Representing the creative future

How to make a brand last?

Connolly CEO Isabel Ettedgui argues that business needs to be value-driven

You may not have heard about the British leather goods brand Connolly before, but that’s precisely part of its appeal. The company, founded in 1878 as a small family saddle-maker, has embodied the essence of discreet luxury for decades, long before it became a buzzword. Over the past century, they’ve grown from strength to strength—from the seats of Rolls-Royces to the Houses of Parliament and Concorde planes. Perhaps most surprisingly, this quiet brand with huge potential hasn’t been acquired by a conglomerate but has stuck to its values and worked with like-minded people to grow the business. Two of such important people were Isabel Ettedgui and her husband Joseph, of the timeless Joseph stores. In the ’90s, having been closely connected with the brand for years, they got involved operationally and set up a shop in Belgravia, London. Many things have changed since then, including a relocation and a focus on ready-to-wear, but one constant has remained: Isabel’s unwavering commitment to quality, with a slow and steady approach – not a pursuit of get-rich-fast exponential growth.

Isabel invited us to the Connolly boutique just off Savile Row, which isn’t simply a store. While we were having tea, Tom Chapman dropped in to buy a painting on the first-floor gallery, and Isabel keeps an apartment on the top floor, never too far away from what matters deeply to her. You can gauge how a person relates to their work by how they speak – Isabel embodies passion, kindness, and warmth. From this place, she imparted her wisdom and thoughts on the challenges of running a luxury brick-and-mortar business in the current retail landscape, why the UK’s lack of manufacturing skills poses a problem, and how young brands might build a sustainable brand today.

Olya Kuryshchuk: What motivated you to start the Connolly project?

Isabel Ettedgui: They were a client of mine. Thirty years ago I had an advertising agency, and the Connolly family – fourth generation, all men – produced leather for cars, that’s what they were very famous for. I just fell in love with this business. They had no idea of their value and the uniqueness, and the affection they were held with. If you’re a good brand, people have affection for you. It’s very strange, it’s quite personal. We decided to start a retail project for them. I brought in Andree Putman and we opened a shop in a mews behind the Lanesborough Hotel [by Hyde Park Corner]. I remember hearing that Ralph Lauren said it was his favorite shop in London. Nobody had seen anything like it because up until then – this is the early ‘90s – leather was locked in a cabinet, behind a piece of glass. I wanted it to be very modern, so we merchandised it very differently, and people really responded.

It sort of then became our project, mine and Joseph’s. He sold the Joseph business in the early 2000s, and concentrated. He thought, “Right, let’s do Connolly.” So we moved to Conduit Street [in Mayfair], a huge shop. I stepped back because he really needed to get his teeth into something, and then he got sick. When he was sick we gave the lease back – the Westbury Hotel wanted to develop it, so they took it back. We sold everything and we just closed. And then about five years after his death, so 2013 or so, I saw this building [4 Clifford St in Mayfair] and thought it could be Connolly. I decided to buy the building. We did it in a year. We had no stock, no designs. I just didn’t think, I was so excited about this project. With a very small team we restarted and we opened with tailoring, knit, and leather goods. In a building that we had literally revamped top to bottom. That was a miracle. I had a great architect, great designers. I thought, “I’m just gonna do one shop. A blueprint, and see how it goes.” But one shop isn’t enough to make sense, in terms of the effort that everybody puts in; the supply chain; the factories want more volume. Everybody talks about sustainability on the one hand, and on the other hand, the reality is growth. It’s about how you balance the two. Would we ever want 25 shops? No, never. But maybe one in Switzerland, maybe one in America, and just play it by ear.

Did you feel prepared by your previous experience?

No, but I was so excited. There was that energy, and in a way, that naivety: “I’ve done it before, so I can do it again.” That will only take you so far. But that energy does get things done. Spending hours looking at excel sheets doesn’t get things done. And also Connolly had such a good following. We’d never owed people money. People loved the concept. So people were prepared to really take a risk. I really wanted to do clothing, and do a men’s tailoring collection that women could wear, so we did that in 2014. When I see these people do these men’s suits for women, they just oversized them. They’re not cut across both bodies. But we’re very quiet and discreet as a brand. It’s a different clientele. It’s a longer trajectory.

What was your experience setting up manufacturing, is it all done in the UK? And did Brexit hinder that?

Yes, Brexit was a disaster and I knew it would be. Because we made the decision as a luxury brand to only manufacture in Europe. Unquestionably. Not just finishing it in Europe, but really making it in Europe. For me the big issue was that there were no skills in this country. There weren’t the leather skills we needed to produce a quality that’s as good as what you find down the road. We do the knits in Scotland and in England; they’re pretty specific. But the fine gauge we have to make in Italy because our English factory sold their machines to the Italians because there’s no skills here. People don’t know how to handle it. That’s the big issue. We’re very lucky – Ukraine has given some of our factories a second life, because people have come in with those skills and they’re prepared to work. So we’re able to still handle it, but as a direct result of a terrible thing [the Russia-Ukraine war] happening. I think the problem with this country’s skillset is that we haven’t invested in skills for forty years and that’s a big problem. Leather we make in Spain…

Because the family still owns leather, can you still buy from them?

