British luxury fashion brands are making a play for a British invasion, of sorts, thanks to the growing market for luxury goods in the U.S.
British luxury fashion brands’ popularity in the U.S. market continues to grow. According to a new report from Walpole, the British organization dedicated to the export of British luxury around the world, the export of British luxury goods to the U.S. jumped up by more than 8 percent in the last year, bringing the U.K. closer to toppling France and Italy as the top luxury exporters to the States. British brands like Stella McCartney have had success by opening new stores throughout the U.S. Burberry, particularly — under the new direction of Ricardo Tisci and Marco Gobbetti — has been one of the standout British brands in the U.S., bringing in more than a fifth of its total revenue last year from America.
For British brands, the U.S. is an appealing destination. The second largest luxury market in the world, with nearly $800 million worth of British luxury goods imported each year, the U.S. trails only China in terms of the amount of money spent on luxury goods annually. But for British brands, the U.S. is the more appealing based on the amount of cultural crossover between the two and their “special relationship,” as Walpole’s CEO Helen Brocklebank puts it.
“We have a very long trade relationship with the U.S.,” she said. “Brexit is a bit of existential angst for everyone in Britain. We have to look where our historical opportunities are. The American luxury market feels really important to us right now.”
More than two-thirds of Americans love or really like British products, and 73 percent of American customers are more favorable to British products than they were three years ago, according to Walpole’s research.
Part of the appeal of British luxury fashion in America is due to the “soft power” the U.K. exerts in America in the form of cultural exports.
“If the entire U.K. had a marketing director, they could not have put together a more perfect moment for the country if they tried,” said Malcolm Borwick, brand ambassador for Royal Salute. “You’ve got new royals, the creation of a new monarchy, Meghan and Harry, all these great British cultural properties on TV and movies that Britain has that are being copied around the world. It’s a perfect moment for British brands trying to expand outside the U.K.”
Despite the the hunger for British luxury in the U.S., there are some important differences between the American luxury market and the way British brands are used to doing business. In the opinion of Michael Ward, managing director of British department store Harrods and chairman of Walpole, American luxury fashion brands have created a discount culture that British brands have to avoid. Part of British luxury’s appeal in the U.S. is the perception of heritage and uncompromising quality. In Ward’s estimation, giving in to discount culture risks losing the prestigious reputation those brands have in America.
“On 5th Avenue, they’re offering discounts that I’d sack my merchants for if they offered anything close to it,” he said. “America has created a price culture instead of a quality culture. So many British brands make things that are absolutely pristine luxury. They’re unique, and there’s a price to be paid for that. It’s not overly expensive, but it’s right for the product.
“America has tended to massify luxury a bit. If British brands succumb to that, they will lose their raison d’etre in life. These products take years to produce, they’re unique, they’ve been crafted by someone trained by the best schools in the U.K. — why would you do anything other than sell it for the true value?”
American customers also tend to differ in their relationships with brands and how they respond to them after they’ve made a purchase. Kathryn Sargent, the first woman to have her own tailoring shop on Savile Row, has found the American customer to be much less quiet about the things they like and, especially, the things they do not like.
“American customers are very vocal about things, whether they like them or not,” she said. “When they love something, they’ll tell everyone they know, and they’ll recommend it to others. If they don’t like it, you will know. Brits tend to be less vocal about the brands they like. They’ll never tell you who their tailor is.”
But some British brands find the difference between American and British customers to be superficial, at best. Ultimately, the two countries have enough in common that British brands can focus on being “authentically themselves,” as Borwick put it, and still find success.
“They’re all one customer, in terms of having an appreciation for craftsmanship,” said Jenny Stewart, marketing manager for luxury Scottish cashmere and wool brand Johnstons of Elgin.