How trying to be cool ruined a great British fashion brand

How trying to be cool ruined a great British fashion brand: Liz Jones laments the demise of Jaeger

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UPDATED:

08:49 GMT, 18 April 2012


Fashion entrepreneur Harold Tillman who has sold his majority stake in Jaeger, the business he saved from collapse nearly 10 years ago

Fashion entrepreneur Harold Tillman who has sold his majority stake in Jaeger, the business he saved from collapse nearly 10 years ago

When I visited Jaeger on London's Regent Street in January, I was confronted by row upon row of unappealing, overpriced clothes. There were sludge-coloured opera jackets, 180 cashmere sweaters, mumsy pinafore dresses, 299 snakeskin shift dresses and lots of boxy tailoring.

So it was with little surprise — but much sadness — I heard the news yesterday that the 128-year-old British brand has been sold to a faceless investment group called Better Capital.

Owner Harold Tillman, surely the most charismatic, dandyish man in fashion today, now retains only 10 per cent of what was one of few truly British, family-owned brands. An era is definitely over.

It is all rather ghastly. A
home-grown brand that was trying to invest in new design, that was once
famous for dressing the Duchess of Windsor and Audrey Hepburn in merino
wool, alpaca and camel hair, has foundered. There may be many reasons
for this collapse. The continuing recession. The mild winter, which
means we've not been buying expensive, heavy coats, a Jaeger staple.

And the fact that the brand had, in many ways, abandoned its core customers: middle-aged women from Middle England.

Yet
what has befallen Jaeger seems sudden, given my conversation with
Tillman in January, when I called him after Jaeger published figures
showing profits had fallen by two-thirds.

While admitting 'times are challenging, we won't see profit this year', Tillman was bullish about his beloved brand, and said that the dire figures were because the company had been investing heavily, particularly in Aquascutum.

When I asked why some branches had closed, such as my local store in Taunton, Somerset, he said it was because they were too small. That was a mistake: overlooking the provincial, well-heeled woman (the traditional brand's most loyal customer) in favour of huge stores with high footfall, in places like the Westfield shopping centres in London.

But while putting on a brave face, Tillman admitted his customers had been struggling, and that he had decided to put winter stock on sale in November — instead of waiting until after Christmas, as usual. Of course, the recession wasn't the only problem the brand has faced.

The company was founded in 1884 by Dr Gustav Jaeger, who believed wearing wool and other natural fabrics next to the skin improved health.

It briefly had a heyday in the Seventies, with flared trousers and capes and coats, but fell out of fashion. Shortly afterwards, in 1982, Jaeger sadly abandoned manufacturing in the UK, and now mostly makes its clothes in China.

Tillman, who began his career on Savile Row with tailors Kilgour French and Stanbury, then bought Jaeger when it faced closure in 2003.

 Sold off: Models show off Jaeger's Autumn Winter 2008 collection (left) and Spring Summer 2012 collection during London Fashion Week in September 2011 (right), but the brand has been ruined by trying to be cool

Sold off: Models show off Jaeger's Autumn Winter 2008 collection (left) and Spring Summer 2012 collection during London Fashion Week in September 2011 (right), but the brand has been ruined by trying to be cool

Sold off: Models show off Jaeger's Autumn Winter 2008 collection (left) and Spring Summer 2012 collection during London Fashion Week in September 2011 (right), but the brand has been ruined by trying to be cool

At the time, it had a reputation for dowdy tweed and pleated skirts — an image Tillman has been trying to shake off.

Yet various attempts to launch trendier sub-brands haven't quite worked: Jaeger Black, Jaeger London, the cheaper (some would say desperate) Jaeger Boutique.

Owner Harold Tillman, surely the most
charismatic, dandyish man in fashion, now retains 10 per cent
of what was one of few truly British, family-owned brands

The nub of the problem is that Jaeger's prices (560 for a winter coat from Jaeger London) are too high for a brand that is not a Prada or a Marni or a Vuitton. Next door to Jaeger on Regent Street, in the much cheaper Banana Republic, you can snap up well made, gorgeous, grown-up pieces for a fraction of the price. To sum up: the competition got an awful lot fiercer.

And no matter what the brand's chief executive, Belinda Earl, tried to do, the label didn't quite manage to attain that all-important 'cool', although it had its fair share of shoots in Vogue magazine.

The truth is, and it pains me to write this, Jaeger sorely needed an Alexa Chung, someone to do what she did for Mulberry: wear it, love it, sling it around and party in it. Make us hyperventilate for, if not the evening dress or the coat or the bag, at least a wallet or the new scent.

Traditional: One of Jaeger's 1963 designs - a white sleeveless suit and tan checked coat

Traditional: One of Jaeger's 1963 designs – a white sleeveless suit and tan checked coat

Jaeger tried to be all things to all women. It tried to modernise without alienating the customer who wants an outfit for her daughter's wedding or the office, yet didn't (or doesn't — it's still operating and no plans to close more stores have been mooted) have the cachet to attract the trend-setters, who get the brand photographed and make it fashionable.

Few celebrities of note regularly wear Jaeger, although Gordon Brown's wife Sarah, Helen Mirren and even Kate Moss have all been spotted in the brand on occasion. Kate Middleton has been seen at Jaeger with her mother, although even someone as conservative as the Duchess prefers the edgier, cheaper brand Reiss.

Jaeger tried valiantly to emulate the success of Burberry and Mulberry. With much fanfare (and cost), it took to the London catwalk back in 2008.

Styled by British Vogue's famously bohemian fashion director, Lucinda Chambers, and designed by Helen Storey, who made her name in the Eighties, no expense was spared.

Hair was by the legendary Sam McKnight, while the casting of models-of-the-moment was done by Russell Marsh — not a household name, but in fashion circles known as both influential and expensive.

There were shaggy brown and black goat hair bomber jackets, flared trousers and capes: it was all a bit Sixties. It got great press, but the core customer, the middle-aged, Middle England customer, who has felt so excluded from the Topshops and the Zara’s, felt abandoned and a bit betrayed.

Of course, there may be reasons for Jaeger’s collapse that go far beyond the clothes. Harold Tillman is a very hands-on chairman of the British Fashion Council and this, combined with his age — 66 — has made it hard for him to cope with the workload.

That Belinda Earl, who made her name by inventing ‘Designers at Debenhams’ and was behind Jaeger’s reinvention as fashionable rather than fusty, was signed off on sick leave by her doctors last November — and resigned due to serious ill health in January — cannot have helped.

A male model posing in thick, cosy shawl-neck jumper from Jaeger

Model Posed in Cape 330, Jaeger Boutique at House of Fraser

Too cool: A male Jaeger model posing in a thick shawl-neck jumper (left) and a model posing in a Cape 330

There was more bad news yesterday when it was announced that luxury fashion brand Aquascutum, a ‘heritage’ brand that made its name dressing British soldiers in World War I and which was rescued by Tillman and Jaeger in 2009, has been placed into administration.

For Jaeger’s part, the brand’s last London Fashion Week show was for spring/summer 2012, meaning it took place in September 2011.

Designer Stuart Stockdale, according to American Vogue, ‘sent a few misfires’ down the runway: too many oversize collars and bows, although the mustards and nautical stripes were reminiscent of Jaeger’s early Seventies heyday.

The collection also featured perfect, pretty two-pieces for those ladies who lunch that reminded me of Jasper Conran at his best. Which makes me all sad again this brand has failed.

My rust Jaeger winter coat is the warmest I have ever owned. But fashion is a tough, merciless business. It takes no prisoners.