Interview with British Vogue
Matthew Williamson has had something of a regeneration of late. The news that his Bruton Street flagship was to close its doors, coupled with the announcement that he would not be showing at London Fashion Week for spring/summer 2016, raised worried eyebrows in an industry all too familiar with the hurdles and pitfalls that independent designers face. But, he’s setting the record straight: Matthew Williamson is here to stay, just in a different way.
“Matthew Williamson is here to stay, just in a different way.”
“We have had nearly 20 years in the industry, believe it or not, and fashion has changed over those 20 years. The industry, the consumer, the designers – all manner of things have come and gone and we’ve landed as a team in a place whereby we want to address those changes and reposition our business into a placethat we feel is appropriate for us and for our customer right now,” Williamson explained in his studio space in Queens Park – formerly his distribution centre, now his office-cum-showroom that houses his design team, stock, and (most excitingly for any fan of the label) every single dress from his 20-year career. The brand, he tells us, is now solely focused on creating more of a personalised service, through private appointments in the lavishly decorated – yet intimate – venue, frequent customer and press events and by building a rapport with its online consumer through its website, virtual footfall of which is up 25 per cent compared to last year. So far, so good, but Williamson is open about the challenges posed by his shift in business model.
“It’s actually quite a process to transition from there to here. Particularly when the industry is such that it’s so regimented and so cyclical – when you’re on, you’re on,” he explained. “Our plans have been formulating in our heads for a long time and they’ve started to fall into place. We started to see a shift in our customer’s habits – largely concerning our store in Bruton Street where there was a shift onto online and less footfall. That’s why it took us two years to get here. Ideas are great, and I ain’t got no shortage of those, but it’s about discussing which ideas stack up in all different ways. We took the decision to close in order that we could re-energise and capture our growing clientele online. You can’t deny the experience of a store. It’s fantastic if you’re a global brand and you’ve got the power or the funds to support that bricks-and-mortar space, but we certainly weren’t and aren’t. Opening that store was the best thing I ever did and I was so proud of it, but for me I feel like I’ve closed that book on year 20, and I’m like, ‘Shall we start again?'”
If you’re one of the brand’s avid Instagram followers or one of its 1.1 million Pinterest followers (it’s currently the most popular fashion label using the latter social-media platform) you’ll know that the new chapter involves a substantial expansion into lifestyle. The brand has brought its three existing licenses in house – wallpapers and fabrics with Osborne & Little; sunglasses with Linda Farrow; and rugs with the Rug Company – and is preparing to announce a further three in March, adding stationery and gift cards; furniture; and activewear to the company offering: “The jigsaw pieces are finally coming together because I believe the woman that wants that dress also wants a velvet marbled butterfly armchair,” laughed Williamson.
Design and management wise, Williamson has brought on former stylist (and best friend, muse and confidante) Georgie Macintyre as artistic director who will co-design and appointed long-term employee Rosanna Falconer as business director, while co-founder Joseph Velosa continues as chair of the company. Together with Williamson they form what the designer describes as “the new square” that are hoping to make the new “buy now, wear now” business model work.
“We know what the customer wants and so we’re buying in a totally different way. The table has completely turned around.”
“We know what the customer wants and so we’re buying in a totally different way,” he explained. “The table has completely turned around. We’re not waiting for the fashion cycle to have 180 buys come in and see the collection and go, ‘We like it, we’ll buy it and we’ll have it in June’. The only one we’re selling to is Net-A-Porter and the rest is through our site. Because we’ve lowered our overheads with stores and staff and so on, the plan now is that our first spring/summer 2016 drop can be March-time, and come December we’ll get those special party dresses in because we’ve ordered what we want. We’re also going to do smaller drops, so we can go, it’s July, it’s sunny, let’s put bikinis out this week. We’re basically cutting out the middleman.”
For Williamson, taking control of his business again is an important and cathartic move – not only because it’s his name above the door, but because he finds himself in a position to finally be frank about what works, what doesn’t, what he’s learnt and in turn try to reinvent his business.
“The last thing I want to appear is remotely jaded or bitter, which it could come across the wrong way,” he said, “but [the fashion world] is relentless. You’re not finishing one collection before you start the next. It takes its toll, and it works fantastically well when you’re a massive brand, and it works fantastically well when you’re a new brand – as in year one to ten, when there’s real interest from buyers and press – but we’re 20 years in here so we need to create our own press, our own marketing, our own client base, we can’t still go, ‘Please buy us’ to a big department store, because they’re are buying powerhouses. Those stores have a job to do, and every square foot counts.”
“Long story short, what we’ve done is taken stock, taken our foot off the gas, pivoted and tried to see if we can carve out a new way to work for us,” he summarised with a smile.
The full interview was published by Vogue on October 19th 2015. Read it here.