The pros and cons of indie brands working with big name retailers.
A rising number of independent jewellery brands are choosing to create exclusive collections for large UK high street retailers. Are they savvy or selling out? Kathryn Bishop finds out how these relationships are formed and the pros and cons of gaining such high-profile exposure.
Earlier this year Alex Monroe launched a collection of gold-plated ivy-themed jewellery called Alouette. The range sold out within an hour of going live online. The reason? It had been designed exclusively for high street fashion retailer Evans with price points from just £18.
The launch of Alouette caused a Twitter storm, a fashion magazine frenzy and no doubt gave many jewellers food for thought on the power of joining forces with larger high street retailers or brands. Alex Monroe’s collections and its media coverage to date no doubt provided a cache of fans desperate to get their hands on its more purse-friendly designs, and other designers such as Pippa Small, Lucy Q, Fiona Paxton, Jessica Flinn and Nicholas King have tapped into the growing consumer demand for interesting jewellery design at accessible price points.
So how do these collaborations come about? Often it is the buyers of larger retailers directly approaching smaller brands to work with, such was the case for Alex Monroe. Costume jewellery designers Nicholas King and Fiona Paxton were discovered while showing their work at the bi-annual Exhibition at London Fashion Week.
Nicholas King is known for his acrylic cuffs, bangles, necklaces and cufflinks featuring submerged objects such as sequins, ribbons, crystals and brass charms. He created a collection for Topshop in 2011.
King explains: "I was approached by a consultant working with Topshop on their Oxford Street jewellery pop-up store. I was showing at London Fashion Week in September of that year but was asked to do it with only a few weeks lead time to deliver for the busy Christmas period. [The consultant] had been following me in the press and felt that I would do well alongside the other jewellery designers involved, Maria Francesca Pepe and Zoe & Morgan."
King followed up Topshop’s interest with some design sketches and was soon working away to create the collection to hit the short deadline, despite being in the middle of his selling season and with the busy Christmas period looming. "Because of the short timeline I actually went straight into development and production within a week or so," he says.
For Fiona Paxton the pace was less frantic. She collaborated with John Lewis on an exclusive line of costume jewellery in late 2011. "[John Lewis’ buyers] came to see our studio and look through our archive of designs from past seasons. They gave us a brief idea of what they were looking for and their vision for their jewellery halls that were being refurbished," Paxton explains. "We then met again in their offices. I put together mood boards along with materials and sketches. I also asked them a lot of questions about their customers, price points, what items sold the best so that I could really focus on what would be best for them. Then we started designing and sampling, which they then selected from."
The resulting collection of drop earrings, cuffs and neckpieces were made using chain, beads and leather, with RRPs from £45 to £120. It was sold at a five John Lewis stores, including its Oxford Street flagship, Westfield Stratford and Bluewater.
While a direct approach from buyers it one route to market, sometimes these high street hook ups are the result of a little industry help. Stainless steel jewellery designer Jessica Flinn won the interest of multichannel retailer Argos at one of the British Jewellers’ Association’s Meet the Buyer events, which gives emerging jewellery talent a chance to meet a who’s who of high street retail buyers.
Flinn’s work caught the eye of Argos, which was impressed with her commerciability and eye-catching design motifs.
"I went along knowing that I would gain from the experience of meeting a buyer from a large powerful chain of shops," Flinn says of the Meet the Buyers event. "Argos immediately showed interest in my commercially viable designs and invited me back to meet the senior buyers and team."
Flinn soon found herself presenting design ideas to Argos, with its buyers cherry picking the designs they liked for production. The resulting Lace collection is a four-piece range featuring stainless steel cuffs, drop earrings and a pendant with a black lace surface design.
A more recent high-profile jewellery collaboration has been between ethical fine jeweller Pippa Small and Monsoon, a retail company that has long been involved in ethical fashion design, along with its support of the British Fashion Council’s Esthetica program at London Fashion Week. The difference with this collaboration was that Small was the one hunting for a large retail partner, with the aim of creating much-needed jobs for young female Afghan artisans specialising in jewellery making.
Small explains: "I have been working with [educational initiative] Turquoise Mountain in Afghanistan for about six years, going out twice a year to Kabul to work with the craftsmen and women. [From this] I have created two collections a year to sell in my shop, for wholesale and for the Turquoise Mountain to sell.
