CEO Letter | From you I have been Absent in the Spring

We might not yet be completely out of the Covid woods, recovery may still be some way off, but the last few weeks have felt like a sort of convalescence, writes Helen Brocklebank. 

Certainly, the footfall figures for London’s luxury retail districts suggest the buzz one feels when out and about in either Knightsbridge or Mayfair is so much more than wishful thinking. Last year’s lockdowns proved the luxury customer returns the minute the ‘unlock’ whistle blows, but this time they’re back in much greater numbers, bored rigid by four months without much in the way of excitement other than a nice walk in the park, buoyed by the success of the vaccination programme, and those lucky enough to have been unscathed financially by the pandemic have plenty of cash to spend on rewarding themselves with a very shiny watch or handbag for having survived lockdown.

Whilst footfall is still less than half what it should be, people are shopping with intent to spend, not simply idly browsing to pass the time, and in some high-end London retailers, turnover for the last three weeks is around 60 to 80% of the same period in 2019, all without international visitors. Hospitality, which has taken a much bigger hit over the last 14 months, is yet to open in full, but Luxury London is so keen to be out and about and having a good time, even the unseasonably Arctic weather can’t stop them commandeering every inch of available terrace space.

Who else is rather hoping that the outdoor eating trend is here to stay?

The rooftop terrace of The Dorchester, The Berkeley’s Beach Huts, The Savoy and Bowmore’s Solas pop up are some of the chicest possible places to be seen at the moment, even if one has to sip cocktails whilst rugged up in head-to-toe Johnstons of Elgin cashmere. That is, if you can get a table.

I was thinking of this, feeling giddy with hope and optimism, as I walked back to Walpole HQ – very newly reopened – after breakfast yesterday on the 45 Jermyn St. terrace with Rolex’s Richard De Leyser (so great to be wearing a proper suit to a real life meeting, rather than slinging a jacket over my gym kit for a day of Zoom calls). During this hard, bleak Winter and the gloomy Spring of Lockdown 3.0, British luxury could have been forgiven for doing nothing more than ‘keeping on keeping on’, yet over the last three weeks as I’ve visited members’ stores and the many new outdoor cafes and restaurant pop-ups, the evidence that creativity and innovation and beauty can triumph over the trials of Covid has been there at every turn. If you can, visit Harrods for a masterclass in the role of physical retail for the luxury consumer – the new chocolate hall, designed by David Collins Studio, is a thing of wonder, not least for the attention to detail in restoring the historic art nouveau tiling, replacing broken or damaged tiles with ones specially made by hand in the original factory in Staffordshire.

However, there is no getting away from the ravages of a 14-month pandemic, to which has been added the blow of the VAT RES decision and the impact of the Brexit agreement, in which the cost of non-tariff barriers and the impossible small print of ‘tariff free trade’ has threatened to derail many brands. Every single Walpole member has had an unimaginably challenging time. The toll on leaders as they’ve done all things possible to secure their businesses cannot be underestimated. Against such a backdrop, the evidence of imaginative thinking and radical beauty to be found in luxury brands is nothing short of miraculous. I don’t think it’s too much to hope that convalescence will lead in time to recovery, but we will all require patient, diligent nursing to get us back to strength.

As Walpole’s CEO, it’s been interesting to pivot from a primarily face-to-face organisation to one that was, by necessity, digital-only.

Many good things have come from the process – Walpole might be headquartered in London, and London may have always been the shop window of UK luxury, but British luxury brands are based in every corner of the British Isles, from the Outer Hebrides to Cornwall and everywhere between so the ease with which one can bring members together for round-tables, strategy groups, Sustainability Working Groups and webinars, no matter where those members are dialling in from, has been amazing and these kinds of things are here to stay at Walpole.

But as every luxury brand knows, ‘digital-first’ does not mean digital only, and the enforced absence of ‘Real Life’ events and happenings has highlighted how valuable and rewarding – not to mention strong and creative –  relationships are when they’ve been built face to face, particularly at the kind of high-touch occasions Walpole is known for. The one to-one meetings I’ve been able to have since 12th April have been as much of a shot in the arm as my Covid vaccination and have reminded me of the power of the Walpole network, and how carefully it has been built by its members along principles of collaboration and friendship; they’ve been the loveliest of amuse-bouches for the feast of each other’s company I hope we’ll have over the coming months and weeks.

Walpole is busy planning for its first big event since March last year: The Walpole Luxury Summit will be back on 1st July, full of brilliant ideas and insights to kickstart British luxury’s next chapter, and will be held at the new Londoner hotel (not open to the public until September, our Summit will be the first view anyone has had of a magnificent new space. Added to which, Covid-Cautiousness has led us to limit guest numbers to 200 in a space that can fit more than 500, so don’t delay in securing your tickets – look out for details on the Daily Digest). And in November, we will host the annual British Luxury Awards at The Dorchester, by which time the recovery will, I hope, be in full swing, we’ll all be vaccinated up to the eyeballs and ready for a party to rival anything F. Scott Fitzgerald could conjure in The Great Gatsby.

We’ve all been absent from each other this Spring. I can’t be alone in having found it almost unbearably dispiriting. As I write this, I can hear the wind tearing fiercely down the street, knocking off the bin lids and shaking the windows, reminding me of a line of another of Shakespeare’s sonnets – ‘rough winds do shake the darling buds of May’. Rough as this year’s winds have been, I know the buds of success are too strong and too resilient to be shaken from the tree. They will blossom and bear fruit. Let’s raise a glass to that when next we meet.

helen.brocklebank@thewalpole.co.uk
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