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- 9 Mar 2009
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A Singular Focus

LONDON – A year or so ago, Claire Goldsmith, CEO of Oliver Goldsmith (‘OG’), the iconic British maker of luxury sunglasses said: ‘If you want a fabulous hat you have to go to Philip Treacy for red carpet shoes it’s got to be Manolo Blahnik For beautiful couture sunglasses it has to be OG

Founded by Ms. Goldsmith’s great-grandfather and re-launched by her in 2005 after the company ceased operations in the early 1980’s, sunglasses are all Oliver Goldsmith has ever known. Its brand identity, as for the other brands she cites, is built on one exquisitely crafted product.

Moreover, in an industry that has become closely associated with glitz and glamour, its branding strategy, be it by design or by necessity, is also low-key. There are no glitzy advertising campaigns, no celebrity spokespersons, no lavish product launch parties and no shiny flagship stores designed by famous architects.


Considering the aggressive expansion we’ve witnessed in the luxury and fashion industries over the past decade, such a brand seems positively anachronistic. Yet, its streamlined business model seems to work well and could be particularly appropriate in this current economic climate. More importantly, its singular focus may very well offer a blueprint for other small brands during the challenging times that lie ahead.

Focusing exclusively on one product type may seem an almost arcane way of doing business. If anything, the business model to which we’ve grown accustomed in recent years has been premised on ‘brand extension.’ A brand leverages its image and expertise in one domain and extends it to an entire range of products, sometimes with only a tangential connection (if any at all) to its core product.

For instance, fine jewellers now offer handbags and fragrances, luggage manufacturers offer fine jewellery and apparel, and fashion labels offer everything from lower-priced diffusion lines to cosmetics, to branded cell phones, and even vodka. You can have your home decorated by Versace’s interior design services and the interior of your private helicopter outfitted by Hermès When you’re in Milan, you can get a bite to eat at the Giorgio Armani restaurant, stay overnight at the Bulgari Hotel and pay for everything with your Roberto Cavalli credit card And incidentally, virtually all the mega luxury and fashion brands sell sunglasses, which can’t be of much comfort to Ms. Goldsmith.

Simply put, brand extension is about diversification of product lines, which in turn is about growth and profitability. Since many brands are publicly-listed entities in their own right or part of large conglomerates, brand extension is also a way of keeping profits in line with analysts’ expectations and shareholders happy.

At the height of the luxury boom, this growth was achieved at least in part by tapping into the once lucrative ‘aspirational’ or ‘masstige’ market, introducing less expensive products such as fragrances and sunglasses to the product mix.

Alas, the boom is over. And so is the abundance of cheap credit that, over the last decade, helped to drive the aggressive expansion of many brands. Everyone is tightening their belts, especially the ‘aspirational’ customer.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to revisit the glitzy, multi-pronged approach to selling luxury. In particular for small, independent brands, the ‘small is beautiful’ ethos may be the only way forward.

OG Vazatak limited edition and leather pochette designed by " title=“http://beta.luxurysociety.com/users/552__”>Aseef Vaza

As Ms. Goldsmith puts it: “The Oliver Goldsmith brand may have a long and rich history, but we still consider ourselves a start-up business. Remove the OG brand and you have all the textbook issues associated with a classic start-up including small working capital, cash flow issues, etc.” With annual sales of 500,000 GBP and five employees in total including Ms. Goldsmith herself, it would be accurate to describe OG as a ‘boutique’ luxury brand. When customers purchase a pair of Oliver Goldsmith sunglasses, not only are they getting an exquisitely crafted accessory made of the finest Italian or Japanese acetate, but also a product that embodies the very values and ethos established by Ms. Goldsmith’s great-grandfather years ago. In other words, they’re buying a piece of history.


Globe-Trotter, British makers of handmade luxury luggage for over a century, follows a similar blueprint. Founded by an Englishman in 1897, the company is now owned by a small consortium of high net worth individuals deeply committed to preserving the brand’s heritage or, for lack of a better term, its ‘Britishness.’

Each Globe-Trotter suitcase is handmade, using the Victorian era machinery in a small factory in Hertfordshire, England. Globe-Trotter employs twenty craftsmen and a half-dozen office and showroom staff. The spare design of the suitcases, devoid of any logos save for a small brass plaque and an embossed stamp with the brand name, could best be described as ‘retro’ or ‘vintage’. In fact, the design hasn’t really changed much in over one hundred years — and that is precisely what the brand’s customers seem to want.

