The very first time that I went to China, one of my first ports of call was Lane Crawford, where the boutiques are world class, very forward thinking and respected across the industry. It was therefore to the President of Lane Crawford, and Joyce, Andrew Keith, who I turned to for MBS’ webinar on learnings from Asia during Covid-19, the second in our webinar series.
The iconic, luxury department store Lane Crawford is the flagship business of The Lane Crawford Joyce Group, one of the world’s most influential and respected luxury fashion retailer groups. Alongside Lane Crawford, the Group also includes cutting edge fashion boutique Joyce which Andrew also helms; fashion footwear, bags and accessories specialist Pedder Group; and fashion, beauty and lifestyle brand management and distribution business ImagineX Group. Headquartered in Hong Kong, the Group operates luxury department stores and boutiques, freestanding branded stores, e-commerce and omni-channel operations, with more than 550 points of sale across Greater China and South East Asia. Lane Crawford has four stores in Hong Kong, two stores in Beijing, one in Shanghai and one in Chengdu, as well as a global online store; and one specifically for the China market.
I’ve known Andrew for about 25 years – and it has been a pleasure to see the scale of his impact at Lane Crawford and the luxury industry world over. As President, Andrew has been at the forefront of navigating the uncertain waters and guiding his organisation through the coronavirus crisis. Asia has been slowly emerging from restrictions and as businesses return to a semblance of normality, it was fascinating to hear his experiences of the last few months.
Having lived through uncertainty and unrest due to the riots in Hong Kong only months before, Lane Crawford already had a crisis response team in place, which pivoted to spearhead the response to the pandemic. Unlike the UK, Europe and the US, all stores have remained open in Hong Kong and mainland China throughout this period (with the exception of one Lane Crawford store in Beijing – which could not open because the mall in which it is located temporarily closed). Hong Kong has never been in lockdown. Their priorities were not just to keep operations running, but to also remain connected with customers and ensuring the wellbeing of colleagues and customers alike.
“One key challenge was a staffing issue,” Andrew told the CEOs, Presidents and Chairs on the call. “Travel restrictions were rolled out right at the time of Chinese New Year, which meant many of our warehouse and store teams were stuck in their respective hometowns where they had been visiting family over the holidays. Finding colleagues to work in stores and fulfil online deliveries over this period was a real challenge, as everyone was regionally dispersed.”
And as we have seen widely reported, sourcing personal protective equipment – PPE – was an additional challenge. “The procurement of masks and gloves for colleagues proved a real challenge. We sourced some from Italy and from China, but it was difficult to access them as the borders were closed. With the benefit of hindsight, it would have been good to have had stock ready to use.”
Just the day before the webinar, I had been lucky enough to take part in the Vogue Global Conversations series, where discussion centered around Fashion Week season: not only the tradition and opulence of the event, but also its environmental impact and whether this model still has a place in modern society. This topic was further explored when I asked Andrew if there was anything else this pandemic has taught him about how businesses can run more effectively.
“We’re digitally connected internally, and I think going forward, we’ll be looking at how we can stay connected with our international brand and supply partners remotely, too. I think we can expect a different view of travel and getting people together coming out of this.”
Andrew said: “One thing I’ve learnt is around travel and connectivity. Despite our own recommended travel restrictions, I did send a small team of senior buyers to Paris for the Fall/Winter collection shows. We quarantined them first in their respective homes overseas so they weren’t arriving in Paris direct from Asia, but this home working period has taught me that sending them to France may not have been necessary. We’re digitally connected internally, and I think going forward, we’ll be looking at how we can stay connected with our international brand and supply partners remotely, too. I think we can expect a different view of travel and getting people together coming out of this.”
Indeed, one point that resonated particularly strongly throughout our conversation was the seismic impact the coronavirus crisis will have on the future of the fashion industry, and how this period will wave in a new era for the sector.
“Amid the disruption, there is opportunity,” articulated Andrew. “For one thing, this is a chance to look at how we can rethink industry processes and the flow of products. European manufacturing operations have ground to a halt, so we have no idea just how delayed our Fall/Winter stock is going to be. There is no doubt this lag will have a knock-on effect on seasons for a few years down the line, so this is a chance to examine our processes and ask: is there a more seasonal way of working?
