The sighting – a woman walking along Bayswater Road carrying an emerald green Bayswater bag by Mulberry – was both serendipitous and symbolic. Had I not been in a van weaving its way through London traffic, I would have asked her whether she realized that her bag had been named after the well-known thoroughfare and, more significantly, whether she knew that it had been assembled a mere 120 kilometres away in Somerset.
Earlier that day, when I told my taxi driver that I would be visiting the Mulberry factory, he had confused it with that other British lifestyle brand ending in "berry" – an excusable error, to be sure. Over the past few years, Mulberry has gone from being a largely unheralded English label to an international sensation producing many of today's It bags. A large part of its new stature is a result of its celebrity associations (the Alexa and Del Rey bags refer to Alexa Chung and Lana Del Rey, respectively), but it has also successfully leveraged its made-in-England message like few others.
And now the company, started more than four decades ago by Roger Saul and his mother, is in one of its largest expansion periods to date, setting up 15 to 20 new shops across Europe, North America and Asia. Two free-standing stores are set
Mulberry's retail strategy has naturally resulted in an increase in production, but, bucking standard manufacturing trends in this globalized age, it hasn't decamped to a foreign jurisdiction with less costly production costs. Au contraire, it has built a new factory, now up and running, a 50-minute car ride from its existing one. Ultimately, the facility will employ up to 320 people who will assemble several of its top bag styles, including the Bayswater, by hand. The move is at the core of Mulberry's re-emphasis of its British roots, which it hopes will become an even stronger selling point for British and global consumers alike.
"I think craftsmanship gives you a sort of credibility and is one of the best ways to protect your brand," says Mulberry's chief executive officer, Bruno Guillon, who joined the company in March 2012 after a four-year stint as managing director at Hermès France. "But it also gives a newness in creativity."
Plans for the new factory, christened the Willows, were in place before Guillon arrived. The Rookery, Mulberry's current factory, manufactures 25 per cent of all bags (women's and men's). Adding the Willows allows Mulberry to aim for 50 per cent – and to get there as soon as possible, Guillon says.
A Bayswater bag – the brand's bestseller since making its debut nearly a decade ago – has always been produced on home turf; it has since been joined by various newer styles, such as the Willow, a smart handbag with a detachable pochette. Bags not constructed in England (the majority of men's items) are manufactured at Mulberry-owned factories in Italy, Spain and Turkey. Mulberry recently ended its leather-goods production in Asia.
On the factory floor of the Rookery, Willow and Del Rey bags are assembled in teams of 15; the generation difference in these small groups – some look like college kids, others like grandparents – is not accidental.
Eight years ago, when factory director Ian Scott figured out that 50 per cent of Mulberry's work force was older than 50 and 13 per cent was retirement age, he established a government-supported apprenticeship program that kicked off in 2006 – the first of its kind for a leather-goods company. Each year, eight to 10 students come on board as full-time employees; they learn about craftsmanship and the industry while receiving a supplemental college education. Of the 64 students who have gone through the program, 46 are still with the company. "We are bringing in people who are unemployed and training them to be craftsmen. It's a fantastic project," Scott enthuses.
According to the company, it is the largest leather-goods manufacturer in the United Kingdom, although Scott goes one step further, calling the new factory "the biggest investment in the fashion industry in Britain in 20 years." Costing £7.5 million ($11.8-million), the Willows – named after Somerset's tradition of willow basket making – was first proposed in 2010. The area was previously a marshland zoned for industrial or residential use. Various building features reflect Mulberry's commitment to corporate social responsibility (CSR), beginning with the 290 square metres of solar panels that will generate 10 per cent of electricity. Rainwater harvesting will move water from the roof to a big tank intended for flushing the factory's toilets. Two new ponds were created specifically to encourage wildlife onto the site.
"It is a moral obligation," Guillon says of the CSR practices. "If a company like us is investing in young people to come and work in our factory, I think we also need to take care of our environment as much as we can."
Among Mulberry's long-term goals, Scott would like to see more precise traceability on the skins (currently, all leathers are of European origin, the ostrich comes from South Africa and the alligator from Louisiana). "Right now, we know the tannery [they're] from and we know country of origin, but we want to go to the next stage. We believe that one day in the future … we can say that [the leather] came from the third field on the left in Mr. Percy's farm. That would be great," he quips.
In June, creative director Emma Hill, under whom the company had prospered, unexpectedly departed, prompting Mulberry's stock price to drop eight pence (13 cents). She will see Mulberry through its spring/summer 2014 collection, which will take place in September. Guillon insists that the firm is eagerly searching to fill the position.
At the Willows and the Rookery, though, there is a strong sense among both employees and visitors that the brand's identity, supported by its strong made-in-England strategy, is contingent on neither trend nor tastemaker. On the grounds of the Rookery, an actual mulberry tree, thought to be nearly 100 years old, gives physical roots to the firm. Each time it produces fruit, the factory's kitchen staff bakes pies.
"Even if we have the fashion," Guillon says, "it's important to keep our roots and to take care of them."