The not-so-secret world of white label design

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Matrix APA’s MD discusses creating jewellery for high street giants.

Everyone knows it exists, lots of designers are doing it and even big companies are getting in on the action; but like any good spy thriller the terms white label and private label are like code names for something hidden behind red tape. Sarah Louise Jordan meets the sourcing agency on a mission to expand into high street costume jewellery, Matrix APA.

Product design and sourcing agency Matrix APA has its finger in a lot of pies. From children’s toys to cosmetic collections, it is the company that turns clients’ dreams of own-brand products into physical reality.

But something has been stirring behind-the-scenes for managing director Charlie Bradshaw and his team. A little over a year ago, Matrix decided to venture into the world of white label jewellery production, just before the high street exploded with more imaginative and inspiring options for customers.

For a company that boasts connections with John Lewis, Forever 21 and New Look, finding a client base for its jewellery wares wasn’t a problem. But just a few months in Bradshaw realised just how unique, and logistically awkward, the world of high street costume jewellery can be.

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During an interview with Bradshaw at his expansive London offices, he explained to Professional Jeweller: “Setting up a jewellery department was actually a lot more complicated than we initially imagined. A lot of the buyers and retailers we worked with already had established jewellery departments. We thought it was going to be fairly simple so we put together a business plan.”

But for Bradshaw and his team of sample creators, manufacturers and distributors in Hong Kong, this was a classic case of easier said than done. “There are very few factories that have [the correct] social and ethical credentials in the jewellery world, especially in China,” Bradshaw explains. “Our sourcing team went to 56 factories over six months and only three had social or ethical awareness. This is much lower in comparison to suppliers who produce toys and cosmetics as in these areas factories have a better understanding of what is required by Western markets.”

So, what is the problem with jewellery? As Bradshaw goes on to divulge, many jewellery factories are situated in Northern China, an area that doesn’t have the manufacturing heritage of its more “sophisticated” Southern sister. In the past 10 years, factory owners responding to rising labour costs have edged northwards where paying overtime and giving workers a rest day per-week isn’t always something that enters the consciousness of employers.

Even though he has now found the right factories, Bradshaw’s worries haven’t been swept away. He explains: “We pride ourselves on the longevity of our customer relationships, but the supply chain for jewellery can be really dificult and retailers have shelf space that must be filled. If we are late, even by a few days, it can have a real impact on their sales.”

Unlike other jewellery brands and individual designers working in the white label sphere, Matrix APA doesn’t hold its cards so close to its chest. It already has relationships with Aldo, John Lewis and Accessorize but convincing them to use Matrix APA for their jewellery needs was not going to happen over night. To tempt them, the design team spent four months creating a core range of 500 samples that are shown to clients as an inspiration spring board. The option to change stones, adapt colours and adjust sizes can then take a buyers vision and make it a reality.

“We needed to start out with a big collection to be taken seriously by customers,” explains Bradshaw. “Often we had a relationship with retailers, but we were meeting a completely different buyer for jewellery. It was like starting from scratch, so we had to prove we could offer something different. Now we offer a full product development team and design studio, where we really invest time and energy into creating unique and original ideas,” Bradshaw remarks, as we browse some of Matrix’s mood boards and samples, supported by its forward-thinking and fashion conscious Trend Intelligence division.

Matrix’s jewellery account manager, Nancy Little, admits: “Some customers have a very clear idea of what they want, but we want to be the forward thinkers as well, so we use the catwalk for inspiration. The more collaborative a client is the more likely you are to have a successful outcome.” Alongside this, Matrix will look at their clients’ clothing ranges and the graphics running through t-shirt and purse collections before creating design mood boards – a story-telling device to help buyers decide on their product shortlist.

Bradshaw believes this design focus is what is separating his company from the rest. He explains: “A lot of the traditional wholesalers who have been around for years have excellent sourcing channels and great factories, but they won’t necessarily bring great fashion-led design ideas to the table. We are working with fashion retailers so we have to make sure our product is as on-trend as possible.”

Bradshaw’s ideal turnaround time is just 45 days from the day he sits down with a customer to the day the goods hit the freighter. Assuming of course they pick samples from his pre-existing and carefully curated library. If not, customer will have to allow two to three months for a sample and a further 30-45 days for production.

THE FUTURE IS FINE
“We have been asked by three clients to do something a bit more premium,” states Bradshaw. “One big American retailer has told us there is too much of the same out there at the moment and they really want to stand apart from their competitors. They have given us a brief to develop a range with much more premium price points – even double where they are at the moment.”

For Matrix’s Hong Kong branch, this means heading back to the drawing board and sourcing new factories to produce more intricate pieces using precious metals and semi-precious gemstones. But Bradshaw isn’t daunted by the process. He believes the financial benefits of supplying fine jewellery is exciting “because it gives us the ability to invest in design and development and do something different”. He admits: “By increasing the quality of pieces buyers can ensure they have something different to give their customers. ”

WHAT’S NEXT?
Bradshaw is now consolidating the company’s fashion jewellery offering with the hope of turning Matrix ’s jewellery department into a £4 million market by the end of 2015. “This would be a real achievement for us,” he explains. “What we need to do now is deliver enough innovation to the buyers.”

He concludes: “Private label jewellery collections are a high-margin business for big high street retailers. It takes up a tiny amount of floor space but delivers them excellent returns. This is why they love it when their jewellery offering grows. The bulk of trade is happening in the sub £15 category, but people are clearly spending more than they were a year ago, so it will be interesting to see what happens next.”

This feature was taken from the May issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.
 

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