If there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England, it’s on a corner of the Via Bigli in Milan. It’s being advertised in Class magazine, one of those Italian money-mags that make Vanity Fair look positively democratic.
Over the next three months a page in Class has been reserved for the Mulberry Company, featuring a discreet and very bad watercolour of some of their shops around the world, such as Singapore, Paris, Stockholm, Tokyo, or Cologne.
Mulberry’s marketing is the paradigm of such English companies, simultaneously thrusting, expansive, global in intention, without losing the Olde Charm, the casual, relaxed English amateur flavour.
The appropriation of the line from Rupert Brooke’s elegy to the war dead, sets the tone for the phoney subtext. Everything, from the company’s name, which is hardly incidentally akin to Burberry, albeit with an achingly quaint rural burr, to its packaging and publicity, revels in the ersatz fantasy of an identifiable, hence sellable, English national identity.
We have learned how we are meant to be, studied the Japanese and American guide-books and happily dished up the requisite melange of nostalgia and tradition. We have re-invented ourselves in others’ images, then sold it back to them for a profit.
Mulberry’s new store in the core of Milan’s shopping vortex is proof of its aspirations. Not only does it serve as the ideal advertisement for its ethos, but it will doubtless be highly profitable. In his opening speech, Roger Saul, managing director and founder, called it Mulberry’s “most important shop in the world”. He had been searching for the right site for years.
What makes Milan so vital is that it’s the biggest Japanese clothes shop this side of Seibu Stores. In Valentino, Armani, Gucci, the only Italians in sight are the eager assistants trying to control a mob of diminutive, enthusiastic Japanese customers.
Clothes are much cheaper in Milan than in Tokyo or Kyoto, and the Japanese consider it the fashion capital of the world. Mulberry is in Milan for this market, not only to sell lots of stuff to the visiting Japanese, but to boost its image back in that country, to demonstrate its prestige, to aid its steady expansion into that vast market.
Mulberry already has one shop in Tokyo and two shops within shops but, more importantly, it has launched its own company in Japan, a joint venture with Kokuyo, a major textiles company. Most foreign clothing companies licence Japanese companies to make and sell their products there.
This is the major thrust of the company’s future, with more than 15 franchised shops, two new Mulberry flagship stores and a Pounds 4 million investment. It is hardly surprising that Mulberry has won the Queen’s Award for Export, not only in 1979 but this year as well, a decade of astonishing worldwide expansion, only dented by a nasty tumble in America, a market wisely abandoned for the Real Money further East.
There are those who might say, cruelly, that only foreigners would want such over-priced bags, belts and retro-clothing and certainly the incessantly stressed ‘Englishness’ of the company seems rather ridiculous at home. Mulberry has realised, like Laura Ashley or Hackett, that England can be sold, on its small-scale home-madeness, its rural and domestic charm but that it takes a proper, efficient, Mid-Atlantic organisation to do so.
Ralph Lauren clads his high-powered organisation in a delicious period-frontage. Ralph himself, in a T-shirt and jeans, cheerfully sipping beer from the bottle, hardly suggests a company director awesome as Lee Iaccoca, with profits to rival those of General Motors.
Mulberry successfully manages to stress its humble roots, Roger Saul even making his first belts ‘on his kitchen table’, that cliché of the small-business press-release, long favoured by the likes of Mary Quant, Terence Conran and indeed the late Laura Ashley herself.
Saul started the company in 1971 and it has been expanding steadily ever since. Despite the flagship store and offices in Gees Court adjacent to fashionable St Christopher’s Place, the business is still based “in the beautiful rolling hills around the Somerset village of Chilcompton”. Most of the leatherwork is still produced back in ye rolling etceteras of England but the leather itself comes from Italy and likewise, though the clothing-design is done in England by Saul himself, 75 per cent of the cloth comes from Italy and nearly all the tailoring and manufacture is done in Germany.
Having moved from leather into clothing, the company has now expanded logically into the marketing of brand-name perfume and toiletries, an irresistible temptation for any firm, and anyone who longs to pay £4.95 for a “specially-developed toothpaste, in aluminium with craft paper label”.
Other than their justifiably renowned belts, bags and leather goods, it’s hard to see what extra Mulberry have to offer the passionate Anglophiles, Milanese and Tokyoite, that they can’t find in other fake-English stores.
The decor and atmosphere of the shop is like all others of the genre, sepia Edwardian family photos, wooden floors, baronial furniture, a fantasy a genuine English company pretending to be a fake one.
The opening party for the shop was packed with willing Milanese, including two upstanding Carabinieri tucking into their cake, plus a groundswell of Japanese bigwigs who trailed Roger Saul around the shop with a mysterious, tiny microphone held aloft at all times like an antennae. Outside much curiosity was generated by three vintage racing cars.
Saul is a collector and sponsor of vintage racing. He no longer races himself, but such an image and the presence of the Mulberry racing-team outside the shop, in their distinctive green colours, could only endear the company to the car-mad Italians.
Typically enough, the very first purchase at the newly-opened shop was of a “Classic” leather belt, to a classic Australian tourist from Melbourne, the cost in lira looking like the Mexican Annual Debt on the cash-register.
The Mulberry shop is soon to be joined, on the facing corner, by the ultimate compliment in imitation, a Japanese store that has been assiduously following everything Mulberry does for the last few years.
Saul views the wooing of foreign markets as dependent on “romancing” the clients, giving them the “romance”, the myth that they require, and doubtless his mixture of rolling English countryside and Thirties racing-cars will be more than sufficient for the Milanese.