UK's City Superwoman reinvents fashion icon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 May, 2006, 12:00am

NOTHING GETS THE attention of the hard-bitten British press like an extremely successful woman. Nicknamed the London 'City Superwoman' by the tabloids, it is not hard to see why Belinda Earl became the financial scribes' darling when she first became chief executive of the huge British department store chain Debenhams and then, 18 months ago, chief of upmarket fashion brand Jaeger.

The willowy brunette's graduation to the boardroom was the culmination of 18 years working her way up to break through the glass ceiling, having started out as a Debenhams shop assistant in her home town of Plymouth.

The 42-year-old mother of two made British history when, as chief of Debenhams, she became the first boss of a major public limited company to take maternity leave.

Before joining Jaeger, Ms Earl reportedly rejected several jobs, including the challenge of running Marks & Spencers' struggling clothes business. Ms Earl left when Debenhams was sold for GBP1.7 billion ($24 billion) to Baroness Retail.

Armed with a reported pay-off of GBP3.6 million, Ms Earl bought an undisclosed stake in Jaeger, with ambitious plans to revive the loss-making 120-year-old British fashion institution.

Much like the formerly stodgy Burberry before it was reinvented to join the stable of Cool Britannia brands, Jaeger had slipped from its position as fashion house of choice for the well-turned-out and the well-heeled. Jaeger, which has a landmark flagship store in London's Regent's Street, has changed hands many times in recent years. It is now owned by tycoon Harold Tillman, who bought it from another entrepreneur, Richard Thomson, who had acquired it from textile manufacturer Coats Viyella.

Last year, Mr Tillman also rescued another retail institution, Allders of Croydon, Britain's third-largest department store after Harrods and Selfridges. He paid about GBP3.5 million for the store and the Allders brand name.

For decades, Jaeger was regarded as a classically stylish label, as famous for its range of formal menswear and suits of the finest cut and fabrics as its range for women. Now, under Ms Earl, the logo that every well-bred 1970s woman aspired to own has been updated as 'affordable luxury, at the top end of the high street, touching the luxury market', she explains.

A Jaeger woman these days is aged '35-plus in attitude - her actual age is academic', but she still likes high-quality clothes - crisply cut - in cottons and linens. Having such a long history means a glance at the archive fashion photos reveals 'the DNA of the brand', which has always revolved around natural fibres, fit and style.

Jaeger has some 100 outlets worldwide, including 50 freestanding and 10 designer boutiques and 40 shops-in-shops. The range includes women's and men's clothes, and Ms Earl has expanded the accessories from scarves to include handbags, jewellery and belts.

The plan is now to grow the brand further into the United States and Asia, including China. 'We're already in Switzerland, [South] America, and have a flagship store in Taipei, outlets in South Korea and, historically, had Jaeger shops in Hong Kong until the 1980s.' The brand is sold under licence in Japan. Plans also include opening airport duty-free shops to help increase brand awareness among mainland travellers, 'whether we go in by ourselves or with a partner'.

Ms Earl has taken a firm hold and, together with an in-house design team, her aim is to come up with a contemporary interpretation of tradition and trends while remaining true to Jaeger's roots.

Along with the usual Jaeger Collection, she has introduced the sharp new brand-within-a-brand Jaeger London range, in bold black and white for women, combining snazzy office clothes with more whimsical outfits. Pitched at an 'affordable' level, this range has drawn in new, much younger customers, while still appealing to the faithful, Ms Earl says.

Despite hitting the speed bumps in the past, Jaeger has kept a solid awareness of Asia. Ms Earl was in Hong Kong to talk to suppliers and landlords to find an appropriate site for an outlet in the city.

She is also talking to potential partners in Beijing, although nothing has been secured yet. Unlike many of the European luxury brands, she is realistically cautious about leaps into the unknown.

'We've moved the brand such a long way in 18 months; it's very important to get it right,' she stresses. The biggest problem with branching out is brand integrity. 'You have to tailor it slightly to the new market. Here, that means making it more modern for most of Asia.'

It may also mean tweaking the cut, but Jaeger already makes a small British size 6 which is a good start. She says the firm grades the range in different parts of Britain and Europe, such as stocking more coats in cooler northern climes such as Copenhagen. 'Having a great [information technology] system makes all this possible,' she says.

The imprints are designed in-house, then manufacturing is split between Europe and the Far East, with 30 per cent to 40 per cent done in Asia and China. She has been impressed with quality control.

With Jaeger having returned to profitability in the past two years, Ms Earl can afford to be optimistic. Her aim to broaden Jaeger's appeal has paid off, with operating profits of #1.4 million for the year to February last year on retail sales of GBP67 million in Britain and Europe. Global sales and sales under licence totalled #100 million. The February figures are being audited.

Despite recent press speculation, Mr Tillman has denied he plans to float Jaeger, in which he has an 80 per cent stake, this year. Ms Earl said that a stock market listing was a long-term option, but there was nothing imminent. 'Right now, we are focused on growing the business.'

Introducing the mix of accessories has been her big success so far, with the category now accounting for 12 per cent of sales, Ms Earl says. 'We've always been strong in scarves and jewellery - accessories could be 20 per cent soon.' Mr Tillman, who is also Jaeger's chairman, 'lets me get on with it but gives me lots of useful counsel', she says.

She believes she has not left her China push too late. 'We can capitalise on the whole British brand revival. That makes it very attractive, and by waiting until now, we can learn from the others. That gives us a much stronger position.'

Brands with heritage and resonance do well out here, she adds. 'That gives them strong legs when it comes to product positioning and awareness. It becomes much easier to make it desirable.'

The revived Jaeger is again lining up alongside other international brands. 'The challenge now is to make it relevant out here,' she says.