“First are our traditional customers who want to invest in one or two classic Mulberry bags they can use every day; that’s a marketing slow burn. We need to educate them about the brand and make it synonymous with British-made luxury, which is what we’ve always done.
“The second strategy targets Asia’s Generation Z. This is new to us as a brand. Our marketing strategy needs to be an instant one because once they’ve seen an item on social media, they want to have it available to buy immediately. Having a seasonal collection appear on catwalks before it arrives in store just doesn’t work. They’d simply forget about it and move on to the next thing that’s trending.”
But it’s not all about ignoring the history of the heritage brand. “When we had a consumer event in Korea, we told the story of how the Postman’s Lock [the metal plate engraved with the Mulberry emblem] started and evolved – and they loved it,” Billington tells me. “While fast fashion is part of it, the Asian market wants to buy into the history of a brand and I think we’ve got it right: two years ago we didn’t have any stores in Asia and now we have 36 – that’s pretty special.”
The new Mulberry Iris bag is just one example of this evolution. While seemingly classic in design, it is the brand’s first bag with customisable handles that you can buy in any three colourways (no matter how bright) to make it unique and allow customers to refresh the bag sporadically.
The Rookery, Mulberry’s unassuming factory snuggled in the rolling green of the Somerset countryside, is similarly something of a contradiction. While the walls are bedecked with advertorial and editorial successes and the factory filled with handbag designs so current they haven’t yet hit the shelves, there’s another less glossy, but equally charming, side to the brand.
I hear workers singing along to Gloria Gaynor on whatever radio station they’ve settled upon for the day (there are frequent debates), those nearing retirement work alongside apprentices fresh from the school desk and Billington, who runs the operation, knows the ins and outs of it all. “Has she finished yet?” he asks one worker of her 16-year-old daughter’s GCSE exams (she hadn’t and he commiserated, having a brood of his own).
But, as clichéd as it may sound, this is a family. When Roger Saul started the business in 1979, he recruited women from the local area to sit and stitch belts at their kitchen tables. And, since the factory was built in 1989, that recruitment of local craftspeople hasn’t changed.
It’s not unheard of to find three generations of the same family sitting shoulder-to-shoulder along the assembly line with older workers passing down their skills to members on the brand’s apprenticeship scheme. Every staff member is valued because everyone is a craftsperson adding value to that piece of leather on its way to becoming a handbag.
While many British-heritage handbag brands have moved manufacturing mainly overseas, this isn’t something Mulberry would ever consider because of their strong English identity.
One way to keep manufacturing on home soil is to use cutting machines for leather rather than cutting manually. “That’s one job a computer can do more effectively than a human, but we don’t lose workers because we need them to run the machines,” assures Billington. “However it means that we can make bags more efficiently and prevent labour costs spiralling out of control.”
“One of the key factors that enticed me to join Mulberry was British manufacturing,” says Spanish-born Creative Director, Johnny Coca. “I’m very proud to be working for a company that has two British factories employing more than 500 craftsmen and craftswomen. Mulberry is an iconic fashion brand that people feel very passionate and protective of, so it was an honour to be trusted as the Creative Director.”
So what is Coca bringing to the brand? Shaped by more than a decade of experience at Louis Vuitton and Celine, Coca’s aim is to create beautiful, functional objects that are made to be worn and last. But it is Coca’s Spanish upbringing and close-knit family that have made him a strong believer in community and meritocracy.
“I think the question is always more about how much of my Spanish upbringing I can introduce into this!” he explains. “Growing up in Seville, I was surrounded by vibrant colours and it gave me an enduring love for the power and sheer variety of colour. I spend a long time perfecting the colour in my designs because they can be so evocative and provoke such an emotional reaction in people. Our Mulberry Green is a great example of that; it really encapsulates the brand and what we stand for.
“When I joined Mulberry three years ago, we began writing a new chapter for the brand. The heart and DNA remain unchanged, but we’ve taken those values to a larger and more global audience,” he explains.
“My collections are still rooted in the brand’s history and British culture, whether that comes from Mulberry archives or from the people of the UK who I observe in the streets. And we’ve played with this even further by introducing new ranges with more inclusive product offerings, from sneakers and sunglasses to reimagined men’s collections.
“At Mulberry we are a melting pot of different cultures and this is the modern way of working,” Coca continues. “It doesn’t matter where you are from as long as you are passionate, committed, work hard and are good at what you do.” And that’s a rule we should all work by.