L’atelier de London Bridge

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Alex Monroe talks exclusively of the launch of his first retail store.

Alex Monroe already finds it impossible to fulfill demand for his British-made jewellery line – a peculiar time then to expand his retail presence with his very own standalone store. But there is method in his madness, as Rachael Taylor discovers when she visits his current workshop and learns of plans for a stunning five-storey atelier at the heart of London Bridge.

With stockists all over the globe and more orders than he can fill, you could say that Alex Monroe has wholesale wrapped up. But there are other ways to grow; the time has come for Monroe to take his first steps as a retailer.

“I’ve been fighting against it ever since I started, but a brand like mine needs to do some retailing,” says Monroe. “It’s a fact that you need to have retail presence to help your brand-building strategies.”

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But with an insistence on making every piece of jewellery by hand in London – his small team, with the help of local designer-makers, made more than 40,000 pieces last year – Monroe is already struggling to keep up with current demand.

“A lot of people say they hand-make in the UK but we really do and the problem we have is meeting demand,” he says. “In the UK we are looking at the distribution of stockists, not getting more.”

Monroe’s current workshop, where he has been based for the past ten years, is in a charming cobbled yard; exactly the type of place you would imagine his naturalistic designs originating from. Surrounded by other craftspeople, the atmosphere is inspiring, but after a decade at Iliffe Yard the brand has outgrown its current space.

Tucked away on one of his many overstocked shelves is a set of plans for the future of Alex Monroe. As it stands, Monroe now owns a one-story shop and basement property in London Bridge, but by Christmas it will have been knocked to the ground and transformed into a five-storey complex that will house the first Alex Monroe shop, a workshop, its headquarters and a roof garden.

The London Bridge shop will be stamped with Monroe’s personality and will be a shopping destination in the purest sense for fans of the brand.

“What it won’t be is a traditional commercial retail space,” says Monroe. “It might be like walking into your grandad’s potting shed or Alice in Wonderland.”

The strength of shop’s personality will be an extension of the brand itself and extremely exportable. And this is Monroe’s plan. As well as looking at more destinations in the UK for stores in 2011, Monroe has his eye on the international market.

“Initially I would like to have a shop in uptown London and then go straight out to Japan with a partner,” he says.

The London Bridge project has successfully passed pre-planning approval. Monroe estimates that it will cost “well under a million”, but the fact that he brings the number into play suggests that it may well come close to a six-figure sum.

“It starts out looking like a nice little thing and then all the bills start coming in and you just start writing out cheques,” Monroe muses. “Even pre-planning with Southwark Council, just to go in and see them, is a thousand pounds. It turns into Monopoly money.”

A growing part of Monroe’s business is bespoke, and the designer is receiving an increasing number of commissions for pieces in 18ct gold. Up until now, this has been a small sideline, but with a retail space in which to entertain clients he hopes that pieces selling for up to £15,000 will soon be a bigger part of the business. Monroe says: “They’ll be the type celebs wear to red carpet events, solid gold with loads of diamonds.”

Alex Monroe has quietly expanded since Monroe began focusing on the brand six years ago and it now commands a multimillion pound turnover. “I’ve been making jewellery for 23 years but it was only six years ago I set up a limited company and took people on to take the whole thing up to a different level,” says Monroe. “We put our foot to the floor and now we’re selling all over the world.”

It’s a tricky move for a brand, no matter how successful, to morph into a retailer; while intrinsically linked, the two business models are worlds apart. Monroe has dabbled with retail through Alex Monroe’s online shop, which sold 100,000 items in December, but the running of a bricks-and-mortar retail empire brings with it fresh challenges.

Merchandising, EPoS, store design, product selection, customer service; these are just a few of the new skills that Monroe and his team will have to pick up and fast. And there will no doubt be some tough lessons learned along the way.

But if Alex Monroe can replicate the success it has had as a brand, which has sprung up in a relatively short period of time, as a retailer then the future looks bright for the business. And with the opening of an inspiring atelier at London Bridge imminent, retail success in the UK and Japan doesn’t seem like a far-fetched pipedream, but more a steady charter plotted to a bigger and better brand. And after a rough couple of years for the industry, let’s hope one of our homegrown brands can go forth to inspiring heights.

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