Former All Saints boss Stephen Craig has ambitious plans for Suiteblanco as he settles in to his role at the helm of the fashion retailer.
Stephen Craig has just come from a streaming of a fashion show by Suiteblanco, the Spanish retailer that he aims to reinvigorate.
Energised by the experience, he talks at Formula 1 speed about how the retailer can be rebuilt and its international potential under owner Alhokair, the Middle Eastern retail giant that now controls the brand.
Suiteblanco was originally established during Spain’s Franco dictatorship. It was a welcome breath of fresh air in the stultifying atmosphere of authoritarianism.
Back then, in the 1960s, founder Bernardo Blanco used to drive to Paris to pick up the latest fashions to sell in Fascist Spain, bringing colour and style to the benighted country.
But by 2013 and following Blanco’s death, the business had hit trouble and ended up in administration.
Alhokair, a franchisee, bought it and has appointed Craig – well known for building up All Saints in the UK and internationally – to restore its fortunes.
Craig has identified three foundation stones for a recovery: product, manufacturing prowess and a digital presence to cater for changing shopping habits.
After taking the helm eight weeks ago, Craig brought on board designer Amy Molyneaux as creative director to address product weakness.
“It’s a bit like arriving at Wimbledon with a broken racket and you’re against Andy Murrays like Zara”
Stephen Craig, Suiteblanco
He maintains that “you wouldn’t wash your car” with some of the lines Suiteblanco was selling when it hit trouble.
Recalling his appointment he says: “It’s a bit like arriving at Wimbledon with a broken racket and you’re against Andy Murrays like Zara.
“The business had terrible sell-through, a huge amount of residual stock. The product was eclectic, there was no colour palette.”
Molyneaux, co-founder of fashion firm PPQ, has worked with a variety of well-known retailers such as Claire’s Accessories, and has been tasked with enhancing Suiteblanco’s offer. Her lines were shown during last week’s streaming event.
Summing up his ambition, Craig says: “I want to own the suitcase to Ibiza for that girl [the customer]. Spanish isn’t the first language, fashion is.”
Craig is confident that sourcing and manufacturing giant Li & Fung, brought in to run production of lines under Robert Godfrey, will play a pivotal role. He says: “You have design and selling, but I love the bit in between.
“If we’ve got the design they [Li & Fung] will get it to us on time and to quality.”
Craig cites J Crew boss Mickey Drexler and Arcadia tycoon Sir Philip Green as people who know how factories work and how product is manufactured, and sees that as a key skill.
“When you know that, you know how to twist margin that bit more,” he maintains. “What I learned at All Saints was how to make clothes and Li & Fung know how to make clothes.”
As well as selling through its shops, Craig sees online as a vital platform for Suiteblanco.
He has brought in Stephen Ritchie, founder of SoOnline, to build the digital offer. The pair worked together before to create All Saints’ online business.
Craig recalls: “I put £15,000 into a website in 2006. Stephen convinced me to put that in. When we sold All Saints it was doing £75m.”
Ritchie says: “When Stephen took the job he called me to come in and build Suiteblanco a new ecommerce business that would be truly world class. That’s what we did for him at All Saints.
“This isn’t going to be any bog standard ecommerce site. This is going to start a new era in retailing. It’s probably the most exciting retailing project in the world right now”
Stephen Ritchie, SoOnline
“We’re building a full omnichannel business for Suiteblanco that will integrate every touch point of the business, users and the customer experience.
“This isn’t going to be any bog standard templated ecommerce site that so many retailers end up with from an agency.
“This is going to start a new era in retailing. It’s probably the most exciting retailing project in the world right now, given we have the full backing of Suiteblanco and Alhokair to do what it takes to be a leader in global retailing.”
So it is not just Craig who is determined to make the retail world sit up and take notice of Suiteblanco.
But for Craig, the problems at the end of his time at All Saints in the wake of the credit crunch which decimated his Icelandic financiers and before the business was sold to Lyndon Lea’s Lion Capital, were a bruising experience.
Now he is full of enthusiasm for his new challenge. “We have to be slicker, cooler and give value for the customer,” he says.
“What I like about it is being in a foreign country and testing myself. I said no to some things along the way because All Saints was so all-encompassing. I’m super-excited about the opportunity.
“It has Alhokair behind it. At All Saints we didn’t have a bank and the shareholders were bust.”
For Craig, Suiteblanco seems like an opportunity to lay the ghost of his experience at All Saints to rest and to make a new splash in global fashion.