On striking the balance between creative and commercial design.
After six years raising his profile in the UK, Birmingham jewellery designer Fei Liu is placing a heavy focus on his bridal collection, already scooping an industry award. He tells Professional Jeweller about striking the balance between creativity and commercial design.
Fei Liu’s mantelpiece must be getting crowded. The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter designer was recently crowned a winner in the first Houlden Group bridal jewellery design competition, an honour that follows not only being named Harper’s Bazaar China’s jewellery designer of the year, but two Lonmin Design Innovation Awards, two Goldsmiths’ Craftsmanship & Design prizes and a couple of appearances in the Professional Jeweller Hot 100 for good measure.
We meet Liu at the Jewellery & Watch Birmingham show, where he is showcasing his growing collection. He is in a buoyant mood having found out a day earlier that he had won the Houlden bridal prize, along with Domino designer Siobhan Maher. The show itself is the culmination of six months of focus for Liu and his close-knit team, who have used the show to present a new collection of bridal jewellery tailored to the needs of the market.
“The UK trade has always regarded my designs as a bit crazy,” Liu says with a smile. Indeed, his award-winning creations tend to be those of a more daring, colourful, floral ilk. But when it comes to the more commercial side of his business, Liu has been knuckling down to make sure his products are as UK-friendly as possible.
In October 2013, he hired Wave Jewellery co-founder Jo Henderson as senior brand manager. Armed with a job description that includes raising consumer awareness of the Fei Liu jewellery brand and providing retailer support, Henderson has also been tasked with overseeing the company’s design development in partnership with Liu.
“Jo has always challenged me and says I have to be commercial too,” Liu explains. “As far as bridal jewellery is concerned, it’s not just a challenge for me but for everyone, as being creative is important but being commercial is also important because the retailers also like to make money.”
Equipped with his new bridal collection, which includes the winning Houlden design, Liu is hoping to bridge the gap between the demands of UK retailers and the subtle quirks and details that an increasing number of consumers are seeking from their bridal jewellery. He and Henderson have worked closely over the past few months, utilising Henderson’s knowledge of the UK retail market, which dates back more than 12 years. The result is a collection tailored to fit particular price brackets – a number of the new rings retail for less than £1,000 – as well as introducing affordable platinum designs, brown diamonds and yellow gold.
“We entered the Houlden competition with a yellow gold and brown diamond engagement ring as fashion plays such an important part in bridal jewellery design now and there is no rule that the diamond has to be white,” Liu explains. “Every person is different and to make our collection much more commercially viable is to provide variety, so that a customer can go into a shop and if they find yellow gold sexier or more suited to their skin tone, it’s there.”
Jewellery & Watch Birmingham provided plenty of feedback from retailers viewing or buying into Fei Liu’s new bridal collections and, following on from recommendations, the brand will add smaller diamond sizes of .15ct and .20ct to its collection to make it even more accessible. This is also part of a strategy to be an all encompassing British brand that has price points suited to all types of customer. “A lot of retailers have customers who have bought into branded jewellery and are now returning to buy their engagement ring,” Liu notes. “They are younger customers that are used to shopping in a branded environment but can’t always afford a big ring. Instead they opt for a smaller stone with plans to upgrade at a later date, so if you are their designer of choice they’ll come back to you [for the next ring].”
While Liu plans to keep a strong focus on bridal in 2014, working with Henderson to gauge just what the brand’s retail stockists and their customers want, he will also maintain momentum with his international presence.
His work is well known in his native China where he has two standalone boutiques, a host of private clients and has collaborated with diamond mining giant Rio Tinto to create a fashion collection of diamond jewellery tailored specially to the market. Does Liu find that working between the two continents means he has to design in two very different mindsets? “That’s a very good question,” he ponders. “In the past few years I have learned that our best seller in the UK is not necessarily the bestseller in Paris, and the favourite in China does not do that well in the UK.”
However, one element that does work across all continents is Liu’s approach to femininity in design, which is understood no matter the market. He creates each piece to make the wearer feel as feminine as possible, and the upshot is a plethora of natural themes that bloom through his silver and fine collections, with butterflies also woven through a number of the ranges.
“As a designer I like to be challenged and reach away but my team keeps me in check as we want to grow the essence of Fei Liu so that when people look at a design they know it’s ours,” he explains. “But I’ve also told Jo that I don’t want to be caged by being commercial and only producing a certain look.”
Nevertheless, the essence of Fei Liu is clear, and the basics of each piece of his jewellery are similar. All will have 3D elements to the design and, from whichever angle they are viewed, there will be some detail that the customer can pick out. The brand strives to be elegant, which means its goes against hard edges and darker stones in favour of producing jewellery that Henderson says is “positive-feeling, sitting at the lighter end of design”.
These design foundations filter into its silver collections, of which the Cascade collection has been particularly well received to the point that during Christmas 2013 events held with retailers, Henderson was selling pieces directly from her neck. “It’s important to take part in store events because we can tell the customers how we feel, and they can see how we’re emotionally involved,” Henderson explains. “I see these events as more than just normal marketing; it’s about meeting the creator and the designer of the jewellery, and that’s what sets Fei Liu apart from bigger brands – you can meet the designer himself and we’re here, working out of Birmingham.”
Having a stable of well-known British stockists including Catherine Jones in Cambridge, Gatwards of Hitchin, Annoushka, Marmalade, Green + Benz and T.A. Henn, one could argue that Fei Liu has already established a solid grounding for his jewellery label in the UK.
“Initially as a designer I wanted my work to be appreciated by as many as people as possible,” Liu admits. “But Jo and I recently discussed what the brand is about; we want to provide convenience for the stockists so we’re hoping that by working more closely with retailers we can analyse which designs will do well for them to ensure that all we do is a contribution to the retailer.”
Part of the brand’s plans for the year ahead will be a focus on its high-end fine jewellery, in particular its statement coloured stone designs, which it will offer to retailers for them to showcase in store. It is hoped that the designs will not only win the store attention from passersby but will better communicate the various facets of Fei Liu as a growing British designer brand. “We spend a lot of time looking after our bespoke customers, so we think it’s time to show our UK audience what we are capable of,” says Liu. “It’s about retailers and consumers understanding the diversity and craftsmanship of our jewellery.”
Henderson also hopes to host a summer press day at which the brand will display its larger coloured stone designs and bridal lines in order to win the attention of the consumer press.
There is much in the pipeline for this Birmingham company and the year ahead will be a chance to for it to unveil the fruit of what has clearly been a time of in-depth analysis and research into how best it can serve the UK market.
The arrival of Henderson brings with it a fresh focus that, teamed with Liu’s own enthusiasm for design and willingness to please his customers – no matter where or who – means the brand is on course to build a presence in the UK and overseas that mirrors the success of some of the names that have come before it, such as Shaun Leane and Stephen Webster – brands that have successfully navigated the realms of both silver and bridal jewellery. Fei Liu’s advantage? The desire to create something special for every customer.
Fei Liu Facts and Figures
- 49 UK retail stockists
- Nine award wins
- Launched in 2006
- Two standalone stores in Beijing
This interview was taken from the March issue of Professional Jeweller. To read the issue in full online, click here.