Julia Dobson worked for the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group for six years in roles including UK and Ireland Managing Director for Acqua di Parma and UK and Ireland Country Manager for Celine. Julia left LVMH in April 2012 and went on to co-found the Village England handbag brand, having launched its first collection in Autumn / Winter 2013. The brand continues to go from strength to strength at home and overseas, with a substantial international following in the U.S, Northern Europe and Australia.
“…As the world gets smaller and so much can be done online, exporting is not that much different to selling domestically. It is simply some additional factors to consider when you review the customer cost of acquisition and cost of sales fulfilment…”
My career to date and the decision to set up Village England
I have a finance background, which was overshadowed by an extended “Gap Year” (broken up by returning to London for finance work to fund it) before I joined Bally in Switzerland. It was that moment when I grew up and got serious about my career. I had multiple roles in various departments at Bally before I returned to the UK with retailing role for a company distributing street / surf brands. I then completed an M.B.A. [Master of Business Administration] in International Luxury Brand Management from which I was hired into LVMH [Louise Vuitton Moet Hennessy Group].
Village England was founded out of an irritation that there was nothing English between Radley and Mulberry. There is lots of American dominance from the sub-brands of higher end designers (Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, with the lesser quality leather and New York shiny-shiny style), but nothing that I – with my love of leathers and great design – would buy.
We really felt there was something missing, great product, great leathers, quiet, relaxed design, and really functional. The ‘best friend’ every woman has in her cupboard, at a realistic price. There seemed to be a message that unless you spent thousands you had to go without style or quality or function. From years in the industry we knew how to deliver bags that would match up to product retailing at more than twice the price, and really make people happy.
Building a brand following and growing our distribution network
We hustled like every other start-up. I hosted ‘drinks receptions’ to get feedback from women (and it wasn’t lost on me that two hours talking bags with me probably generated word of mouth traffic worth thousands), we took the bags on the road to various retailer events, we leveraged a careers worth of contacts and of course we knew enough industry types to get the product in front of key buyers.
We also worked the word of mouth aspect with our customers. To this day all of our ecommerce orders are sent with a hand-written note from whomever packed the bag (including me, if I’m in the warehouse), and we follow up with them after a few weeks to make sure they’re happy, and the bag is working for them.
It’s a good old-fashioned, heart-felt desire to make people happy and to improve the product. It is bizarrely also quite rare, and we know people do talk about it. I do think it’s the only way to do it – no point in standing on the roof-tops shouting “I have integrity”. People need to experience it.
Serving international markets
We have a great business in the U.S. who love the Englishness, and responded extremely well to the stirrup detail on some of the bags. Customers often remark that we remind them of the “Coach of yesteryear”, which I take as a great compliment (then we calmly sit back and watch as Coach makes its comeback!).
The Northern Europeans share the English love of leather and un-fussiness. And we have a strong and growing business in Australia. I haven’t quite put my finger on why, as we really have not invested anything in this market. My current guess is it could be ex-pat led, but a bit of a mystery that we’re happy to have. Investment in this market will ramp up later this year.
We always set out to be comfortable with our domestic market traction before heading international, however, we are now really pushing both domestic and international markets in parallel. In many ways the international markets can be far less crowded and aggressive than the UK, and selling Britishness has some great advantages, particularly with a product where leather and countryside is king.
Striking the correct balance to get the right products to the right place at the right time
As I have a luxury brand background, it’s a habit to surprise and delight the customer and over deliver where we can, so our choice of shipping partners was of higher than normal importance when we started.
We handle European and South East Asian orders from our UK warehouse (the Australians in particular are well used to shopping internationally – thanks Net-a-Porter), and we are now in the process of opening a U.S. distribution centre now we have enough experience in the styles and colours that work best for this market.
Support from UKTI
The UKTI [UK Trade & Investment] has been fantastic support for us. Their fashion division is full of people who have themselves worked in fashion and export and are full of knowledge of the industry. In addition, the programmes and support they run are really excellent.
We have had support in developing our website for international SEO [search engine optimisation], tradeshow support and we’ve participated in a number of market visits, which are incredible. The UKTI team are doing some really clever things that are without doubt of great assistance to UK Business – long may their budgets be protected.
Opportunities and risks when exporting
As the world gets smaller and so much can be done online, exporting is not that much different to selling domestically. It is simply some additional factors to consider when you review the customer cost of acquisition and cost of sales fulfilment. Like anything, once you have the right people and right commercial partners in place (and in my experience this takes the most time), it’s very quick to improve the efficiency of the process to get the most out of the market.
This trial and error approach of course comes with its own costs, but it’s the only way of being an entrepreneur. The more you improve your own process to efficiently (and inexpensively) discover what works, the better the business you will have. And of course at times that will mean tweaking the product too.
I think it’s really important to note that someone else’s best practice might have worked for them, but it’s no guarantee of success, so stop reading those ‘How-to’ guides to be an successful exporter (mostly written by people who have never done it, but are great at describing what someone else did) and get on with it.
Advice to female entrepreneurs looking to export
Research before you jump in, test your theory and learn. Repeat. Some markets are great but too expensive, some have far-too-expensive customer acquisition costs. Some you have to adjust your prices / product to get real cut-through. There is only one way to find out what works and what activity will get the right customers to discover your brand, and that’s to constantly test and learn.
Coming up next for Village England
Goodness. The fashion cycle continues faster than ever, so we’ll launch the Winter 16 collection in July, swiftly followed by selling in the Spring 2017 collection. We have new a design collaboration coming up that remains top secret as well as possibly some new categories to launch. And of course the major push into the markets mentioned previously. In short, we’re continuing to bite off well more than we can chew … which seems to be an accidentally curated business culture, but one that seems to work for us..!