Yes, we do. I own the name Connolly, and I was talking with Jonathan Connolly – he was producing leather, but not Connolly leather. They closed their factory down years before. I said to him, “Jonathan, let’s start Connolly leather again.” I licensed him to start it again in the name. We do it in a very small way; it’s made-to-order. Because what neither of us wants to do is produce 6000 hides. The cows have to be well looked after. The better the cows, the better their lives, the better the leather. There’s nothing in-between. Within a week we were back with Ferrari. It’s amazing, isn’t it? We’re on the latest Ferrari car, the ​​Purosangue, but it’s made-to-order. There’s a range of Connolly leathers you can choose from; it’s a much more sustainable way. It’s also a much better business model for everybody. You possibly make less money, but it’s proper money. Everybody gets paid properly. So Brexit and supply chains were a problem, but because we know our suppliers very well, we’re lucky. We have a personal relationship with a lot of them. I would say that all of them have come back, and they’re actually all quite strong now. We’re now saying to them, on the leather front, “Just make more beautiful and complex pieces. Don’t make 500 wallets.” But just five leather boxes, because we know our customer wants that. There’s a better value in that and you get a better price rather than 10 euros. It’s a very hard thing because everybody is still following growth. I don’t really see how all these things can grow. It needs to be value-driven.

“I refuse to do wholesale.” – Isabel Ettedgui

When you go to the factories and the numbers are laid out in front of you, you understand that a sacrifice needs to be made in order to achieve the numbers. 

I refuse to do wholesale. At one point I went, “No, I’m not doing this.” Because then I’m working for a factory. The prices they required from us meant that it didn’t make financial sense for us. You look at brands like Chanel or Hermès, they have their own shops because they control that story. But to grow, you need wholesale. For the name [to become known], you need wholesale. It’s choosing which products you wholesale, and that was for me a big learning curve. But then you go and do a wholesale collection of lovely English knits and everybody asks: “Where’s the cashmere?” We’re not wholesaling that. It’s hard: you present a look that everybody wants to buy into, but you can’t wholesale the whole thing.

“We have products here that can be from five years ago, but they’re classic pieces, so people love them. It’s not about seasons.” – Isabel Ettedgui

It’s interesting because you now have different types of wholesalers. You have all these beasts like SSENSE and Zalando, but then you have more independent stores alongside them. Dover Street Market falls more into independent, but they’ve been kind of ruined by the beasts; by the sales that start five months earlier, by the delivery window, by the prices.

Stores don’t even look after the product! We have products here that can be from five years ago, but they’re classic pieces, so people love them. It’s not about seasons. We don’t discount, we don’t do Black Friday. We do one sample sale a year. I hope that’s enough. Because once you get into that, you’re gone, as a luxury brand.

One person who works for Farfetch explained to me that just a few percent of all their customers make 60-70% of their sales – they shop every day. That’s why you need that much novelty, for that 2% of people who open the webpage and want to see something new.

Joseph was probably considered the most successful apparel business in this country. He said, “90% of your business is through 3% of your customers.” And it’s true. That’s the trust thing as well. I think what’s happened is that e-comm and the Internet made it constantly about being new. In the old days you did a beautiful campaign for six months. It had time to settle and everybody invested in it. Now it’s just swipes. As a young designer it must constantly feel like you’re not good enough. I don’t know how they do it.

I think the tricky part is that anyone’s business is expected to operate on the same playing field as Louis Vuitton.

These big boys are taking all the oxygen. So it means that although they use us very much for inspiration, they either absorb brands – so they kill inspiration – or they just don’t let them produce because they buy all the factories. We lost so many factories to big groups. The prices go up. We’re small and in a very high-end area, and it’s really hard. Luckily, I think they’re gonna do it to themselves finally. It’s sort of changing. It’s a different game.

“There’s such a discrepancy between the really rich and everybody else, it’s just getting wider. That’s not how it should be. There should be more independence.” – Isabel Ettedgui

Do you think there might be a possibility to create a separate space for these types of brands? 

If I was the big boys, instead of buying up the brands, I would invest in them. He [Bernard Arnault] has a private investment fund. Maybe through more of these things… There must be a better community than we got at the moment. It’s like in the world, there’s such a discrepancy between the really rich and everybody else, it’s just getting wider. That’s not how it should be. There should be more independence. People come to Paris, London, or New York not for Prada or Vuitton, because they see that everywhere. They come to the shop that they find there because it has a personality. This is a big thing.

It makes total sense. We chatted with Thibault, the creative director of Voo Store in Berlin; he complained for a good two hours but it was super insightful. 

You’re like our therapist! [Laughs]

It was really interesting, because maybe we can change something. We chat to many different people in the industry, from manufacturers to designers, sometimes you realize: you all want the same, we just need to sit here with each other.

It’s also a mindset. It’s persuading the factories that they should, actually, charge us a bit more, but not make us produce such big quantities. That is going to be the way forward – if we’re going to stop this overconsumption. It’s about tightening things up. Charge us a bit more, and we can then charge the customer a bit more. It’s difficult. Also with so many factories, there are so many qualifications and boxes they had to tick. A lot of companies are like: “We’re a family business, we’ve been in it for four generations, we’re not doing this anymore.” It’s really hard. They’re trying to negotiate and navigate all the rules, plus Brexit, plus supply chain issues.

Going back to Thibault from the Voo Store, he was saying it’s not just the big e-comms that’s the problem, it’s also the big brands they buy which put limits on them. They can’t buy the best-sellers. They can’t buy for less than €100.000, and he’s like: “That completely kills our business, because if we can’t curate according to our customer…”

You’ve just said exactly it. There are no multi-brand shops… You used to be able to do it so easily in the ‘90s and that’s what brought new designers through, you showed them. Now you have to put two million aside to buy Prada. This is crazy. I opened [the shop] with Loro Piana at the time, they had some lovely cashmere sweaters and I said, “Can we have some of those?” And now Loro Piana is a huge brand. It’s really sad that there aren’t these really beautiful independent shops that have the freedom. That would make me happy; that’s who I would sell to. People that knew how to curate; knew what they wanted from me; understood how to merchandise it. Because the stores don’t know how to do it, and the other [department] stores are just concessions. So it’s not really putting a story together. People have lost the story of retail.

The skill issue in manufacturing also rings true in retail – for many people it’s just a summer job, there’s no value in it.

Exactly. There was no value perceived in it for so long, because it wasn’t about service to the customer, and getting to know them. It’s odd. And now suddenly e-comm is not working so everybody is reinvesting in service and sales staff, brick and mortar.

What’s your ambition with Connolly?

I don’t think I’d do another shop in England. I was dreaming last night of taking over the whole floor of Fortnum and Masons. [Laughs] I would like to do a pub, I’d really like to do that. A shop with a pub, at some stage. And I think probably a shop somewhere in America and Switzerland. We need to extend our winter a little bit because we’re knits and coats, so that would be quite nice, and we know a lot of our customers are there. I wish I had a better idea. In my little heart of hearts, it would just be a bigger one of these.

“If you’re doing it for money, don’t go into retail. If you’re doing it because you love it, then you’ve got to find some way of making it work for you.” – Isabel Ettedgui

I recently went to a dinner with Henrik Vibskov and I was struck by how his brand is an extension of himself, it’s a lifestyle that breathes through everything he does. And Connolly feels like lifestyle, too. When we talk with younger brands, we question if we can help them build something that makes them happy long-term, with collaborations, or doing creative projects outside of fashion. But the way most people think and talk about their brands is with the viewpoint of growth, not necessarily sustainability.

It’s insane. And it’s all about merchandise and entry-point products. It’s not about collaborations or questioning ‘why am I doing this?’ Because if you’re doing it for money, don’t go into retail. If you’re doing it because you love it, then you’ve got to find some way of making it work for you. I think that’s why there are so many casualties in the fashion world. I’ve known them all. Joseph worked with a lot of them. The pressure is so huge with these brands. When I was growing up, the only billion dollar businesses were pharmaceuticals, oil companies, and tobacco probably – it wasn’t fashion. Fashion could be millions but not billions. That’s a huge huge pressure.

Do you think that starting your own business at a later age had benefits, or the other way around?

I think because I started originally with Connolly – I mean this was my concept when I was 26… It’s been in my life for very long. If you told me that at 63 I’d be doing this, I’d think please no, but you know, it makes me stay young. And I love working with younger people. I don’t know how long I can do it for, but I feel that at the moment there’s a good mix between experience and youth. I couldn’t imagine being stuck with people my own age or playing golf [laughs]. It’s in your blood. It’s a need to create.

And within Connoly, are you the CEO?

Yes, I’m the owner and creative director.

As in any start-up you’re basically wearing multiple hats. Have you ever thought of bringing an outside CEO in?

Yes, because I thought that’s what I needed. But I need a business partner, not a CEO. I need someone who is equal in partnership. I need someone with a business brain to push me. You know, when you’re on your own, you act as a break and accelerator, and sometimes you need someone else to push you, as well as to stop you from doing things. Those are the best partnerships. In any business, where there’s a financial brain and a creative brain, those are the ones that really seem to thrive, don’t they? And I’m hands-on. So unless somebody is prepared to be hands-on, I’m not interested.

Do you have mentors or people you go to talk with to get advice?

My mentors aren’t around anymore. Joseph was extraordinary, because he was an extraordinary retailer, and he had an extraordinary breadth of vision. Jean Touitou [from A.P.C.]. Maureen [Doherty] from Egg. But you know, I’ve never been a corporate girl. I’m very friendly with the Dumas family [of Hermès], Pierre-Alexis and I grew up together, so we’re very close. My daughter had a mentor when she first went to work. Incredible. As much as you’re frightened of them – because there’s definitely a fear there – they teach you so much. It’s amazing to have somebody who follows you, and who guides you. I think it’s terribly important for young people. It makes a huge difference, especially for kids from backgrounds where there wasn’t a lot of positivity in their lives; they weren’t encouraged to do many things. I think somebody giving you encouragement and telling you you’re doing good things, it’s hugely powerful.