"Each year more students graduate and are in need of jobs; the ladies especially are vulnerable in finding work. I felt that we really needed to collaborate with a high street shop that would order a quantity and ensure work for the craftspeople. It needed to be the right shop however."
Small outlines the desirable attributes of the type of retailer she hoped would be interested in collaborating on a collection of jewellery: "One that would be sensitive to the needs of production in a war zone, that was aware of the potential difficulties this could have, one that knew South Asia, that was stylish and would fit with my design aesthetic," she states. "Monsoon fitted this, it has a charitable arm – the Monsoon Trust that works with women in India – and they were willing to make a donation of some of the profits to the Turquoise Mountain Foundation."
The collection, created with no design fee and no percentage of sales going to Small herself, hit stores last month. It took two years to of work between Small, Turquoise Mountain, Monsoon and Philippa Devetta, the PR that has helped the collection get off the ground, to hit shelves in Monsoon stores across the UK.
Large retailers take pride in knowing what their customers want and what will fit them as a retail brand. After all, the demographic of customers buying costume jewellery at Topshop will differ to those shopping at Argos and John Lewis, so each retailer will have an idea of the typical spend on jewellery at its store, as well as the type of designs that prove popular.
Naturally such factors will influence the designs put forward by the jewellers and can involve a level of compromise, though not always in a negative sense.
At Alex Monroe the process involved working with Evans and its jewellery manufacturer DCK to draw up an agreement on the design and manufacturing of the collection. Once done, the brand’s eponymous founder Alex Monroe was then tasked with creating prototypes that upheld his signature style.
"We were very keen to try out things that we wouldn’t normally be able to do ourselves," says Monroe. "The Bird Cameo necklace [from the Alouette collection] is one example of this, and the multi-leaf bracelet is something we would always love to make, but the cost would always be too high."
The biggest challenge for Alex Monroe was letting go of the production, something Monroe strives to do entirely in the UK.
"DCK worked very hard with their factories to ensure that our quality requests were met, and in fact we turned down the first batch of samples," he states. "We insisted on brass rather than base metal to give the pieces a decent weight, and real gold plating."
Nicholas King was largely left to his own devices when it came to creating his range for Topshop, though he was given a design brief to focus on bright colours or neon.
"My only restriction was pricing," he says. "The pieces had to retail for less than £100, which is much higher than Topshop’s own Freedom brand, [but] I hand-make everything here in London so it was a challenge for me."
King worked around the price point by creating jewellery using shapes of a certain size that he knew could fulfil a lower price. "I also thought the benefits and publicity gained warranted a lower cost to wholesale margin than I would normally be comfortable with," he adds.
The team at John Lewis provided Fiona Paxton with an outline of products that had sold well previously. "So we kept this in mind throughout the project," she explains. "We also had a retail price point to work towards but all the designs were from us and we did all of the work."
When designing for Monsoon, where a faux-stone bib necklace can command a price tag of £25, Small says it was all about working to fit with the company’s typical price structure. Rather than Monsoon charging more for jewellery that used Small’s name she instead evolved her design development methods.
"Monsoon has a particular price point they know they can sell at which we had to fit, so we changed materials until we found one that fit the right price point," Small reveals. "Brass with gold plating, using Afghan amethyst and rose quartz."
The resulting line of four pieces – a bracelet, single-stone pendant, earrings and multi-stone necklace – have RRPs between £29 and £42, and each is a limited edition with between 100 and 200 pieces made. At least £5 from each sale goes straight to Turquoise Mountain’s foundation in Afghanistan.
Limited editions certainly add a touch of the must-have to such collaborations. Jeweller Claire English originally started out selling her work from a market stall on Portobello Road. She is now set to go live on global marketplace Amazon with an array of tweaked product that will differ from the pieces provided to her bricks-and-mortar retail stockists.
"My Little Bubbles necklace is exclusive to Amazon for an introductory period and I’ve refreshed all of the bestsellers from the Albion collection for them," explains English. "There’s also a bangle to compliment the original bubble-blower necklace."
Smart or Selling Out?
Any designer or brand that collaborates with a larger company faces the risk of diluting the brand or editing its target customer so much that it raises problems with its present retail partners, many of which can be family-run or well-known independent retailers.
