VF opens Axtell Soho HQ, sustainability, tech and London location are key
VF Corp opened its new HQ in London on Wednesday with the Axtell Soho building acting as a showroom, digital hub, trailblazer for sustainability and a way to connect directly to the buzz that London generates.
The owner of the The North Face, Vans, Timberland, Dickies, Kipling and other labels said the opening marks “a new era of investment for the company.”
Taking a multi-year lease “as a demonstration of its commitment to continued growth in London and the UK,” the company said the new hub, which will be “a key support to its European operations,” is also an “awe-inspiring brand immersion showcase, designed to bring the most advanced and innovative expression of its iconic brands to life, strengthen trade relationships and fuel growth in the UK.”
VF EMEA Group President Martino Scabbia Guerrini said that “having our experiential brand showcase for retail customers in the centre of one of the top fashion capitals in the world will help our brands to innovatively develop and support our company growth in the years to come.”
But the company didn’t only want to talk about its shiny new building as it was clear that Axtell is part of a bigger project to help VF drive change both for itself and the wider industry. Scabbia Guerrini added that the company has “proven many times it has the ability to transform” and the last year has seen it doing “many things” to achieve this. “Number one, we became a purpose-led company and now most of our investments and all of our business decisions will go through the lens of purpose,” he explained.
Last year, for instance, Icebreaker was its first directly “purpose-led” acquisition with the brand’s commitment to natural performance fibres instead of synthetics. “That commitment built from day one is what we’re looking at,” for the future, the Group President said.
Why does that matter? Because that’s what the consumer wants. He explained that “I believe the global agenda will not be set by us but will be set by the new generations and we have to really listen to them.”
He thinks big corporations can (and should) change and do so fast. “We truly believe there is only one way forward, that is, credible, sustainable innovation. The power brands with strong heritage have to be constantly reinvented.”
So where does the building come in? “In this place we’ll showcase the brands, we’ll push the digital transformation, but it’s also very important that what we’re going to bring here is our talent from all over the world,” he said.
Meanwhile, Timberland Creative Direct Christopher Raeburn added to the view of an industry that’s changing fast and companies that need to not only keep up with, but to help drive, the change.
“What we do as an industry is pretty archaic," he said. "We have the incredibly long lead times where we design something which can take six months, while manufacturing can be another nine months, and then we ship it to the stores and hope that the customer comes in and wants to buy it. The level of risk and complexity in that model is phenomenal. What we need to work towards is a much more agile way of creating product that we know customers want and will have an emotional attachment to.”
He cited an interesting pilot projects (called Construct 10061) that aims to achieve this end: “We took designers from around the world, paired them with Timberland designers, went to our factory in the Dominican Republic and they made shoes, together with the incredible talented craftsmen and women in that factory. In the course of four days together we made around 40 different prototypes. They were put onto Instagram and people could vote on which ones they liked.”
It’s part of his interest in what he calls “global localisation” and in a lot more product being almost made-to-order, but he admits that doing this at scale “isn’t easy.”
“We’re all talking about what the circular economy can look like and there are great steps being made,” Raeburn said. “We’re close but we need to keep pushing.”
And as Martino Scabbia Guerrini added, with the old two-seaon business model being yesterday’s news, while the new business model is a lot more complex and sophisticated, companies need buildings that work to support such new models.
And that’s what Axtell Soho does. It’s 90 years old, but its new upgrade makes it a key factor in the change that Scabbia Guerrini and Raeburn talked about.
It’s a state-of-the-art development featuring “sustainable design and craftmanship combined with innovative technology and brand experience.” For a start, the 16,000 sq ft, six-storey building has a BREEAM ‘Very Good’ rating for its sustainability.
But it’s also abut experience as well as sustainability. Each of the firm’s brands has office space there while there are also dedicated ‘brand experience floors’ for Timberland, The North Face, Vans and Kipling. It also has a digital innovation and design studio on the sixth floor (with a digital product customisation corner) and a landscaped rooftop garden, adding to its appeal and to its giving-back-to-the environment ethos.
Keytech features also include custom video walls and cinema surround-sound; avatar-based virtual mannequins to showcase key seasonal looks in 3D; and touchscreen displays to change the lighting and visualise the products in different scenarios.
It all represents a massive investment in the UK at a time when many businesses are delaying investment decisions in a country theoretically set to crash out of the EU in less than five months.
But Scabbia Guerrini said businesses need to look past short-term issues, citing the fact that the yellow vest protests meant the company had to “close a lot of stores for 24 weekends in a row” in Paris, but VF is still committed to France.
London “remains VF’s focus as a megacity for expansion in the UK, which has been the case since the company opened its first retail store on Carnaby Street in 2003,” the company said. The UK is actually VF’s top European market, accounting for around 20% of all EU revenue, or around £0.5bn. And it wants to raise that to 23% by 2021. London itself accounts for 20% of VF’s UK revenue with Vans the leading label.
The Axtell building is in close proximity to VF brand stores on Regent Street, Oxford Street and Carnaby Street and the company said this will “facilitate the interaction with, and the education of, VF’s retail store teams, to elevate engagement with end consumers.”
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