Boden USA: The label has made a fashion fortune from selling a picture-perfect British lifestyle – but now its founder is gambling on a bigger prize
01:38 GMT, 25 March 2012
On a windswept beach in Dorset, an angelic, rosy-cheeked little girl plays in the sand with her bucket and spade, wearing a brightly spotted swimming costume with a decorative ruffle around the neck.
It is an idyllic scene, evoking an enviable and very British lifestyle – traditional, yet fun, and affluent, but not flashy.
For millions of devotees, it brings to mind one word: Boden.
Hollywood hit: Actress Jennifer Garner with husband Ben Affleck and their daughter Violet, wearing a Boden dress
Over the past few years, the clothing label has been little short of ubiquitous in this country, worn by yummy mummies on the school run, youthful fathers during their leisure time and their picture-perfect, mini-me children.
It is not just a brand, but a lifestyle fantasy, denoting its wearers’ aspirations and symbolising their values. But every hugely popular clothing brand risks becoming a victim of its own success.
In recent months, there have been murmurings of discontent on the mumsnet website and other outlets for thirty- and fortysomething women who form the company’s heartland.
Boden has faced accusations that its products are too expensive in the current economic climate and its image too ‘smug’.
Customers have complained of being bombarded with catalogues on a wearyingly frequent basis with little difference between the wrap dresses and raincoats in the latest and previous ones.
Enduring style: Classic image of a model in a swimsuit from the catalogue
The fact the brand has resolutely refused to evolve its trademark style has led to a sense of over-familiarity. Mothers are starting to tire of turning up to the school gates all wearing something immediately identifiable as Boden.
There are also several rumours that the company’s latest accounts will show a slump in sales, which Boden denies.
Indeed, its last accounts, until the end of 2010, showed that Johnnie Boden, the label’s old Etonian founder, appeared to have found the formula to beat the recession, with worldwide turnover increasing by 15 per cent to 232 million on the previous year.
In Britain and the continent, it increased from 133.9 million in 2009 to 152 million in 2010, although this was partly due to some clever cost-cutting.
However, Johnnie also has other, more ambitious, tricks up his sleeve to ensure that the company remains successful.
Having already expanded into Germany, Austria and France, Boden is focusing its attention on achieving success in the most difficult market of all, the United States.
Despite its reputation as a quintessentially British brand, it has been in America that Boden has experienced the most impressive growth.
Although Boden has been available in the US for ten years, there has been a massive marketing push over the past 12 months with American sales now accounting for about 30 per cent of all revenues worldwide.
It has been a gamble for the company, which began life in 1991 when failed stockbroker Johnnie conceived the idea for a menswear catalogue at his kitchen table with just eight items of clothing.
But Johnnie’s aim is for Boden to become a household name in the US.
Last year, the company doubled the size of its warehouse in Pennsylvania, to keep more stock and fulfil orders more quickly.
Its holding company was also completely restructured to support the push into the American market.
In recent months, a new head of US marketing has been hired, along with a whole new marketing team, with the intention of increasing Boden’s turnover from a predicted current figure of $150 million (95 million) to $500 million (316 million).
Baby's bonnet: Sex And The City star Kristin Davis swings her daughter Gemma as the infant sports a pretty hat from Boden
‘Our major plan is to treble the US business in size,’ says Boden’s managing director Julian Granville, who is currently working from America.
‘There are exciting growth opportunities in the States. The American market is a very competitive one so it’s difficult, but it’s also a market we’ve found very receptive.’
He adds: ‘Our American customers are a similar kind of people to our customers in the UK, in terms of their values and aspirations. They’re similar in Germany, too. We’ve found lots of customers all over the world who buy into our brand values.’
But Granville insists that the focus on America does not imply a diminishing interest in the company’s home market.
‘We’re still growing in the UK too, although the market has been really tough for everyone recently – including us,’ he says.
But there are signs the strategy is paying off. First Lady Michelle Obama – whose style features a combination of designer labels and high street brands such as J. Crew – requested a Boden catalogue in 2009.
Bright future: Reality TV star Kelly Bensimon does wonders for the brand's overseas image in a Boden Colourblock tunic dress
Actress Jennifer Garner and actor husband Ben Affleck have dressed daughter Violet in Mini Boden gear – as has Kristin Davis with adopted daughter Gemma.
Other US celebrities – including AnnaSophia Robb, who is set to become a massive star as the young Carrie Bradshaw in the Sex And The City prequel, and reality TV show star Kelly Bensimon – have also been photographed wearing Boden clothes.
The company’s designs are starting to infiltrate US fashion magazines, too. A vintage swimsuit in navy bloom, costing $58, appears in this month’s American edition of Marie Claire in a feature headlined Most Wanted Under $100.
And a recent issue of Woman’s Day magazine featured Boden’s Ravello top in navy feather.
Brand experts say the company’s American expansion is part of a strategic move not to ‘put all their eggs in the British basket’.
