in 2002. He said Mr Saul, who created the brand in 1971, was ahead of his time. “It is impressive how creative he was at Mulberry. So innovative.”

The heritage of the brand is important but Mr Guillon knows it is the success of Ms Delevingne’s new collection and the eventual arrival of a new creative director that will shape its future.

Arts and Entertainment
The first film introduced Daniel Radcliffe to our screens, pictured here as he prepares to board the train to Hogwarts for the first time.
booksHow reading Harry Potter helps children grow up to be gay-friendly
Sport
Frank Lampard will pass Billy Wright and equal Bobby Charton’s caps tally of 106 caps against
sportFormer Chelsea midfielder in Etihad stopgap before New York contract
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Aladdin is performed at the Tony Awards in New York in June
theatreBrit producer Lythgoe makes kids' musical comedy a Los Angeles hit
Sport
Usain Bolt of Jamaica smiles and shakes hands with a competitor after Jamaica won their first heat in the men's 4x100m relay
sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Chancellor George Osborne, along with the Prime Minister, have been 'complacently claiming the economy is now fixed', according to shadow Chancellor Ed Balls
i100... which is awkward, because he is their boss, after all
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm actor was just 68
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Financial Analyst - Forecasting - Yorkshire

£300 - £350 per day: Orgtel: Financial Analyst, Forecasting, Halifax, Banking,...

Business Architect - Bristol - £500 per day

£500 per day: Orgtel: Business Architect - Banking - Bristol - £500 per day A...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices