“Is this where I buy my post-apocalypse, anti-zombie wardrobe?” It seemed a logical question, standing there amongst salesclerks draped in black leather, urban-directional clothing on steel racks and columns sheathed in riveted plating.
Asked of a particularly deft salesclerk, he managed a quiet chuckle in response then shared a story about the unoccupied shops above the store. He told us they look as if the shopkeepers rushed out with their goods and abandoned everything else. “It’s apocalyptic,” said this employee of the London-based retailer, AllSaints.
Devotees of the AllSaints look call it “vintage industrial” or “rocker/biker chic,” while the less enthused say it appears “vampire-ready “or “dark and brooding.” Love it or not, expect a $1,400 ticket for the woman’s outfit, $1,100 for the man’s.
The apocalypse visual has been applied by more than a few to the look pervading the store interiors and the high street fashions of AllSaints. The retailer is making inroads among the young and narrow-hipped set in the US and elsewhere. As is the curse among tightly scripted design visions, a nearly even split exists between defenders and detractors.
AllSaints Goes Marching In
A wall of sewing machines behind the glass storefront at 700 North Michigan greets passersby on this well-known Chicago street. Later we learned many of these machines were shipped in from the UK, some with notes tucked inside from their previous owners. One former owner wrote, “Please take good care of my old Singer.”
Fashion forward retailer or sewing machine repair? Go behind the glass at 700 North Michigan to find out. (photo: conciergepreferred.com)
The AllSaints windows part with Michigan Avenue convention. No mannequins, fresh color, nor obvious messaging. The street side presentation was a code whose translation could be accomplished only by going behind the glass, seeing what was there and what it meant.
Sewing machines for the Chicago store windows came from all over, some with handwritten notes from the previous owners. (photo: nomenu.com)
Consequently, we entered AllSaints. What began as a quick drop-in transformed into a peek inside the marketing mindset of a global fashion retailer, one of the world’s fastest growing. Ironically, it is the same one whose leading investment firm recently fired the man who expanded and grew the business.
What an interesting detour this became, considering the impromptu interview, a few photos and some poking around on the Internet. Masked by high street fashions up front, a roiling struggle has taken place far from view.
Control the Message
Calvin Klein lived by this. He visited his own boutiques to test the staff’s adroitness at communicating his vision and fashion direction. Apparently AllSaints lives by it, too.
The interior of an AllSaints store provokes a love it or leave it response amongst shoppers. The retro-tech, Jules Verne-meets-deconstructionist ambiance finds highest acceptance among those who love the clothes.
Alfie (not his real name) told us about the urban, 18-30 year-old target market, that the company only sells products it designs and manufactures, that care in the details makes the garments unique and durable, and, finally, that the Spring/Summer theme was ‘Texture Clashing.’
Alfie hit all the marks. He added a number of details about the designs, materials and how production put many people back to work in factories that had been shuttered, or nearly so. Media information from AllSaints touts equipment and techniques “unique in the world,” how this combination produces materials that have a look and feel possible only through these “secret recipes” and the “temperate conditions of the surrounding area.”
As I went on a photographic walk-about, Alfie imparted another set of significant details to a staff member who joined me that day. New hires receive a wardrobe allowance to be spent on assembling the correct seasonal look. All of the stores have a stylist on the payroll who helps employees create the AllSaints look. What remains from the initial allowance is for refreshing theses wardrobes through the seasons, under the guidance of the store’s stylist.
Whether other high-end stores do this is uncertain. At AllSaints it creates continuity between what is on the racks, the mannequins and the staff, as if there is some dress code in force. The staff certainly looks the part. They appear to belong, harmonized with the environment.
Heavy iron cast with AllSaints logos is interspersed with the real things. Most of the vintage equipment has been modified into racks, shelves for clothing displays.
Some have criticized this, writing about the inability to tell the salesclerks apart from the hipster shoppers. Others have gone further. Irene S. wrote about “a customer service army disguised as highly, highly attractive models slinking in every corner.”
On the other hand, with my wool overcoat and penny loafers, I was thankful that the coat’s dark gray color camouflaged me. Nobody was going to mistake me for belonging in an AllSaints store.
Owning the Look
Variously defined as “steampunk-ish,” “rocker/biker chic,” “a seriously good thing,” and “vintage industrial,” AllSaints does not try to be everything to everyone. Detractors say that the UK sizing leaves out “regular-sized” Americans, that salesclerks from Boston to NYC, Chicago and Seattle are helpful on a ‘hit or miss’ basis, and the policy of store credit on refunds is a real turn off.
Of the style, those less enamored define it as “vampire-friendly,” “dark and brooding” or as vernacular interpretations of Helmut Lang or Rick Owens. The AllSaints website has been cited as not user friendly and sometimes purchases are very slow in shipping. The price of merchandise receives comments of every stripe: acceptable; endurable; or unbearable.
This is the season of Texture Clashing at AllSaints. Serving as our guide, Alfie described the layering and mismatching that expresses the theme. He said some customers balk at paying full retail—just remember AllSaints has strong discounts during sales.
That said, the garments and accessories, in my view, were competitively priced. For men, walking out with one complete example of the AllSaints look would cost about $1,100 (jacket, shirt, tee, jeans and boots). For women, figure about $1,400 (jacket, cardigan, jeans, boots and jewelry). All of which prompted another story from Alfie.
“We can tell the customers who are buying with money they earned versus those who are buying on their parent’s credit card.” He said the prices were a too steep for him right now as a college student, but he would be a steady customer after graduating and finding work using his degree.
The college student accompanying me that day said the very same thing. Again, I found it a good moment to take more photos, as that specific college student is claimed as a deduction on my tax return.
AllSaints by the Numbers
Over 100 branded shops and in-store concessions exist in the UK, US and Europe to provide customers with AllSaints goods. The company’s website provides another means of delivering “sharp, directional clothing” that occupies “a unique position in the fashion retail sector,” as espoused by company media releases. The collection includes men’s and women’s graphic tees, jersey, denim, casualwear, leathers, tailoring and accessories. (Jersey is Brit-speak for wool or cotton knit sleeved pullovers.) About 2,500 employees worked at creating £200m in sales for AllSaints, according to their majority owner’s website.
AllSaints style comes from a perspective on fashion that, in Anna Wintour’s words, takes cues from the street and raises them up, rather than starting at the level of couture, then drifting down to what we see on the street.
Befitting this retailers confusing ownership tussles of recent years, there seems to be disagreement over who founded AllSaints. In some media, Kait Bolongaro and Stuart Trevor are said to have conjured up the AllSaints vision in 1994 and opened the first of 10 stores under their supervision in 1997. Then, starting in 2004 and concluding at the end of 2005, the retailer was bought out, partner-by-partner, by British fashion financier Kevin Stanford.
Stories in the British media during the last three years make no mention of Bolongaro and Trevor, citing Stanford as “chairman of AllSaints, the high street store he founded in 1994.”
Maybe it makes little difference. Seven years later, after borrowing heavily from Icelandic banks to fund AllSaints’ global expansion, and selling 85% of the business to investors so as to avoid bankruptcy, Kevin Stanford was fired. He now joins the others as previous employees of the firm, although he still owns 15% (as best we can tell).
Friction Behind the Fashion
In 2006, after he completed his acquisition of AllSaints from Bolongaro and Trevor 2005, Mr. Stanford sold a 35% stake in the business to the Baugur Group. Led by Jon Asgeir Johannesson, Baugur’s holdings on London’s high street rivaled Mr. Stanford’s. Though ran from London, Baugur was an Icelandic firm, funded by Iceland’s investment banks.
Increasing the number of stores in Europe and beyond might have been what Kevin Stanford had in mind when he sold 35% of AllSaints to the Iceland-based Baugur Group in 2006. Within three years, Baugur filed bankruptcy papers and it emerged that Mr. Stanford had £344m in debts to Icelandic banks.
While the living was rich and the borrowing was easier, Mr. Stanford and Mr. Johannesson became fast friends, sharing interests in racing, cars and fashion. The British media chart a number of intertwined schemes that involve these two, their businesses and their Icelandic banks. Much of this was just business as usual until the foundations quickly crumbled beneath all of them.
Set in motion by the tremors on Wall Street, the ripples that reached Iceland—an island about the size of Kentucky with approximately 300,000 residents—had developed into tidal waves.
The banks collapsed. The Baugur Group collapsed. When Baugur went down, its investments were damaged, though not as much as the ensuing recession would cause. Not only were Baugur’s UK assets ensnared, so too was one in the US: Saks Fifth Avenue. Baugur held an 8% stake, although it seems to have had little effect on the legendary retailer’s business.
Multiple charges against Mr. Johannesson, once considered the “poster boy” for Iceland’s rise to global banking prominence, are winding their way through Icelandic courts.
Mr Stanford, too, has had his share of troubles. About the time Baugur was collapsing in 2009, it emerged that Mr. Stanford owed one Icelandic bank £344m.
AllSaints Changes Hands Again
While AllSaints had done the unexpected in creating new work for low-tech, old world factories in tiny villages, the benefactor itself turned out to need as much help—or more.
The sequence of events has a happier ending for AllSaints than some of the other businesses owned by either Baugur or Kevin Stanford. Personally ousted from his leadership position at AllSaints, as of now Mr. Stanford faces no criminal charges.
Colors of the moment break up the generally black, gray and brown offerings that seem to define AllSaints. Seattle and San Francisco customers suggest these darker tones fit well into their often overcast, foggy, rainy environs—which can be similar at times to London.
March 2009 The Baugur retail group files for bankruptcy with £1bn in debts. Following Baugur’s filing, their banks eventually received AllSaints. The banks later collapsed as well.
May 2011 Lion Capital and US-based Goode Partners purchase a £105m, 76% stake in AllSaints from the administrators over the two defunct Icelandic banks. Lion’s media releases state the firm’s eagerness to work with Mr. Stanford (who kept 15% of the company) and plans for further expansion of AllSaints into a £1bn business, including a push into the US. (The remaining shares of the business were divided among a number of investors.)
January 2012 Lion Capital suspends Kevin Stanford from his role as chairman, ending his day-to-day involvement.
March 2012 Goode Partners sells its stake to Lion Capital following months of disagreements between Goode and Lion over how to deal with the retailer’s management.
October 2012 Lion Capital fires Kevin Stanford following a long-running dispute with the private equity firm. Lion was reportedly trying to buy the owner’s share of AllSaints. Lion Captial’s founder Lyndon Lea takes an active role in managing AllSaints according to reports in the British media. (Other fashion holdings of Lion Capital include American Apparel, Jimmy Choo, John Varvatos, Alain Afflelou and La Senza.)
What AllSaints Means
There is a fundamental truth and vision connected to AllSaints that makes it a good lesson for our industry. The backroom wrangling is of interest as a wonky pleasure, but it is also instructive. Taking someone’s money creates a business partner. Taking lots of their money can create a steamroller. Despite it all, the look and feel of the goods has not suffered.
Will AllSaints become a global powerhouse, with annual sales of £1bn, under the stewardship of Lion Capital? Sharp focus on a specific vision and exceptional standards of quality in production as practiced at AllSaints may not be fondly received by private equity ownership. Telltale signs of change will be when AllSaints stores wedge in-between the Gap and PacSun at suburban malls.
Stores can be visited in most of the expected US cities and elsewhere in the world. Somewhere, the people running the business took care of the business throughout the corporate ups and downs. That included remaining true to the standards of design and quality established almost 20 years ago.
Why take any of this on the word of someone else? Next time you see a storefront stacked with black Singer sewing machines, walk inside. Look around. Let me know your impressions of AllSaints—after you get your anti-zombie wardrobe.
After AllSaints, stop by your Hyundai dealer for one of these anti-zombie roadsters—your days of tipping the valet are over.