Few British brands are as widely recognised as Dunhill. And no other carries such a pleasing whiff of English gentlemanly interests. The brand was established in the early twentieth century around the idea of an emerging Englishman indulging new passions, and atspeed. Dunhill is a brand born of the enthusiasms of one man, Alfred Dunhill. And, in his day, the brand was thrillingly modern. But that was quite a long time ago.
Alfred turned his father's saddlery business into a diffuse and diverse luxury goods brand way back before other companies took a similar initiative. Dunhill provided everything from pipes, leather goods, lighters and tobacco to board games, cricket ballsand fishing rods. It moved into timepieces, now celebrated for their ingenuity and design daring. But Alfred's heart was reallyina range he called "Motorities": kit for the gentleman, ornot sogentlemanly, motorist. There were dashboard clocks, carcoatsand "Bobby Finders", binoculars-cum-goggles which Dunhillclaimed were invaluable aids in spotting pesky roadside policemen (he had recently been fined £1 for topping 22 miles an hour). "Dunhill wasn't just masculine," says Dunhill marketing director Paddy Byng. "It was also quirky. Dunhill had an English identity and eccentricity. The product made people smile."
Dunhill also prefigured the modern luxury goods market with its international ambitions. It opened a Paris store in 1924 and pushed into Japan and the Far East, even China, long before others saw the sense of it. But Dunhill's expansion in product lines and markets led to confusion around its brand identity at the end of the last century. Particular aspects of the business prospered in different territories and no one seemed to know what the brand stood for.
The Swiss-based, South African luxury goods giant, Richemont, which owns brands from Cartier and Piaget to English gunsmith James Purdey, picked up Dunhill in 1993, seeing a marque with huge potential. In 2001, Simon Critchell, who had been president of Cartier for ten years and then CEO of Richemont in North America, was parachuted in to put Dunhill back on track .
Dunhill needed to redefine its game. "There was an opportunity to get back to the brand's roots," says Byng. And that meant going back to the original passions and pursuits of young Alfred. "We really wanted to concentrate on the core competencies: leather goods, menswear and watches," says Byng. And to rediscover motoring and travel as an over-arching motif.
Critchell decided that this required expertise in all these areas. So instead of searching out one designer, Dunhill recruited four. In ayear, Critchell bagged leather specialist Bill Amberg; vintage watch authority Tom Bolt; Nick Ashley, menswear designer, motorcyle nut and son of Laura, who had built a successful business selling biking-based casualwear; and Richard James, tailor to the stars and the modern face of Savile Row. All four responded to the call.
"I was thrilled when they approached me," says Amberg. "Dunhill is a wonderful brand. I love its history. It was a brand that had been sleepy and tired. It just needed the fire put back." Ashley admits that he was a little suspicious initially. "They are a large corporation and I'd had enough of that with the family company. But they have given me carte blanche, listened to what I have said and taken my advice, even beyond my design brief. I suggested Dunhill sponsor the Paris to Peking rally, which they are going to do in 2007. It's so right for them because it is a little bit Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It's not Formula One, which has become a shambles, or the Gumball Rally which is a bit bling and flash. This is twiddling moustaches and Cohibas in the cubby hole, more good taste."
"Simon asked me to re-evaluate the watch range," says Bolt. "He took me through the archive and asked if there were watches which I could update." Bolt has produced new designs to take Dunhill forward, like his "Bobby Finder" watch, which plays with Alfred's cop-dodging bino-goggles. But he has also re-shaped older designs for contemporary tastes. "I prefer updating the old styles, cutting the cases in a different way. It's like the old Mini and the new Mini."
Richard James faced a different proposition. "The archive is less useful to me," he says. "I needed to cull what they were doing. There was too much going on. Dunhill had four silhouettes and we have brought that down to one. It was also an international brand and needs to be a British brand that is international."
All the designers are clear that they have to re-interpret, re-style and upgrade in all areas rather than just rehash. "I think you have to re-interpret the spirit of Dunhill," says Amberg. "If you look at the Motorities bag range I have designed, the bags are very modern in the technology and the way they function (all include iPod pockets for instance). But they also have a hint of nostalgia."
For Dunhill, re-invention has to be delicately handled. "Of course we want to hang on to our core customers. It's a balancing act," accepts Byng. "But we're not a directional fashion brand. Our job is to make the product more modern and more relevant."
All parties know this is more than a PR exercise for Dunhill. "It was clear from the earliest conversations," says Amberg, "that it wasn't just a matter of using my name. Dunhill made it clear I had to justify their decision to use me. They gave me pretty much free reign. But they knew I would respect the brand."
Despite the efforts of not one but four designers, there has been no miracle turn-around at Dunill yet. It takes time for the designs to filter through to retail. In early June, Richemont announced the resignation of Simon Critchell. Christopher Colfer, just 36, who has been involved in the development of Richemont properties, Chloé, Hackett and Purdey, has replaced him. Some observers have commented that the move seems to signal that the Dunhill recovery is taking a little longer than they would like. However, Richemont has no intention of selling Dunhill, as it did Hackett earlier this year. And Byng insists that the brand is sticking with its four designers and the broad policy put in place by Critchell.
Dunhill is in a tough but highly lucrative market. And the announcement of ambitious expansion plans by Porsche Design, another luxury men's accessories company trading on automotive associations, suggests that it is only going toget tougher. The luxury goods groups want to trade cash for cachet with the new model international executive, amanprepared to spend heavily on luggage, BlackBerry cases, statement watches, mufti Friday casualwear and power-breakfast formals. Dunhill's new designers are devising product ranges that such a man might feel not just necessary but also enjoy; feel the passion, delight in the details, get the joke. Dunhill are selling the idea of masculinity as thrilling movement done with style, wit, and just enough gentlemanly restraint. Just like Alfred.
Words Nick Compton