CEO letter | Bond Street, Brexit and the Business of British Luxury

I must have walked up Bond Street at least daily for the last 20 years, turning left at De Beers on the corner of Piccadilly, dawdling outside Prada, stopping at the Asprey window, then crossing to the Churchill/Roosevelt bench before cutting right at the flower stall on my way to work.

Idle as a flâneur, my magpie eyes would alight on gleaming things in Bond Street windows – a 10-carat canary yellow diamond ring here, a tweed suit with gilt buttons there, a perfect pair of hand-made brogues, a crimson satin handbag, a square steel watch with an alligator strap – displayed in their vitrines as if in glass cases in my own private museum of luxury. The intoxicating allure of those Bond Street names was established long before I ever came to London, product of teenage hours spent in my bedroom in the far north of England, poring over the pages of Harper’s and Vogue, reverently tracing a finger over the logos in advertisements. It was by no means the most direct route to the office, and if I didn’t step up the pace once on Clifford Street, I’d almost certainly be late, but the quotidian pleasure never palled.

Since beginning at Walpole, I have a new journey to work – and it’s the silver streaming Thames under Westminster Bridge that catches my eye, rather than diamonds in windows. I am less frequently on Bond Street, but when I find myself there, I discover I’m no longer at a Private View but suddenly at the world’s most popular exhibition. Mayfair, no less than London’s other luxurious shopping districts, is suddenly thronged by wealthy overseas visitors, enticed by the post-Brexit currency fluctuations, and shopping like never before. When I met with BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours on Bond Street last week to talk about the boom in luxury spending in the capital, we struggled to find a quietish spot to talk, such were the eager crowds. Small wonder then, that in February alone, according to Global Blue, tax-free spend was up 55 per cent on Feb ’16, and 14 per cent up year-on-year overall. The cash registers in London’s luxury boutiques are ringing merrily.

As we begin the protracted process of exiting the EU, it’s cheering to discover little beacons of good news shining out from an otherwise challenging landscape, and the extraordinary upsurge in visitor numbers is one of them. Visit Britain’s predictions that tourist numbers would grow from 36.7m in 2016 to 38.2m this year look conservative. Chinese visitors alone now account for a third of all non-EU visitors to Britain – Walpole’s work with the UK Chinese Visa Alliance has helped unlock much of that growth – and with an average spend per transaction of £922, it’s good to hear about a positive impact on business from member brands. The average transaction value of a Middle Eastern customer is twice that, on average, and Harrods reports an even higher figure. But whilst the Brexit induced weak pound, and the comparative safety of the capital, may have prompted visitors to seize the opportunity to travel right now, it’s important to remember that it’s the enduring appeal of Britain’s culture and heritage combined with the sophistication of its retail experience and sumptuous hotels, that makes the UK a perennially appealing visitor destination. In research Walpole conducted with McKinsey & Company early last year, we noted that 40 per cent of Chinese shoppers prefer to come here to buy because of the authenticity and experience of buying British in Britain, and our new report, in association with CBRE, confirmed that, compared to other major luxury destinations across the globe, London still holds the greatest long-term growth potential.

It’s not only in London, of course, where the business of British luxury is strong. British luxury is a truly national enterprise, with businesses as far west as Falmouth and as far north as Orkney. The sector employs more than 113000 people across the country, and we are exploring the role British luxury can play in the government’s Industrial Strategy as we look beyond Spring 2019. On that note, I was particularly encouraged by a meeting we had with the Director General of the CBI this week, and hope to be able to share more with you as things develop.

I may no longer have my daily Bond Street fix, but my work with Walpole has already taken me through the looking glass, beyond the infinite glamour of high-end shopping (and how happy it makes me to see the street I love so incredibly busy) and into the bewitching world where these things are made – behind that canary yellow diamond, the crimson handbag, the hand-made brogue, are skilled craftspeople the length and breadth of Britain. What makes me hurry to work now, is the excitement of playing a part in supporting our extraordinary industry – working to ensure that we continue to make Britain the perfect destination for visitors, as well as a place where the business of luxury can flourish and thrive, in the workshops, ateliers and factories nationwide, now and long into the future.

Very much looking forward to seeing you in the coming weeks and months; in the meantime, please do get in touch – helen.brocklebank@thewalpole.co.uk.