Walpole is the prestigious organisation whose mission it is to promote and develop the UK luxury sector. Helen Brocklebank joined as chief executive in February 2017, having started her career in publishing before going on to run a content agency for luxury brands. In November 2017 she was named one of Harper’s Bazaar’s 150 Visionary Women. We talk to her about the British luxury industry, Walpole’s vital role and her favourite places to shop in London
In your eyes, what makes the British luxury sector unique?
British luxury brands are typified by the creativity, energy, vision and ambition of their founders, and more than half were founded in the last 50 years – think of Mulberry, or Alexander McQueen. But even those with centuries of history can trace their success back to an audacious entrepreneur, determined to do something different and disruptive. Josiah Wedgwood is a great example; his invention of Jasperware was the most important thing to happen in ceramics since the Chinese invented porcelain 1,000 years earlier.
Walpole recently turned 25 – how do you think the organisation’s role has evolved since its beginnings?
Walpole began as a small but powerful community of top-tier British companies, who came together to promote British excellence. Over the years, the focus became concentrated on British luxury brands, and the organisation dedicated itself to promoting, protecting and developing the British luxury sector, which is now worth £32.2 billion to the UK economy and exports nearly 80% of what it produces.
Major players of the British luxury industry are members of Walpole. Why is it so important for brands like these to work together?
Strengthening the sector as a whole is part of the responsibility of major players like Burberry, Rolls-Royce, Wedgwood and Harrods. What’s more, while British luxury is composed of so many diverse businesses, they not only share the same kinds of customers, but also have many of the same ambitions and challenges. Working together makes the sector more powerful, and Walpole is there to give British luxury a collective voice.
Which do you consider some of the most significant or interesting Walpole success stories?
There are so many, this is an almost impossible question to answer succinctly. But since Brexit is much on my mind at the moment, perhaps its work in Europe, the home of luxury, has additional pertinence. In 2012 Walpole helped found an association of all the European luxury bodies and lobbied the EU to recognise luxury as a sector with its own special business model. This has helped us push through some significant changes in EU policy so luxury businesses can continue to thrive and flourish. It’s very encouraging that our sister luxury associations have continued to voice their support for British luxury, and for Britain as a key market for their brands – so we may be leaving the EU, but British luxury will always be a part of Europe.
Walpole set up the Brands of Tomorrow initiative to help young brands – how does the organisation go about supporting them?
The Brands of Tomorrow programme was set up 11 years ago to ensure a long-term economic pipeline of growth for the sector by supporting fledgling luxury businesses. Every year, 12 brands – taken from a pool of 150 applicants – are given access to an experienced luxury leader as a mentor and taken through a series of workshops in luxury fundamentals. They are also given access to world class legal advice from our partner, Mishcon de Reya, and immersed in the British luxury sector and all Walpole does. Our research shows that the secret of success is good advice, expert guidance and a strong network rather than injections of cash. Bremont, Nyetimber, Orlebar Brown and Charlotte Olympia are just a few of the 96 brands that have come through the programme and, in a world where two thirds of new businesses fail within their first five years, more than 80% of the brands that have come through Brands of Tomorrow are still in business. I feel tremendously proud of that.
Why is it so important to nurture young talent?
New ideas and new energy drive the engine of luxury – if you want to surprise and delight your customers for years to come, it makes sense to nurture young talent, who will have ideas for innovating the business that you’ve never thought of yourself.
How do you see the future of luxury? Do you foresee any shifts in the luxury industry?
We talk a lot about the Millennialisation of luxury and there is definitely a shift from the material to the mindful. Extraordinary experience and powerful emotion have always been part of the luxury promise, but now more than ever, we see the experience becoming even more important, and the product is the souvenir that reminds you of that experience. Other trends include what we might call the democratisation of luxury – think of how important sneakers and athleisure are to every high end ready to wear brand now. I also see an increase in luxury customers wanting to see ‘under the bonnet’ and experience how and where something is made, to see the hours of work and skilled craftsmanship that go into creating the Mulberry Bayswater in Chilcompton or a Bentley Continental in Crewe.
Which are your three favourite places to shop in London?
Harrods is so much more than ‘the most famous corner shop in the world’ – it is is a luxury city all under one roof. I never go to visit friends overseas without taking them a present from Fortnum & Mason, whether it’s a cake in a tin or a pot of Dungeness Wood Sage honey. My greatest addiction is to books, and I can get lost for hours in Daunt on Marylebone High Street, where the staff are charming and knowledgeable and can help steer you toward the perfect novel, or gripping new biography.
What are the top three luxury items you couldn’t do without?
My signet ring. After my father died last year, I asked Emmet Smith at Rebus to make me a signet ring with my family’s sigil, a badger (Brock is Old English for badger), as an in memoriam. I wear it with a diamond ‘keeper’ ring, also made at Rebus, which turns a simple signet ring into an elegant piece of jewellery. It’s both precious and personal.
The Royal Opera House. I’ve always loved opera and Covent Garden is my idea of heaven. What I like most of all is that this undeniably luxurious experience can be had for as little as three quid. When I first started working in London and had absolutely no money, I’d buy a standing ticket in the slips for £10. Now I’m older and a bit better off, I treat myself to seats in the orchestra stalls and champagne in the interval, but the music and the atmosphere is the same whatever you’re paying. CEO Alex Beard’s Open Up project, which completes this autumn, makes this special place even more accessible.
A cocktail at the Connaught’s Coburg Bar. I try not to have business lunches because they take such a chunk out of a busy working day. Instead, I like to meet Walpole members for drinks at six at the Connaught’s Coburg Bar. It’s relaxing and intimate, you can hear what your guest is saying, and they make some of the best cocktails in London.