The woman trying to revive a century-old leather brand – BBC News

Media caption“I just think it’s got massive amounts of potential,” says Isabel Ettedgui

“I know I’ve got to do this. It must be a sickness!” says Isabel Ettedgui, laughing.

It is June 2016, in Mayfair in central London, and she is standing in the middle of a building site. An early 18th Century house is being renovated, ready to be the home of Mrs Ettedgui’s latest venture.

She is attempting to relaunch a venerable luxury brand: Connolly, a name famous for its leather for over a century.

“I’ve known this brand for 30-odd years – I still really believe in it. It’s got massive amounts of potential,” she says.

Starting any kind of enterprise is challenging, with many businesses failing within their first few years, and relaunching one can be just as hard.

“Reviving a brand that’s been silent for a number of years is very difficult indeed,” says consultant and author Peter York.

Image caption People actually like to see the owner in a luxury brand store, says Isabel Ettedgui

So what’s the best way to go about it?

Heritage is one factor that certainly seems to be on Mrs Ettedgui’s side.

Look at the websites of many luxury names, and it is clear that history and tradition are some of the factors that brands are most keen to stress. These are attributes that Connolly has in abundance.

The firm, which was family-run for much of its history, began producing leather in the late 19th Century. It soon won favour with a huge range of clients.

Its leather could be found on the seats of many luxury car marques (including Rolls-Royce), at the Houses of Parliament, on ocean liners such as the Queen Mary, and on supersonic plane Concorde.

“You haven’t lived until you have sat your naked butt on Connolly leather,” actress Joan Collins is reported to have said.

Image copyright Connolly
Image caption W Heath Robinson was commissioned to produce illustrations to mark Connolly’s 50th anniversary

In the 1920s, the company asked W Heath Robinson to produce some illustrations to mark its 50th anniversary.

The artist, well-known for his drawings of outlandish devices, was astonished by what he found at the factory in Wimbledon. “I can’t improve on that, Mr Connolly,” was his response to one of the firm’s remarkable leather-measuring machines.

Decades later, after doing some corporate identity work for the firm, Ms Ettedgui helped the enterprise with a move into retail.

“I just thought, ‘this is fantasticthey don’t realise what they’ve got,'” she remembers.

Image copyright Connolly
Image caption Isabel Ettedgui credits her husband Joseph, famous for building the eponymous fashion chain, for showing her the potential of Connolly

The first store opened in 1995, in a mews close to the Lanesborough Hotel in London. Several years later, Mrs Ettedgui’s husband Joseph was offered the retail arm of the business, because the Connolly family had decided to concentrate on the motor trade.

Joseph Ettedgui had extensive experience of fashion retailing, having built up the Joseph chain of high-end fashion stores, which had branches across the UK. He and Isabel nurtured the retail side of Connolly, opening a bigger store in Conduit Street in Mayfair.

“Joseph brought in clothes,” Mrs Ettedgui recalls. “It taught me that Connolly wasn’t just a brand of briefcases, it had potential to be a fashion brand as well.”

But in the 2000s, Connolly faltered. The family’s leather finishing business experienced an unsuccessful expansion into the US. And in 2010, Joseph Ettedgui died.

“After Joe died, I kept renewing these trademarks and thinking what am I going to do?” says Mrs Ettedgui. She decided to put everything on hold.

Image caption Connolly was well-known for making the leather seats for many luxury cars, including Ferrari

A few years later, she began to get the enterprise going once more. She licensed Jonathan Connolly (a fourth generation member of the family) to start producing leather again, while she began to look for a suitable retail location.

Her search led her to a Georgian house just off London’s Savile Row. “It was a little freehold building, which is really rare, and I decided to sell my flat, put everything I could into it and try and launch it without any external backers,” she says.

The house includes several floors of retail space, plus an apartment where Mrs Ettedgui now lives.

Image caption The new Connolly shop opened in late 2016

For her, this is an essential part of the story. “There’s a desperate need for a different narrative in luxury,” she says.

“Too many brands are being run in silos by men in suits – what people actually like is to see the owner.

“It’s like when you go to a restaurant and the chef [appears] – it’s such a joy, you feel connected.”

As well as emphasising a personal touch, Mrs Ettedgui has broadened the range of items on sale. In addition to leather goods and clothes, there will be furniture too. “Beautiful objects, beautiful clothes, well-designed pieces of furniture – it just goes together,” she says.

Reviving a brand, as Mrs Ettedgui is attempting to do, is a tricky thing to pull off.

Image caption The shop stocks clothing and furniture as well as leather goods

“The things to think about are: how to explain what happened, because people are suspicious of a relaunch. [You need to] say very clearly what it is you’re about and reconcile that with the previous back story,” says Mr York.

Mrs Ettedgui is conscious of the challenges she faces – but she is cautiously optimistic. After a hectic period of building and renovation, and working around the clock to get everything ready, the store opened in late 2016.

Soon afterwards, a customer came in and showed Mrs Ettedgui a Connolly wallet that he had bought 20 years ago. “He was really happy that we were back,” she says.

To succeed, she believes, “you need a dream – you need an obsession really. And you need to believe in something that means you can’t not do it.”

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