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Breaking News: What Went Wrong For Jonathan Saunders?

What went wrong at Jonathan Saunders? We look at the luxury British brand's data and online strategy alongside J.W.Anderson, Christopher Kane and Roksanda.

The news yesterday that Jonathan Saunders is to close up shop was met with industry-wide shock. The British label, founded in 2003, is well loved. Its fashion week shows are one of London’s hottest picks. And things were looking rosy; in January the brand scooped an investor, Eiesha Bharti Pasricha an Indian businesswoman also invested in Roksanda, and appointed a CEO in July. The brand’s namesake and creative director cited personal reasons for the closure, though the press has hinted at financial strife too.

It’s a shame to lose one of the brands that led the London-centred print revolution – and one which has had an impact on retail. The brand was instrumental in the uptake of color blocking. Spring 2011’s crisp, punchy palette, sheer florals and bold stripes set the bar for retailers. Spring 2013 wrote the script on ombré prints, touted metallic fabrics and added kudos to the bomber jacket, which is still a runaway retail hit. And few can forget Fall 2015’s hammering home of the Seventies message.

The brand had real commercial sway, so why couldn’t it hold its own commercially?

With data on hand, we can see how the brand stacks up globally. At first glance, it’s apparent penetration is an issue, especially when compared to equally matured British designers. There are currently 722 Jonathan Saunders products in stock at global retailers, compared to over 1,500 items from J.W.Anderson (five years younger than the Saunders brand), over 2,000 from Roksanda, more than 3,000 from Mary Katrantzou and 4,400 from Christopher Kane.

Within those figures lies some deeper breakdown of issues, with some key international stockists missing from Jonathan Saunders’ line-up. Roksanda, Christopher Kane and Mary Katrantzou are all stocked by Nordstrom, for example. Selfridges is also absent at roll call. So too are Browns (who stock Kane, Katrantzou and Roksanda), Chinese retailer Shangpin (Anderson, Roksanda, Kane and Katrantzou), influential Hong Kong retailer Lane Crawford (stocks Roksanda), Barneys (stocks Kane) and Neiman Marcus (Kane and Katrantzou). The UK retailers missing amongst that list are troubling, given the home soil they share, but luxury designers today need to lure global consumers in order to survive. It’s almost certain this is key to the brand coming unstuck.

What’s more, Jonathan Saunders never dipped its own toes into retail. Its website showcases collections, but doesn’t optimise on that interest – there’s nothing to buy. Mary Katrantzou and J.W.Anderson have been savvy in getting into ecommerce, which for the first time enables designer brands to have direct contact with their consumers without the  vying for a costly storefront in the right shopping streets. This access to consumer allows a brand to control the exact experience their shoppers receive. Logistics around this are tricky to implement at first, but a worthwhile win and a critical feedback loop which can inform product direction free from the strong opinion of buyers at a stockist.

Taking a look at the timing of new Jonathan Saunders products shows there may have been delivery issues or, because the brand wasn’t manufacturing on a large enough scale, they were limited by the number of drops in a season. May, June, July and November, December, January see next to no new arrivals from the brand. That’s something Mary Katrantzou and Christopher Kane have fixed as they’ve matured as a brand, their calendars show year-round new product arrivals. This year, Roksanda have also raised the stakes and delivered high levels of newness. Customers like this. So do retailers. They need fresh product coming into store as it acts as a drip feed for consumers – consumers whose attention will be grabbed by a competitor if they’re not kept engaged throughout the season.

Then we can go a layer deeper, and look at the product behind those stats. An assortment breakdown shows Jonathan Saunders perhaps doesn’t place enough emphasis on dresses, at 26% of currently stocked assortment. That’s compared to 40% at Mary Katrantzou and 41% at Roksanda. The other designers used in this comparison have all dabbled in footwear, though minimally, while Jonathan Saunders has not.

But it’s accessories where the big wins in opening up an audience lie in luxury retail today. The designer had scarves stocked at Liberty and Matches, as well as sunglasses at Liberty and David Jones in Australia. But given the print-emphasis, this could have been extended out into a full merch offering. Bags have been a focus for Christopher Kane and J.W.Anderson and Mary Katrantzou has made serious inroads in this direction too. They’re a recession-proof category and when merchandised correctly, can accommodate a range of price points through various sizes of styles and adding in wallets. It works two-fold: creating an entry-level price point to lure new consumers and gives a brand a chance of creating a product with cult status, which can propel you through a couple of seasons.

There are lessons here. Firstly, though hard to implement, brands simply have to take the efforts required to own their retailing. In 2015 it should be core to luxury strategy. What better message to send to stockists worldwide if in-house you’re able to talk about your consumer base and their specific needs? It’s a marketing and bartering tool. Secondly, merchandise needs to hit a series of price points. If your brand is known for print, centre accessories around this. If they’re known for knit, trial homeware pieces. The peripheral consumers these pieces reach may become loyal shoppers across the brand.

Honouring orders for the Jonathan Saunders Spring 2016 collection, you’ll have to move fast to grab a piece of British print history. The chevron-striped cami dresses and sash-waisted floral silk tops would have been sell outs even without news of the closure. Previous data shows Net-a-Porter and Matches are likely onto those. With his trend-savvy we don’t think it’ll be too long before Saunders crops up elsewhere. We’ll be rooting for him.

In the meantime, here’s some of the best-selling products from the Jonathan Saunders archives: