Now for the good hues: Dunhill adds a splash of colour for the youth market

Dunhill’s latest strategy is all about empowering the designer, catering to a younger clientele and exploring territories in a changed China as if they were new, writes P. Ramakrishnan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 April, 2015, 6:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 April, 2015, 9:04pm

Dunhill’s early noughties campaigns had many fans. Refined gentlemen, often silver-haired and with generous beards looked introspective in black and white photographs. Each image was thick with the patina of age and cultured taste.

The fine English tailoring was from a house founded in 1893 and renowned for its bespoke menswear and accessories – all very tweed and traditional, signifying the wardrobe of artists, thespians and members of the literati, not glitterati.

Enter Fabrizio Cardinali, who became chief executive of Alfred Dunhill in May 2013 and soon after appointed John Ray as creative director.

“I’m far away from a black and white, old, sad man. What do you want to be? You want to be younger, you know? You want to be colourful; you want to be beautiful; you want to be attractive,” says Cardinali.

Suddenly, the muted and sepia tones got a splash of colour. The varicose veins got some fresh blood as the ready-to-wear, accessories and all things fashionable for the gentleman of today has hues and shades not seen in decades at the old English house.

There were loose-fitting trousers, plush knits, casual corduroys, salmon pajamas, alpaca coats and blankets. Scarves were replaced by full-on, fringed blankets worn by models casually strutting down the catwalk.

“I’d say now we are a more accessible product. A man can still buy a beautiful Dunhill blazer, or beautiful Dunhill suits. The key words are value for money because it’s going to have to last for not one season, but for years. Another key phrase for you: timeless products – combining the contemporary touch. That’s what John [Ray] is doing. We still have our classics in midnight blue, but now we have breadth.”

What they also have is fresh breath. The latest campaigns show collegiate men striking a pose (under the watchful eye of Annie Leibovitz, who shot the autumn-winter 2014 campaign) without the brood, seemingly content in their muted shades of lavender and salmon, clutching bulky leather accessories.

“Everything works with a top photographer, with a great creative director, let’s say a certain level of ingredients that are going to bring the brand where the brand deserves to be,” Cardinali says.

The big question for the business head of any luxury brand would obviously be: how is business in China?

With a pause and a sip of water, Cardinali says: “Dunhill in China is doing well, but business is down [from before]. We know very well what has happened in China since November 2012. Since the new president [Xi Jinping] arrived, he stopped the business of gifting and we – all of us – have seen an impact on the business. The crazy growth that we had in the last eight, nine years was not sustainable.

“China’s annual growth of 7.5 per cent with 1.3 billion people to cater to is a strong economy for any brand. For many of us, the changes are a pain in the neck, but you know what? Many people got lazy. Those numbers were growing no matter what.”

It isn’t just Dunhill. Since the halt of excessive gift giving on the mainland, the Hurun Report says the luxury segment – watches and spirits included – has been the hardest hit. But it is also an opportune time for those key brands to innovate and improve existing business structures. In the long run, the proverbial tightening of the belt might not be such a terrible thing.

“Today businesses must have self-conception,” Cardinali says. “We need to be very focused, all of us, in delivering a business. The fact that someone is entering the store and is buying, you know, 50, 100 bags – that kind of story is over. So now we need to be careful. I have three pillars in mind: product, market and distribution.

Quality is a big deal at Alfred Dunhill. Then, distribution: we’ve got to explore territories in China as if they are new. It’s a new ballgame altogether now. “The new marketing approach, since shooting campaigns with Leibovitz for two seasons, the Dunhill look is definitely more contemporary, more colourful, something that can attract a different type of clientele compared to the past.”

That means catering to a younger buyer. “I think I would like to start selling a product or dressing a gentleman since right after college, or someone doing an MBA,” Cardinali says.

“I want to have this kind of customer because if you’re relevant for those aged 24 or 25 up to 35 or 40 and beyond, automatically you’re going to be relevant also to a more mature clientele. It does not work the other way around.”

Relevance in the “selfie age” is what major brands are looking at. With more than 20 years in the business and a CV dotted with luxury brands including Lancel, Dolce & Gabbana and Levi Strauss, Cardinali is no stranger to global branding.

That explains the changes he brought – in marketing strategy, appointments, hiring and positioning – that created Dunhill’s new age. It also helped that Ray, formerly at Gucci, agreed to end his self-imposed eight-year hiatus.

But Cardinali wants to put a misperception to rest. “John Ray was hired before me,” he says. “I found he was with the company for five months before my arrival. What I did – which I think is a game-changer – is empower John. This is something that never happened at Alfred Dunhill before me.

“I’m in charge, but I’m a businessman, not a designer. What I did was give John the conditions to create in the best way possible. I’m not going to tell him what kind of fabrics he has to use and choose. I have to create the kind of infrastructure where John and the creative people can create and deliver beautiful products.

“If you look around, it’s the right approach to be successful in this industry. When you hear a chief executive is trying to be a designer and a designer is trying to run a multinational company at the same time … apart from a few exceptional cases, it doesn’t work. Empowering the designer was key.”