The company is keen to avoid the same fate as Laura Ashley, which became synonymous with the English middle classes in the Seventies and Eighties – but suffered a decline when trends changed in the Nineties.
‘It’s eminently sensible to look at America,’ says Neil Saunders, managing director of retail research agency Conlumino. ‘A lot of British retailers are finding that they are much more successful overseas than in Britain at the moment.
‘Growth is much easier in a new market and right now, the British retail market is much less robust than the American one.
‘American consumers are still spending at decent levels. Boden’s approach is giving them a much more balanced portfolio than if they put all their eggs in the British basket. That would have left them vulnerable because anything which has a particular signature look associated with it will lose its appeal eventually – unless it completely changes.’
Indeed, Boden’s distinctive look could work against it in the long run.
‘It’s a static product – it doesn’t change much from year to year,’ says Honor Westnedge, retail analyst at Verdict.
‘Unless it works hard to stay fresh, it risks losing its customers.’
The company has tried several other measures in its bid to stay on top, including launching its own online ‘community’ in which like-minded people can converse about leather totes and learn how to bake the perfect Victoria sandwich.
Last year it also launched a new Limited Edition range, aimed at a slightly younger customer, with more sophisticated, elegant pieces in luxurious fabrics.
It attracted criticism for its designer-level prices, but it is in its American expansion that the brand’s hopes really lie.
Boden is well aware of its biggest selling point, which is its quintessential Britishness.
Cleverly, it has realised that it is that quality which makes it so popular with foreigners who associate this country with class and a slightly idiosyncratic sense of style. Indeed, the label now has more non-British customers than British ones. The belief is that Boden women exist all over the world – shopping at farmers’ markets, devoting long hours to playing with their children and baking cakes – and it is simply a question of targeting them.
Liz Thody, fashion director of Easy Living magazine, believes this gives Boden something unique to offer America, which could make it a real success there.
Fashion statement: Old Etonian Johnnie Boden seemed to defy the recession with his label's accounts at the end of 2010, and is now poised to go much further
She says: ‘It makes a lot of sense that it would do well there as Americans can’t get enough of anything British. Here, its online business and catalogues have given women with children an extremely easy way of getting clothing with a nod to labels like Marni – but without being too expensive or overtly fashionable.
‘It could do the same for American women. What distinguishes Boden from America’s own mid-market brands is its quirkiness and eccentricity, which you see in the prints and embellishments.
‘There’s nothing quite like it in the US market.’
Boden’s marketing team are well aware of the appeal of British clothing in America – particularly in light of the enormous popularity of the Duchess of Cambridge across the Atlantic, and fascination with her clean, classic style. It is no coincidence that Boden’s online advertisements are accompanied by stories about Kate, her sister Pippa Middleton and footballer David Beckham – another British celebrity well known in the US for his fashion sense.
The label has also been careful to retain many of its recognisably British aspects.
Its American catalogues and website feature the same pictures as the British versions, with their aspirational images of women pruning the roses in their English country gardens and children jumping in puddles in rainy Norfolk.
What distinguishes Boden from
America’s own mid-market brands is its quirkiness and eccentricity,
which you see in the prints and embellishments. There’s nothing quite like it in the US market.
Trousers are called trousers, rather than ‘pants’, and shoppers placing an order with Boden USA by telephone will hear the recorded voice of its founder saying: ‘Thank you for calling Boden, Johnnie Boden speaking.’
The catalogue does not even feature US prices in dollars, but refers customers to its website.
It currently has half a million American customers and, perhaps not surprisingly, the brand has proved to be most popular among women with children and high incomes, just as it has here.
California is its biggest market, but Boden is also relatively well-known in other affluent, metropolitan cities, including Seattle, Washington and Boston. However, fashion industry experts from across the US warn that becoming a household name there will be an uphill struggle for Boden – and it still has a long way to go.
Marshal Cohen, chief fashion industry analyst for researcher NPD Group in New York, says: ‘One of the greatest challenges is the vast difference between the American and British fashion markets. A formula that works in Britain won’t necessarily work in America.
‘A great brand reputation in Britain doesn’t count for much in the US. A company has to earn its reputation with American consumers.
‘The British fashion market is about design and product quality but the American market is about price and brand.
‘The American consumer wants the pride of saying they can afford an established brand. But if you’re selling online and through catalogues like Boden, rather than through high street stores, it’s much harder to establish a brand.
‘The American market is also so big and fragmented that it’s harder for consumers to find a brand among thousands of competitors.’
But despite the murmurings that Boden may be past its peak in Britain, and no matter the challenges the company faces in making a real impact in America, few would bet against the brand that has become a middle-class cult.
In the not-too-distant future, if Boden succeeds in its mission, school runs all over the world will be full of mothers dressed in the company’s ‘ditsy print’ wrap dresses and Rainyday Macs.