The Ettinger brand of leather products has been used by the British elite for years. So why has the company decided to open its first store in Tokyo? Marc Smith talks to second-generation Robert Ettinger to find out
As Robert Ettinger reflects on where the luxury leather goods business his father founded is heading, he seems to surprise himself with the answer. The company began as a quintessentially British luxury company that counted the British royal family as regular customers, but today Ettinger wallets and bags are being sold much further afield.
"The other day, our partners in Japan sent me a copy of an advert that we're putting into a student magazine," he says. "I emailed them to ask if they'd gone crazy – 18-year-olds don't buy $200 purses. But they came back and said that in Japan the students go to university armed with a good wallet and a suit."
Managing director Robert seems genuinely shocked. "It's not quite like that here in England, all you do is go to the university bar and enjoy yourself," he says.
From the House of Windsor to Tokyo
The importance of Asian markets to luxury companies in general is well documented with the growing middle classes in China and India flexing their newly found financial muscle.
Ettinger is no exception and it exports a whopping 70% of its products around the world – the majority to Japan where the company's goods can be found in 180 shops. So important is the Japanese market, in fact, that they plan on opening their first ever Ettinger store in Tokyo in 2009.
Robert says the family has traditionally regarded itself as a manufacturer and, up until seven years ago, was largely making products for other well-known luxury brands; consequently there simply wasn't the need for a shop.
That all changed once the Prince of Wales took an interest in the company. Ettinger makes leather goods for the Prince and in 1996 was granted a royal warrant – a mark of recognition to individuals or companies who have supplied goods or services for at least five years to The Queen, The Duke of Edinburgh or The Prince of Wales. Regarded as demonstrating excellence and quality, they are highly prized.
Ettinger uses a specific type of leather that different Princes of Wales have used for generations, which Robert describes as green with a specific straw grain.
The royal warrant is therefore important, but perhaps not for the reason you immediately think. "Kellogg's Cornflakes have a royal warrant but they don't sell more packets of cornflakes because of that," explains Robert. "For us selling a luxury product, however, it matters because people assume it has to be of the highest quality."
The royal warrant works particularly well in the Asian markets, but it is also coming back into fashion in the company's UK market. "For a while people [in the UK] didn't care so much about it but now they want the royal crest on the packaging as well as it means whoever gets it is going to cherish it more," says Robert.
Ettinger is now working hard to establish itself as a brand in its own right. It has expanded its product range over the last few years and now makes address books, luggage, hip flasks and even cufflinks made from leather and steel. It is also updating its more traditional lines, such as its iconic wallets. "We are coming up with some really exciting new ideas such as broguing the corners of our wallets so they have the feel of a man's shoe, which is a very special technique," explains Robert.
The traditional British manufacturing that goes into producing its range of luxury good is perhaps the company's biggest selling point. With discerning customers turning their backs on the "Made in China" label in favour of a more specialised, quality product, companies such as Ettinger are reaping the rewards.
The leather the company uses ranges from traditional saddle and bridle hide to soft calf leather. "Making leather items to this level is highly skilled and the people who work for us are real artisans," says Robert.
To illustrate its dedication to traditional craftsmenship the family acquired one of the UK's oldest leathergoods manufacturing companies in 1999. James Homer Ltd is now at the heart of Ettinger's hand-made manufacturing process and is home to some of the most skilled leather craftsmen in the UK.
The challenge the business is facing as it it expands is to ensure the quality is not lost as the need for quantity and efficiency increases. "It's a fine line," admits Robert. The company's ability to manage these twin needs will be tested from October when it begins to sell its products online for the first time. Leaving nothing to chance, Robert says they have taken on one of the UK's top web designers to give customers the best possibile online environment.
In particular, Ettinger is excited about dealing directly with customers, as opposed to retailers, where Robert says it is more difficult to get quality feedback. "We've already started selling [directly] to customers and it's great because they tell you exactly what they want," he says.
One trend that is of increasing importance to customers is ethical luxury and companies are more than ever having to cater for those who demand it – mainly wealthy women.
"We're very aware of it," agrees Robert. "As a royal warrant holder, the Prince makes us write a very detailed ethical report about how we recycle and all this sort of thing."
Ettinger's star is most definitely on the rise. As a member of Walpole, an organisation that promotes the British luxury industry, the company gets to mix with other top brands such as Christie's, Wedgwood and British Airways, to help maximise commercial opportunities.
This is something Robert's father, Gerry, would certainly approve of. The Ettinger founder was something of entrepreneur who tried his hand at teaching, engineering and film directing before settling on the idea of manufacturing luxury leather goods with the help of his extensive contacts across Europe.
"It interested him to do different things so life didn't get too boring," explains Robert who, as a semi-professional skier in his youth, is no stranger himself to trying his hand at something new.
With the Tokyo flagship store opening, the business hopes to push on towards the top of the luxury tree.