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The voice of British luxury

Helen Brocklebank, Chief Executive of Walpole, on nurturing British talent and what luxury really means.

Words by PELORUS

Helen Brocklebank

Helen Brocklebank, Walpole Chief Executive

Coming up with a great business idea is one challenge. Having the entrepreneurial talent to turn it into a global brand is another altogether. Enter Walpole, an organisation founded in 1992, whose purpose is to promote, protect and develop the British luxury sector. We sat down with the Chief Executive, Helen Brocklebank, to discuss how this support network enables young brands and entrepreneurs to become major players on the international luxury scene.

What does British luxury mean to you and how is it unique?

“The things we talk about when it comes to British luxury are heritage, craftsmanship and creativity. So a brand’s personality, sensibility and outward thinking are all very important. A luxury brand’s DNA goes far beyond just the products – it represents a lifestyle and captures the habits of its clientele.

“I’d also say that British luxury is dynamic; it’s always looking forward, using its past as a springboard to have a more creative future. It has to evolve and be useful for the next generation.

“I think there’s something incredibly consistent at the heart of British luxury – the quality and creativity – but in the same breath it’s always evolving; it’s always got a sense of forward-thinking longevity to it.”

Are you constantly encouraging new founders to run with their ideas and invent where possible?

“At Walpole we’re really committed to the long-term of brands. So 10 years ago we created a programme called Brands of Tomorrow, which takes our early stage luxury brands – not start-ups but founded brands – through a programme of mentoring and workshops. We invest the time and talent to establish a luxury brand, and we’re giving them the best foundations for success. That hot-housing system has fantastic return. The brands that have come through that programme have – almost without exception – gone on to become label players. And I think that’s testament to the investment that Walpole and the British luxury sector makes in pushing these companies forward.”

“There’s something incredibly consistent at the heart of British luxury”

It must be great to be part of a brand’s journey?

“I don’t think there’s anything more satisfying than that. I think that’s one of the reasons why the established brands get involved in supporting new brands – it’s hugely satisfying to see new ideas and see new businesses flourish. It’s also a two-way street; yes, you’re sharing work with the new generation, but you’re also getting new ideas that can be taken back to your own company. It’s a symbiotic process.”

When you’re choosing the brands to work with, is the person behind the idea as important as the idea itself?

“The founder is essential to the personality and the vision of the brand. Their energy, drive, commitment and belief is the key ingredient. They also need to have a fantastically solid business plan.”

You came into your role at Walpole with Brexit looming and luxury looking like it was potentially going to take a hit. Saying that, with so many applicants to the Brands of Tomorrow programme and so many new brands coming onto the scene, is the outlook generally quite positive?

“It’s potentially a tricky time to start a business, but that shouldn’t put you off, because actually if you look back to the horrible recession of 2008, quite a lot of businesses started out really well. There are always problems for investment, that’s the same in any market in any business sector, but the customer is spiking.

“One interesting point about some of the new brands we’re working with is that quite a few of them have been founded by people who are on their second or third career and decided to set up their own business.

“Brexit is a challenge for everything. On the whole, I’m focused on beyond Brexit, into the opportunities that exist in markets like the US, China and the Middle East. I think there’s never been a better time for British luxury brands, Brexit be damned – the world really loves British-made products.”

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