Tonight in New York, Manolo Blahnik will mark the start of a new era in the U.S. market as it celebrates Americas president Andrew Wright.
“For the first time ever, the U.S. is completely meshed with what we have in the U.K.,” said the executive, who previously worked at Louis Vuitton and Polo Ralph Lauren. “This is about evolution, not revolution. It’s a startup with amazing history.”
The company ended its partnership with former U.S. head George Malkemus last year.
Wright, who spent three years heading up Blahnik’s commercial operations in London and continues to be part of the global management team, said putting creativity at the forefront is critical. “We’re known as a firm reference point for many of the shoes that people have in their wardrobe. What we’re going to do now is add that fairy dust. We want to present the collection in a more coherent way,” said Wright, who has been hiring proven marketing, wholesale, sourcing and logistic executives to help lead the charge.
The company is banking on a new flagship at 717 Madison Avenue in New York — set to debut in the second half — to drive excitement around the brand, which has spent the last few years opening boutiques in key cities around the world. The location, which will have the residential feel the designer loves, isn’t far from the brand’s longtime store on 54th Street — which closed late last year. But it’s a more visible platform for the brand, which will also house its headquarters and showroom there.
It’s no secret that Madison Avenue has been one of the hardest hit retail corridors in New York during a period of upheaval — particularly with Barneys’ demise and empty storefronts along the strip. But Wright believes Blahnik can win with the double-fronted space that allows for both women’s and men’s — a growing business — to stand out. “We have already built a loyal following of men’s clients [at our London store], many of whom are visitors from the U.S. who appreciate our distinctive approach and sense of creativity,” he said.
Top wholesale partners were upbeat about the brand’s future in the American market. “Manolo Blahnik and Neiman Marcus have had a special relationship for many years. The Neiman Marcus customer has always cherished Manolo and his creativity and passion for design,” said Melissa Lowenkron, SVP and GMM of handbags and ladies shoes for Neiman Marcus.
The executive, who understands the complexity of the U.S. market, is also working to bolster relationships with key wholesale partners that are critical to the success of the brand here. Here, Wright opens up about his big plans.
What will you bring from your previous experience to this role?
AW: “My Vuitton and Ralph Lauren background has given me a lens through which to look at the U.S. market in a structured and professional way— in terms of the channels the big companies work in. We’re on a smaller scale and have an agility to our structure, which is a nice counterbalance to that. I can compare the two and bring the best of both worlds.”
AW: How closely are you working with CEO Kristina Blahnik and the team in London?
“It’s a seamless connection — it’s a small scale compared to other places I’ve worked. There’s a fluidity that you don’t get in a bigger structure. It’s constant and there aren’t going to be surprises. I’ve learned a lot from her. We’re looking forward to having London and New York feel like they’re one office now.”
How will the U.S. strategy be different during this new era?
AW: “The respect for the brand and its quality and workmanship [has always been] there. There was a solid platform. All we’re trying to do now is to add creativity on top. It’s important for us to have the unique signature on everything we do. We want to make sure that message is loud and clear. Retail is going to give us the [vehicle] to do that.”
Take us inside the plan for the new Madison Avenue store.
AW: “Retail is hard work. You’ve got to keep yourself at the top of the game. The visibility aspect of the store is the opportunity for us. We’re going to have a women’s showcase right next to a men’s showcase. We have the two next to each other in [London’s] Burlington Arcade, but this is on a scale that we don’t have there. We can tell the whole story. Now that we also have [a company-owned] factory under our wing in Italy, we can be flexible and agile to create product that is particularly right for that store location.”
What is the key to igniting excitement during such a challenging time for New York retail?
AW: “Historically, when there have been downturns, people who have played it super safe have failed. When you have a personality, it’s a risk, but people respond to that. That’s what we want to show. You don’t need enormous amounts of space for shoes, but [with this new location] there’s an opportunity to create a residential feel and make people at ease.”
Are other stores in America part of your plan?
AW: “If the right opportunity comes along, we’re open to it, in America or elsewhere. We’re about the right time. This is an independently funded, financially agile business. There are certainly opportunities beyond Manhattan. But we’ve got a lot to learn.”
The brand has worked with many important wholesale customers for decades. What message do you want to send to them right now?
AW: “The first thing we did was meet with everyone to reassure them that we are going to nurture this business, and look after it as we do in London. It is going to be one company, not separate. We also said, ‘What are your ideas?’ We’re here to learn as well. It’s not about saying all stores need [a certain] product. I’ve had an opportunity to work in this market and see how complex it is. It’s not one market. What you sell in Chicago isn’t what you sell in Detroit and what you sell there isn’t the same as what you sell in the southern states. We need to be open to learn and work more closely than ever with our partners. We’ve got some loyal partners who are very protective of our brand and are full of excitement about what this could mean in terms of developing the business.”
What is the key to cultivating strong relationships with retailers?
AW: “Being on the floor. [Interacting] with the buyers and executive team is important, but it’s equally important to be with the sales staff. I spend a lot of time at Vuitton on a role that was about learning and development. Sometimes you think of that as a great opportunity for the staff, but actually it’s a great commercial driver. If you connect with those people, they are more connected to you. They have stories to tell
about the brand and break the ice with the
Barneys New York was a major partner for the brand. How will that loss impact you?
AW: “It’s sad that such an iconic brand doesn’t have a future in the way we had hoped. It’s one of the first retailers that supported Mr. Blahnik and we had a strong business there. But there are no plans to have a knee-jerk reaction to it. We will hunker down and work with our existing partners more closely than ever. Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus have both opened in Manhattan [so there is opportunity].”
Who is the Manolo Blahnik U.S. consumer?
AW: “You can’t pigeonhole them. When you’re sitting in Europe, maybe it’s easy to do that. Here, the cities aren’t just different, but also the people within them and the age groups. We are aspirational — the name has this real kind of pull, whether you’re looking to hire staff or pull people in for a client event, people are open.”
Digital is obviously a critical piece of the business. How will you tap into that?
AW: “We’ve been working on that, and our digital business is great. There’s an opportunity now that we have the U.S. business integrated. It’s a visible retail store, a shop window. Wherever you’re located, you’ve gotten something in front of you. It’s only going to go one way, and people aren’t going backwards. The experience you have in digital is never what you are going to get in stores.”