There has been such a case where Allumer launched a diffusion collection through Argos made using base metals and cubic zirconia, while selling similar designs using precious metals and gems in high-end department stores such as Harrods. The brand’s designs, such as its match necklace, align with both customer demographics but had to be produced separately to ensure differentiation between the two ranges.
But of course the beauty of a high street collaboration is that it allows jewellery designers to create something new, experiment with different materials or with a new perspective on commerciability.
Of note is that many of the designers that have produced collections for high street retailers state that the negatives are largely outweighed by a series of brand-defining positives.
Flinn reels off a list of advantages of working with Argos: "Brand awareness, more press and other companies now take me a bit more seriously," she states. "Once you’ve worked with the largest jewellery retailer in the UK you can be taken much more seriously in the industry."
Nicholas King concurs. His experience with Topshop has helped to boost recognition of his mainline jewellery brand among fashion writers and buyers. Only recently he was selected for the launch of Jaeger’s Boutique Gallery of British designers on Regent Street in London, along with jewellery brands Assya London, Mawi, Cabinet and Lara Bohinc. "Being niche, design led, trend-focused, small UK production and all that it entails can be a tough road," states King. "My brand is now gaining recognition in the industry and I am happy to work with bigger companies. It’s flattering to be asked, you learn a lot and hope that the return is good enough to allow you to keep doing what you love to do."
Indeed the brands that have worked with larger companies describe the delicate balancing act between raising their profile and being dubbed a sell-out for working with a larger company.
For Alex Monroe, working with fashion store Evans was a chance to challenge its customers’ perceptions and for it to win a new audience. "We like doing things that surprise people," explains Monroe. "Collaborating with Evans was a perfect example of this as it was always going to be unexpected, but it also reaffirmed the egalitarian nature of the Alex Monroe brand and designing for an inclusive market."
While freedom of design is something that Monroe was keen to uphold – and prove – through the Evans collaboration, he also admits he had some concerns. "We were worried about customers comparing our main collection pieces to the Alouette range or thinking we had sold out," Monroe states. "But the reaction was fantastic; a huge storm on Twitter and everything sold out online within an hour, so we couldn’t have been happier."
As highlighted, issues can arise when it comes to the manufacture of the product. With DCK, for example, Alex Monroe voiced concerns about the quality of the product, having produced previous collaborative and mainline collections in house. To get around this the brand ensured it had tighter quality control.
For Pippa Small, a jeweller known for her ethical stance, the project in itself was enough to counterbalance any naysayers. "In terms of being ethical I think working with a charity and training and employing craftspeople in a war zone where there are very few opportunities, [as well as being a] non-profit project for us made it an ethical project," Small states. "It has given me a sense of achievement that we have a collaboration conceived, designed and produced in a war zone benefiting people who truly need a hand. It has been a total pleasure."
Room for More
If there is one thing this array of high-street collaborations proves, it is the potential for British jewellery brands to reach new audiences. It is a chance to design with an alternative perspective and with that challenge the brand in its mainline form, sometimes shaping its future route.
As Jessica Flinn explains, her work with Argos has helped to strengthen the collections she designs for independent jewellery retailers. "It can be hard for designers to manage the expectations of high street and independent shops as their needs are very different," she says. "It’s really important to provide them with separate product lines. Because of the financial boost that Argos gave me I can now offer a much larger product selection to my independent [retailers] and I’m also launching new fine collections, a bridal collection and more of my kids’ collection later on this year."
Nicholas King describes how his work with Topshop has boosted his inventiveness when it comes to creating new jewellery collections. "You really have to make sure you are doing something fabulous all the time to stay ahead," he explains. "I have the benefit of experience with the materials, the ability to push the boundaries a little more and really try to keep a bit ahead."
Flinn reflects on the opportunities that lie on the high street having recognised that more jewellery brands are teaming up with both bricks-and-mortar and large online stores to help boost their reach. She sums up her thoughts based on both sides of the collaborative partnership. "These days it seems that it’s much more acceptable to collaborate with high street and large companies as a designer. You can find the likes of Dinny Hall and Oak Fine Jewellery on Amazon, Giles Deacon launched his jewellery line with QVC, Rachel Galley and Lucy Q are on the Jewellery Channel. I’m very happy that the larger retailers are supporting British designed products and hope that the market will continue to do so."
This feature was taken from the May issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.