Sunday Interview: Amanda Wakeley: 'There is still money in the luxury sector'

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The founder of the eponymous fashion label Amanda Wakeley boosted this year by the Duchess of Cambridge (SES: E1:J91U.SI - news) tells Sarah Butler about her fight for the company and expansion plans

Fashion can be fickle. No one knows that more than designer Amanda Wakeley, who has experienced something of a roller-coaster career. She has lost control of the brand that bears her name more than once before finally securing the finance to back international expansion last September.

The self-trained designer sold her first fashion creations to her school friends and began her collection in a small studio in Chelsea 22 years ago.

Now (Other OTC: NWPN - news) , with the help of the Duchess of Cambridge, who is frequently pictured wearing her designs, Wakeley has become a flag-bearer for British fashion. She kitted out a Bond girl for the latest film, Skyfall, and her dresses can be seen on the likes of Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren.

Less than four years since Wakeley walked out of the label that bore her name after a falling out with a former owner, she is looking for a second London store and is in talks to open stores abroad. The plan is to turn Amanda Wakeley into a “lifestyle” brand that extends beyond the evening gowns and daywear for which the label is best known.

Despite the economic downturn, sales have grown an average 24pc a year since 2009, when Wakeley and her boyfriend and business partner, the financial PR adviser Hugh Morrison, took back control of the label for £1m.

Three months ago, they secured a multi-million pound investment from AGC Equity Partners, a London and Middle East-based investment fund, reportedly backed by Saudi investors.

A new chief executive starts in the new year and will be tasked with building up the label’s international sales, which make up just 20pc of the total at present. Wakeley says her brand is already strong in the Middle East and that is likely to be where she will look for her first international franchise stores.

“We have ambitious plans,” says Wakeley.

It’s early days for the new partnership, and some might ask if Wakeley is setting herself up for another spin on the roller coaster by expanding during a global economic downturn that has hit Britain hard. Recent updates from luxury brands including Burberry and Tiffany have indicated a slowdown in the global market, particularly in China.

But Wakeley says: “There is still plenty of money in the luxury sector. We’re lucky that in London we attract so many international people, and that helps.”

Wakeley should know. She counts many of the international set as her friends and is preparing to head to the ski resort of Verbier for the holidays.

The resilience of that set has helped sales of UK designer clothing continue to rise by an estimated 20pc a year according to market research company Oxford Economics. It says the market is currently worth somewhere between £2.5bn and £2.9bn, but fashion’s wider contribution to the UK economy in influencing spending in other industries is estimated to stand at more than £37bn, according to a British Fashion Council report from 2010.

During the downturn, that spend has been underpinned by visitors from China and the Middle East who flock to London to ensure they get the genuine article from high-class department stores such as Harvey Nichols, Harrods and Selfridges.

“People forget what an important industry the fashion industry is,” says Wakeley.

“It’s not just designer and luxury, but also the high street that is influential throughout the world.”

She believes that should be recognised with some strong signals from the Government, particularly as it links in with plans to rebuild Britain’s manufacturing industry, which has lost out to overseas competition.

“Many of us would love to do more manufacturing in the UK, but we have got a very depleted skills set here. That’s hopefully rebuilding but it needs all the help and encouragement it can get,” says Wakeley.

She suggests that the Government would see a good return from investing in regenerating textile and clothing manufacturing which has suffered from an influx of cheaper products from abroad.

Wakeley makes some bridalwear, evening dresses and tailored clothes in the London area and also buys leather belts and sheepskins from the UK. “They are beautifully made,” she says.

At Wakeley’s end of the industry, the potentially higher cost of making products in the UK is less of a problem. The challenge is actually finding the right quality.

“Customers are really educated now. They are not price conscious, but value conscious. We don’t struggle to sell a £3,500 beaded dress if you can see the work in it is worth it,” she says.

She says her advantage is in being “a woman designing for women”, so she is able to think through the little details that make a dress more comfortable and practical without affecting the style.

Running the financial side of her business has proved more difficult.

Before launching her own label, Wakeley was a model in New York. She then worked for designer retailer Henry Lehr’s Go Silk label in the 1980s.

She used her savings to create her first collection, mostly in suede, cashmere and chiffon, which she sold in the London store Browns in 1990.

When Wakeley decided to open her own store, she turned to her then partner, Neil Gillon, an Australian-born property developer.

Together they worked to build up the brand and became well known for dressing Diana, Princess of Wales, as well as the likes of Queen Rania of Jordan and Demi Moore, the actress.

But in 1998, the couple went through a bitter break-up after 10 years of marriage.

Mr Gillon sold his majority stake in the business to the clothing and restaurant investor, Richard Caring, two years later.

Wakeley, who owned just 20pc of the company, wasn’t involved in the sale and made no money from it, but did seem happy to work with Mr Caring.

The entrepreneur initially planned to make Wakeley’s brand part of a new designer group, but after five years he decided to focus on his new interests in the restaurant trade.

Caring, who now owns stakes in The Ivy, Le Caprice and private members club Soho House, took a loss when he sold the Wakeley brand to Walid Juffali, the Saudi billionaire, whose family has interests in electricity, gas and oil, in 2005.

Wakeley remained a minority shareholder and so, as the economic downturn hit, she was powerless as Juffali sold on to investor Jason Granite’s Arvoco vehicle .

“I heard at the time that he had issues with his wider businesses and needed to consolidate very fast, but as he sold the business without reference to me, I can’t explain his motives,” says Wakeley.

Whatever the plans of Granite, a former distressed debt trader with Deutsche Bank, for his new designer label, they didn’t involve Wakeley. She released a statement at the time, saying that she “had been advised that I will be no longer required”, and left the business with at least 13 other staff.

Things had hit rock bottom but Wakeley had not given up on her fashion dream.

With her partner, Morrison, she carried out research among customers, the media and trade contacts, and the “warm support” they found encouraged them to persuade Granite to let them buy back the brand in 2009.

The deal gave Wakeley full control of the business for the first time in 10 years.

She says the change has made her much more focused and positive about the business: “I have a sense of ownership rather than being an employee,” she says.

Finally in the driving seat, she was recognised for her work in inspiring and advising young female entrepreneurs through the Everywoman business network, winning an award last month. Revenues were reported to be £5m in 2009 and Wakeley says that sales have grown 24pc a year since then.

This time, Wakeley has bought back her own business with the assistance of her boyfriend, who is a core shareholder and chairman of the business.

Was she wary of getting business and pleasure mixed up again after her experience with Gillon?

Wakeley says Morrison is “incredibly valuable to the business” as he was able to help restructure its finances and operations while she focused on product and design.

“I was very lucky that Hugh got so behind me when we bought the business back,” she says. “I completely trust and respect him. He’s incredibly clever and I didn’t even think about [going into business with a partner again]. He’s very respectful of me.”

Given her past experience, Wakeley advises those starting out in the business to pick their business partner carefully. “It’s a complex and exciting business with many moving parts,” she says. “You can’t do everything yourself.”

She points to the famous partnership of former Gucci designer, Tom Ford, and his chairman, Domenico de Sole, who completely transformed the fate of the Italian company before founding Ford’s own label. “They are awesome together. It is not just about either of them but the right partnership.”

This time, she thinks she’s got it right, too.