Troubled British luxury brand Mulberry hires top Celine designer Johnny Coca

Model Cara Delevingne carries Mulberry’s Tessie satchel, which was launched in May and is one of the brand’s more affordable offerings. -- PHOTO: MULBERRY
Model Cara Delevingne carries Mulberry’s Tessie satchel, which was launched in May and is one of the brand’s more affordable offerings. -- PHOTO: MULBERRY
Model Cara Delevingne carries Mulberry’s Tessie satchel, which was launched in May and is one of the brand’s more affordable offerings. -- PHOTO: MULBERRY
Model Cara Delevingne carries Mulberry’s Tessie satchel, which was launched in May and is one of the brand’s more affordable offerings. -- PHOTO: MULBERRY

The British luxury goods brand has appointed a new creative director, Johnny Coca, who was top designer from Celine

Troubled British luxury goods brand Mulberry will be looking to improve its fortunes with the appointment of top Celine designer Johnny Coca (right) as its new creative director.

This comes more than a year after Emma Hill, its well-regarded creative head, left the Somersetbased brand in which Singapore entrepreneur Christina Ong owns a majority stake.

Coca, the current accessories head design director at French fashion house Celine, will helm all of Mulberry's collections, including ready-to-wear, when he joins the brand officially on July 8 next year.

In a telephone interview with Life! on Thursday, Mulberry chairman and acting chief executive Godfrey Davis said the Spaniard was a candidate who stood out almost immediately.

"We are trying to make beautiful things for people... One of the reasons Johnny is such a good fit is that he has a modern take on luxury," he added.

Coca, who has worked with Bally and Louis Vuitton in accessories, helped to create the iconic Trapeze bag in 2011 during his four-year tenure with Celine.

His appointment seems to signify Mulberry's commitment to accessories. It is, after all, best known for its made-in-England sturdy leather products.

Mrs Ong, who acquired a stake in the brand in 2000 that has since grown to more than 56 per cent, told Life! in an e-mail interview: "This is an exciting step for Mulberry and we are pleased to welcome Johnny Coca to the Mulberry team."

Founded in 1971, Mulberry has faced several setbacks in recent years.

Following the abrupt departure of Hill in June last year, its chief executive Bruno Guillon also threw in the towel in March. Rumour has it that the two had clashed over the company's direction.

Throughout the six years that Hill spent at the brand, she fashioned a chic and quirky aesthetic that transformed the stuffy heritage brand into an aspirational It-label.

She also introduced entry-level price points by selling keyrings, bag charms and bracelets to entice younger consumers. Bags were priced from about £500.

Working in almost the opposite direction, Mr Guillon, a former managing director at Hermes, mandated substantial price increases across all its products in an attempt to reposition the company as an exclusive brand with greater international appeal. This, say analysts, alienated a large chunk of its core customers.

For instance, the Daily Mail reported in February that the price of its popular Alexa bag has jumped nearly 40 per cent, from £795 (S$1,626) to £1,100.

The ill-judged move led to a slump in sales.

In the last 18 months, Mulberry has released several profit warnings.

For the six months to Sept 30, for example, it reported a revenue of £64.7 million, a 17 per cent slide compared to the same time last year, although Mr Davis pointed out that this was also due to a strong British pound that has caused a fall in tourist spending.

He was also quick to note that Coca's appointment does not indicate a "dramatic change" in Mulberry's direction.

"We make very luxurious bags such as our Willow bag, which sells for about £2,000, but we also make bags priced between £500 and £800. This is certainly something that we plan to continue," he said.

The £500-to-£800 segment was what the company had "ignored to our detriment", he was quoted as saying to British Vogue in June.

Shoppers can expect more arm candy that is easier on the wallet, such as the spring/summer 2015 Blossom collection that is now available here. Prices start from $430 for a leather pouch to $1,090 for a leather tote.

Singaporean undergraduate Collette Miles, 22, who owns Mulberry bags, says she is looking forward to more affordable designs.

"It's evident that the brand targets young women as it has quite a big selection of backpacks and collaborations with It-girls such as Cara Delevingne, so it makes sense for it to offer things that young women can save up to buy," says Ms Miles.

With the position of creative director filled, Mulberry is now looking for a new chief executive.

Asked if it was important for the creative director and chief executive to see eye to eye, Mr Davis replied: "Absolutely."

He added: "The design side of the business has quite a long gestation period, so we wanted to make sure that we got the creative process back on track with the new creative director."

staceyc@sph.com.sg