The distance between Paris and an unforgiving swathe of remote South Australian outback named the Flinders Ranges is a little under 10,000 miles. The difference between them is incalculable. Yet had a bushman named Dollar Mick not encountered an impoverished well-sinker and part-time dingo-scalper named Reginald Murray Williams in the Flinders some 85 years ago, Paris’s largest luxury conglomerate would never have embarked on its most intriguing project of 2017.
LVMH, which reported sales of almost €36bn ($38.7bn) in 2015, has around 125,000 employees across a portfolio of 70 fashion and luxury houses. These include some of the most famous status symbols on the planet: Christian Dior, Krug, Céline, Guerlain, TAG Heuer, Hublot, Chaumet and Louis Vuitton itself. This stable has also – at least indirectly – included R.M. Williams since 2014, when LVMH’s private-equity fund, L Catterton, acquired majority ownership.
R.M. who? If you’re not Australian, then perhaps you haven’t heard of it. If you are Australian, you certainly have. Because even more than fellow Aussie bootmaker Blundstone or hatmaker Akubra, this brand is the prime retail expression of quintessential Australian-ness – so much so that before its sale its customers campaigned on Facebook to “Keep R.M. Williams Australian”.
Williams, born in 1908, left school aged 15 to seek a life of adventure in the bush. Apart from his previously mentioned endeavours, he scratched a living droving camels though he would eventually become immensely rich mining gold: but it was that meeting with Dollar Mick that made him famous. Mick, aka Michael Smith, reputedly used a pattern cut from a kerosene tin to teach Williams how to make riding boots from a single piece of leather. Williams’s company flourished as the Bush Outfitters, offering through enormously popular mail-order catalogues a panoply of products including hats, clothes, stockman’s whips (my grandfather kept his above the mantelpiece), bumper stickers and even stubby-holders (translation: foam sleeves for beer cans).
The boots, which are still produced in Adelaide, have remained the mainstay of the business – and will serve as ambassadors as they are exported around the world. The brand opened four stores outside Australia in 2016 and is planning nine more for this year, five of them in America (including one in Texas), and four in Europe.
Williams died in 2003, so famous in his homeland that he was accorded a state funeral. The man charged with updating his brand so that it excites an international luxury consumer is Jeremy Hershan, a Melbourne-born fashion designer who spent a decade working for Aquascutum, Gieves & Hawkes and Dunhill – three British heritage brands – before being lured home.
“We have two very distinct groups of customers,” says Hershan. “There is our loyal customer, out there in the bush; and then there is a younger generation which has this definite desire for authenticity, which is what…represents the global appeal of the products.” For his first collection of clothing, which was rolled out in January to star alongside the brand’s core of boots and leather goods, Hershan dug into the archive to find original designs ripe for repurposing to appeal to younger, urban, international customers. That generation can probably get by without one reputed benefit of the brand’s signature 18-ounce moleskin from which Hershan’s handsomely slimmed-down and streamlined trousers are made – its impermeability to snakebites – and they may not use a waxed-cotton update of an old R.M. Williams drover jacket to herd cattle. But they are likely to appreciate both.
The price for the boots – prime designs include the signature chisel-toed Craftsman or a new woman’s boot called the Adelaide – begins at A$450. They come in bespoke variations of colour, sole and stitching that include a white, limited-edition version for A$800 ($593). Versions in ostrich, camel or crocodile cost up to A$4,000.
Identifying, buying then upgrading hitherto underdeveloped niche brands that combine a compelling backstory with an internationally appealing product is an increasingly popular strategy across the luxury industry. Last October LVMH bought an 80% holding in Rimowa, a maker of wheeled aluminium luggage, founded in Germany, that seemed ripe for expansion. Its cases are so robust that its fans make YouTube videos of themselves riding them through airport terminals. In America, Bedrock, a holding company, has predicated its entire strategy on developing businesses whose key marker of authenticity stems from their overtly American vibe. As well as purchasing Filson, a purveyor of lumberjack-rugged goods, it invented from scratch a brand called Shinola. This made-in-Detroit watch and bike marque has been cannily positioned as a standard-bearer for the revival of manufacturing in the United States. Some luxury projects might seem at first unlikely – such as Prada group’s purchase of Pasticceria Marchesi, a coffee shop founded in Milan in 1824 – yet the brand has opened two new Milan outposts that are always full, and almost certainly plans more.
The formula doesn’t always work, of course. Kent & Curwen, a fantastic but faded British manufacturer of club ties and cricket jumpers – which it claims to have invented – has been built by its Hong Kong-based owners into a successful menswear brand in Asia. Yet in Europe and America it has repeatedly sputtered: two previous designers failed to understand its heritage and to present products that reflected it. A Savile Row store that opened with much fanfare was quickly and quietly closed. Now, though, Daniel Kearns, recently appointed as chief designer, is building a balance between 20th-century heritage and 21st-century consumer desire that looks promisingly coherent.
Back in Australia there has as yet been no significant outcry from R.M. Williams’s loyal country clients. And even though it is mostly owned by lvmh’s private-equity arm, the rest is held by an Aussie consortium that includes pension funds and the actor Hugh Jackman (who owns 5%). According to Hershan, R.M. Williams always planned to sell his brand across the world. Now, thanks to a spot of Parisian savoir-faire, the boots he made with Dollar Mick might soon be reaping dollars from Doha to Denver.