“Alongside that, retailers across the world are sitting on excess stock from this season which they are unable to shift. It will be fascinating to see how businesses manage responses to this. Is this the chance to be looking at upcycling on a larger scale? Can we build more circularity into the industry and look at the lifecycles of garments from a different perspective?”
“Is this the chance to be looking at upcycling on a larger scale? Can we build more circularity into the industry and look at the lifecycles of garments from a different perspective?”
We agree that this is also a time for local designers and creatives to emerge, and Andrew told us he has seen evidence of this in China. He further commented, “This is an opportunity for local brands to be creative, agile and to respond quickly. Brands which can produce in small batches and use local manufacturing – this is their time.” In China, up-and-coming labels are already rising and seizing their opportunity, and consumers are now much more open to buying and supporting local brands and talent.
A topic on everyone’s agenda prior to the crisis, and even more pertinent now, is the role of retailers in today’s world. I asked Andrew how he thought the pandemic would affect this further and what this meant for the relationship between online and physical stores.
“For me, what I’ve learnt from this crisis is the importance of emotional connection,” he said, “and I think we will see this manifesting in both bricks and digital in the years ahead.” Andrew explained to the executives on the call how the pandemic led his business to re-examine its digital strategy and inject more personality into its online offering.
“For me, what I’ve learnt from this crisis is the importance of emotional connection.”
“We developed an app through which our style associates could send personalised looks to customers, using themselves as models. Instead of browsing on a website, users were able to connect directly with someone they have a relationship with. This app allowed us to remain emotionally connected to our customers even when they weren’t visiting the store, and I think this principle will continue when the pandemic is over.”
I couldn’t agree with Andrew more. It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling coffee in a coffee shop or a Balenciaga ballgown – everyone wants a human experience! Personally, I am dreaming of hand-knitted sweaters made in Cornwall with the name and a story of the knitter who made it on the label.
The same is true of physical stores. “If you can create amazing physical experiences which are immersive, then it changes the dynamic between online and bricks – as the stores themselves will become online content”. I propose that after this period is over, we can expect to see the end of bland, soulless physical experiences and the introduction of stores which are driven by emotional connection.
I then went on to ask Andrew for his three key pieces of advice for leaders negotiating the current climate.
He summarised: “ Number one – prioritise the safety and wellbeing of your staff and customers – and make all effort to create a visibly safe environment at stores and in the office. All our staff wear masks and must have their temperature checked on arrival. We have social distancing measures in place at the office and no visitors are allowed for the time being. We frequently and visibly clean and disinfect the stores and our workspaces; we have hand sanitisers placed throughout; and in store our staff wear gloves when handling cash and credit cards. For the safety of our staff and other customers, we ask that all customers have their temperatures taken before entering our stores and that they wear a mask while inside. It’s important that the measures implemented are visible and become rituals to assure staff and customers that we are taking all necessary action to ensure their safety.
“Number two – overcommunicate with staff, and make sure everyone is kept in the loop. I’ve been using weekly vlogs and a podcast to make sure that all of our colleagues feel they’re in the know, even if it’s just to share a joke or a few tips on working from home.
“Number three – identify a vision for the future. At Lane Crawford, we have a positive idea of what the future holds, which we can return to at moments when things feel dark. Looking ahead and remaining hopeful, ambitious and excited is invaluable amid all this disruption.
To round off, Andrew explained the current situation in China. “We are starting to see China come back to normal. People are starting to go out, to meet each other again. They’re buying clothes for what we are calling ‘reunion dressing’ – a great phrase describing the process of deciding what to wear to see someone you haven’t seen since lockdown began. There’s a feeling of: we’ve come through something that is devastating and we want to feel joyful again.”
“There’s a feeling of: we’ve come through something that is devastating and we want to feel joyful again.”
Andrew set out to offer us hope, to reassure us and to demonstrate that there is light at the end of the tunnel. He most certainly achieved this – and provided some truly invaluable insight on the path to overcoming Covid-19 for our industry. Reflecting on our conversation has left me with the truest sense of Spring – purpose, and optimism that creativity and innovation lie ahead.