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Mulberry Master Class with Roger Saul

10-08-2015   


mulberry roger saulAt Pure each year there’s usually one or two standout presentations from people who undisputedly deserve of special attention. Some come with baggage and prima donna maintenance issues that only the organizers get to see. And then there’s Roger Saul (pictured right), charm personified. And a living legend as founder of Mulberry.

Mulberry was started in 1971, from one of Roger’s earliest passions – collecting, wearing and selling historical uniforms. And yes, he started to sell on Portobello Road too. (Just probably before everyone else). Seconds into his talk, he nails it for the standing-room only audience, crowding the catwalk. “If you don’t have a passion, don’t do it.” Life wisdom and a good fashion philosophy.

Greats usually bump into other greats along the way, gaining enviable experiential bruises. It’s just how it is. From studying at Westminster College in London, Roger referenced John Michael, a name synonymous with Carnaby Street. He gracefully begged to be a management trainee, and from getting a job buying belts he got his first break. “Retailers came into the shop and were prepared to pay 150% mark-up, having sourced all the leather in Bermondsey and the tooling to get them made.”

Entrepreneurs usually don’t hold onto others coat tails for too long – it’s not in their DNA to be cosseted, no matter how magnanimous the mentor. Mulberry, with its distinctive Tree logo was born. He didn’t go into the leaf-feeding silkworm inspiration for the name, but it didn’t matter – we had a life’s work and numerous fashion bon mots to get through. “If I didn’t change my style every season, you were out. In the 70s there was very fast change.” Does this sound familiar to today’s market? Perhaps only slightly less so for established brands. “Pret a Porter, Paris was the place to go if you wanted to show your brand. We showed there in the second year of visiting. And it was very much a case of “who are you with?’”  For international movement (take-up of the brand) it was about “being in the right place.”  Brands agonize over this today, chasing territory, trying to anticipate where the buyers will be. It’s hard to avoid, though received wisdom suggests make a name for yourself in your home market first.

There’s a sense that Roger Saul was internationally savvy from the start, working with tanners in Italy and designing accessories for big brands. Earning reputational trust, “I often got to see their collections 9 months in advance and meant I always got my colors right.” By the 1980s, France, Italy and Germany were Mulberry’s biggest markets.

mulberry logo

mulberry blue

Roger’s early flirtation with military clothing meant he saw the hidden potential in buying up old army surplus fabric, as the constituent base for the famous J1 jacket. In his words, he had now “grown up from accessories as a designer.” Hunting, Fishing and Shooting – known as ‘Le Style Anglaise’ was the brand’s focus, harnessing his knowledge to provide functional elements from one lifestyle sector, adapted to another. And Mulberry were among the first to “go out to meet buyers with a brochure – unheard of in those days…”

It’s interesting to hear Roger name check countries he was selling into in those early days, as if it was normal – yet it was pioneering and important trail blazing for many brands that followed. “The US was a dangerous market, very fickle but important, the French market, the most sympathetic. We opened in Japan in the 90s with Roger’s briefcase.”

An engaging story followed of how his irreplaceable leather briefcase had been stolen. A reward was offered and a schoolboy called months later to say he had found it discarded up a tree. Amazing find and importantly, fashionably weathered as a result. He gave the Japanese the exact same design. One problem – they did not look like the weathered version. The distressed, leather briefcase was born and subsequently sold well.

mulberry camel crocAn eye for cool marketing collateral, Mulberry produced a tiny magazine, a sort of mini-Vogue look book showing their ready to wear collection and sent it out all over the world to their customers. And in 1979 Mulberry were awarded their first Queen’s award for export, a testament to his ability to promote brand UK quality, aspirational products and values. Responding to changing business dynamics, implicit in the ethos was the ‘customer is king’. “By the end of the 1970s we were offering free delivery in Europe within 7 days. We removed every barrier to trading we could think of.” 

International expansion and growth brings its own attendant risks namely global economic downturns and currency fluctuations. “The recession meant we had a lot to endure in the troubled US market, falling from £1.25m to £800,000 turnover – with the same overheads.”  In difficult situations the entrepreneur doesn’t buckle. They just come up with new products to break new markets. The Filofax presented one such situation. “Sold around the world, I wondered how I could Mulberry-ise it. I only realized afterwards, having been compromised by territorial barriers with US licensing from the owners, I should have bought Filofax.” Instead, he ‘replaced Filofax with own brand, the Mulberry Filofax and Planner, which then sold well internationally.

Nor was it all plain sailing for the Mulberry brand as a retailer. “We decided to open our own shop in St Christopher’s Place and in Paris in the 80s and suddenly found cash flow problems.” Again, it seems, he engineered a way out of his problems by tapping into the resident design and merchandising DNA he had cultivated within Mulberry. “We ‘sold’ the brand in third party retail stores by providing the brand look – the merchandising kit, if you like as a franchisee model.”  Inspired. But, it was somehow intuitively likely for him to do just that, with finesse. It wasn’t long before Mulberry Home was born, with them taking over a whole floor in Harvey Nichols. The words of wisdom from Mulberry man on this one? Don’t try to go too far from the origins. For us, one step over was ‘home furnishings.’ Mulberry Historic GP was born – sponsoring races for historic grand prix cars. Giving vent to Roger’s ‘boy’s own racer’ behaviorism perhaps – but the sort of quality, historic association ideal for the brand.

Celebrity endorsement comes with its own Mulberry provenance. “I got a call from the shop saying Bob Geldorf has come in, wanting the Donegal suit. I said “So? Okay let him have one.” They said, no you don’t understand. He wants it for free. I said, “Oh. Better give it to him then.” We went on to dress Bob for the next ten years. And he was true to his word – he wore the Donegal suit for his meeting with the Irish Prime Minister and was on the front pages of the newspapers wearing it. By then they had Mulberry Life as their own magazine, and having anticipated the future popularity of Kate Winslett as the star of Titanic, promptly placed her on the front cover wearing their brand. Unfortunately, no one at the time knew who Kate was then.

In 1996 Mulberry launched on the stock market. Not entirely successful with fluctuations in currencies and being over-exposed in certain markets. Production had to be transferred to overseas markets in Turkey and Asia (a common story for many producers at the time).

Listening to Roger, still very dapper and youthful, it felt like having risked so much throughout their company life cycle and innovating to adapt and survive, the Mulberry story is here to stay – no matter what. From opening a hotel with a restaurant, having Giselle Bundchen carrying one of their bags onto the catwalk, giving birth to the ’It bag’ (and refusing to return it) the journey now includes the manufacturing of spelt. They now sell spelt to health food stores. Of course they do. 

And what does the pinnacle of the Mulberry story reveal today? It’s embodied within Kilver Court Designer Village in Somerset, The Rural Home of Style:  an outlet village with 40 brands, a schoolhouse, cottages and a factory. Another example of this man’s vision and prodigious talent to create within and beyond the brand, faithful to its values and ethics (now with several Queen’s awards). And, as he endearingly closed his presentation by saying, “to have moved from saying luxury to saying value and continuity.” A classic British brand. And a Mulberry master class delivery.

By Paul Markevicius

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