Gary Bott, Globe-Trotter’s brand manager points out: ‘There are plenty of cutting-edge luggage brands out there made of light-weight materials that are possibly better-adapted to modern travel. But the Britishness of our brand is embodied by the fact that it’s not quite perfect. When a customer purchases a Globe-Trotter case, he or she is buying a piece of history. We’re very conscious of this.’

Globe-Trotter handmade Centenary Gold limited edition

Terms like history, integrity and respect come up frequently in conversations with both Ms. Goldsmith and Mr. Bott. And, while one senses that they are acutely aware of the inherent vulnerability of small luxury brands, in a particular way during these precarious circumstances, one also feels that they’re not willing to leverage their brand’s identity merely for the sake of increasing profits.

For instance, Mr. Bott insists: ‘Any new products bearing the Globe-Trotter label would absolutely have to remain very respectful of the brand and its history. We’re very conscious that our product is our brand.’

Of course, brands like Oliver Goldsmith and Globe-Trotter may be free from the tyranny of shareholder wrath, but the wave of expansion within the luxury industry has, in many respects, made competing with the big brands more difficult. Says Ms. Goldsmith, ‘For us, it’s less a matter of competing with the big brands than just running our business and hoping we don’t get trampled by them in the process.’

Indeed, distribution channels, especially coveted floor space in department stores, as well as advertising and editorial pages of magazines are dominated by the large luxury conglomerates.

OG, for instance, operates a small showroom in Notting Hill in West London from which it dispenses its bespoke services; but it has no stand-alone store. It relies instead on a network of small accounts in large department stores such as Harvey Nichols in London, Bergdorf Goodman in New York City and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, as well as boutique opticians throughout Western Europe and North America.

Oliver Goldsmith showroom in Notting Hill, London

Similarly, Globe-Trotter, whose flagship store in London’s historical Burlington Arcade functions more as a showroom, is primarily a made-to-order business. Their London store is complemented by a small network of retail accounts outside the United Kingdom and by a close relationship with its Japanese distributor to service the Japanese market, home to the brand’s largest customer base.

While managing a network of accounts can present a significant logistical burden for a small business, it can also turn out to be strategically sound. As Ms. Goldsmith puts it, "It’s a lot more work for us to look after multiple small accounts and fulfil multiple small orders, but the advantage is that we’ve spread our risk. If one of our distributors goes under tomorrow, we have less chance of being dragged down with them.”

This sentiment is echoed by Gary Bott “Given that our products are handmade, virtually all our cases are made-to-order, with the exception of a few bestsellers which we keep in our shop. We’re therefore capable of adjusting very quickly to demand.” Considering the current state of the retail sector, the ability to nimbly offset the downturn by risk-spreading and a tightly controlled inventory may be key to their survival.

Another challenge is communication. Smaller brands can rarely, if at all, afford expensive advertising space. Often, the only opportunities to appear in the glossy magazines are through editorial coverage. They therefore need to be imaginative.

One formula that seems to work is the occasional strategic association with other brands. In 2008, Globe-Trotter teamed up with J.Crew, the U.S. high street giant to produce a set of limited-edition suitcases. As Mr. Bott explained, the project in question was entirely serendipitous. J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler was in London on holiday and fell in love with Globe-Trotter suitcases while strolling through the Burlington Arcade. He was so enamoured with the brand’s product and history that he insisted on collaborating with them on a special project.

J-Crew Globe-Trotter Centenary Collection

“We were somewhat reluctant at first,” says Bott. “We didn’t know a great deal about J.Crew. Although we were familiar with the name, the position of the brand was unclear to us as it’s specific to the U.S. On meeting Mickey for the first time, his passion about our brand and his reputation for retail success inspired us with the confidence. We’re very happy with the results. Because Mickey felt so deeply about our products, he really honoured the Globe-Trotter brand.”

The project generated a tremendous amount of interest in the U.S., raising Globe-Trotter’s profile significantly amongst American consumers and high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus

Interestingly, when both Goldsmith and Bott were asked to describe their core customer, each responded with a description that was as concise as it was precise. That’s perhaps because, unlike many of their larger counterparts, they’re not trying to appeal to the entire spectrum of consumers. They’re not trying to offer “something for everyone.” They design and manufacture a specific product for a very distinct customer.

In some respects, the streamlined focus affords these brands a clarity of message that some large luxury brands have lost in the race to expand in recent years. But, this is not to say that small brands have nothing to worry about.

Ms. Goldsmith puts it into perspective: “As a small business, we fight for our lives every day. Every account is important to us. Every penny is important to us. For us, the current climate is just more of the same.”

Helene Le Blanc, London Correspondent


OG – Olivier Goldsmith Sunglasses

Globe-Trotter Hand Made Luxury Luggages