Business profile: Style meets charity

Thomas Lyte, a new luxury goods brand, has set up a trust for young designers. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online

Nobody could accuse Kevin Baker of lacking ambition. Any dedicated shopper will tell you there is no shortage of luxury brands. So a plan to launch another might seem odd. Nevertheless, he sees a gap in the market for a brand that promises authenticity and quality as well as luxury and style.

Fuelled in part by the obsession with celebrities and their shopping habits, this market is said to have an international value of hundreds of billions of dollars. So it is clear that even if Baker and his creation, Thomas Lyte, gain only a tiny share of that they will be doing all right. But Baker, who has enjoyed a lengthy career in the luxury brand industry with such companies as Dunhill and Aquascutum, is keen to do more than be just another name in a crowded field.

Moreover, he believes that the luxury brand market is in a state of flux so that a new approach is called for. The "mass-democratisation" of well-known brands and their extension into all sorts of areas means that there are openings for brands that do not have obvious labels.

First, the name, though. Thomas Lyte was a real person, a genealogist and historian who in 1610 presented King James I with a lineage dating back to Brute, the mythical king of the Britons, which supposedly helped secure him the English throne. As a sign of his appreciation, the king presented him with the Lyte Jewel, a diamond and enamelled gold locket that is now in the British Museum.

With this as his inspiration, Baker decided that the brand Thomas Lyte should have five tenets. First, it should be English. Second, it should have a heritage, so that rather than the name appearing on an apparently random collection of items, it should be rooted in Gothic and arts and crafts designs. Third, art should be central to the designs. Fourth, even the traditionally-rooted design should have a modern touch rather than being falsely old-fashioned. Finally, it should be ethical.

Baker admits that this last aspect is going to be the most challenging. Companies of all sorts are often found wanting when it comes to relations with their suppliers and the rest, particularly those who try to set themselves up as being different. So Baker is consciously only saying that the company is "trying" to be ethical in its dealings in the hope that it will receive credit.

As well as seeking to be careful about its sourcing, the company's first steps in this area include setting up a charitable trust, The Thomas Lyte Foundation, with a commitment to support designers and artists as well as art initiatives around the world. In addition, the company will next year join with the Crafts Council to launch the Thomas Lyte Modern Heritage Award, which aims to support new English craftsmanship.

An early beneficiary of the company's approach is Natalie Thakur, a designer whose range of leather shopping bags and money pouches is a feature of Thomas Lyte's just-launched first collection.

Baker says: "For me, Thomas Lyte represents more than just style and quality. It is about giving something back and fostering new talent. We are very excited to be working with some exceptional designers and artists and want to create a channel for them to express their creativity."

The launch collection of more than 250 pieces features the usual sorts of things associated with luxury brands – pens, jewellery boxes, backgammon sets and the like. But there are a few quirky items, too. Such as a set of silver hand weights that is designed to be both a work of art and a practical means for the busy executive to relieve stress.

Baker and his creative director, Paul Brooking, a photographer and designer, have been keen to inject a bit of fun and wit into the market at the same time as fulfilling the desire for quality and distinctiveness.

Claiming that more and more people are growing tired of the celebrity culture and labels "screaming louder and louder", Baker says that there is a developing desire for integrity in the luxury goods market. "Consumers want to know more and more about what you're doing," he adds. "People want to know who has designed it and why they designed it."

This ties in with his view that art should be a basis for the brand because when people buy art they have an "emotional experience" in the same way they should when buying, say, a well-designed pen.

It also links with his belief that it is important for luxury goods to live up to their promise by being well-made with proper attention paid to the details. "You have to look at things in obsessive detail and be fanatical about your product," he says.

In this regard, Baker is following in the same tradition as successful business people. Like him, they have a total conviction that they can do something better. "I've always wanted to build a brand," he says. "I want to see if I can make it as an entrepreneur."

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