Pringle was in a bit of a mess until Kim Winser showed up, last March. The Scottish textiles label, home of the diamond-patterned sweater, had become a bit unstuck.
Winser took over as chief executive of the then 240-strong business, following its acquisition by Hong Kong textiles group SC Fang & Sons. Her objectives were clear – to reinvent the loss-leading brand, without remorse. Her current job is quite a contrast, she admits, to her previous role as buyer and then director of corporate marketing at now not so good, old Marks & Spencer.
‘When we bought the business very little of Pringle was made in our factory in Scotland. Now we have completely reversed that and we make all our own products ourselves (in Scotland and Italy).
‘We were heavily licensed as a business and we have dramatically reduced that. At one point, we had at least 50 licensing agreements; we now have fewer than five, so you can see how popular I am in the world. We have been quite ruthless with that,’ she explains.
Ruthless is right. Over the past decade, Pringle arguably became known more for its association with happy pro-celebrity golfers than for its 200-year classic heritage, or its quality weave – something Winser aimed to put straight immediately.
When an ailing Nick Faldo promotion began to wear thin at the end of the 1980s, the brand plummeted to new depths of squareness – which probably has much to do with why Pringle is now flavour of the month.
Recent column inches in Italian Vogue and some help from the Beckhams may even have inspired the clutch of imitations of the Pringle check by London streetwear labels (Winser is talking to the lawyers about this).
The turnaround in the fortunes of the business has been nothing short of remarkable, though the speed of her recent success doesn’t surprise her. ‘I’m very impatient,’ she says humourously.
Her appointment of Tyler BrÃ»lÃ©’s Wink to handle Pringle advertising last week should guarantee Pringle’s transformation from sports casual knitwear brand to luxury British house of design. Winser is also in discussions with BrÃ»lÃ© (among others), for the design of Pringle’s long-awaited London flagship store, which she says will take Pringle to the next level, as well as create a healthy source of project work for the design industry.
‘We inherited a fabulous brand name that started life as a lingerie business, then grew into knitwear business. It had always been innovative. It took [the Argyle design] from socks and put it into knitwear, it developed twin sets in the early 1930s and was one of the first companies to commercialise cashmere products. In the 1940s and 1950s, Pringle was also huge with Hollywood stars,’ Winser explains.
The exacting judgement and experience of the clothing market which she brought to the job are evidently what were needed when the time came to reviewing the brand positioning and identity with FutureBrand last year.
‘We wanted to capture all these things in the new brand, but in a very modern way,’ she says. ‘We didn’t want to over rely on history. We wanted to use that history, but take it into the future in a very contemporary, creative way. David Davies [of FutureBrand] worked with us on pulling all those things together,’ she adds.
Davies is now closely involved in the next phase of development, which will include a new label – the green label – to complement Pringle’s black, grey and red ones.
‘Our vision was really to develop [Pringle] as a contemporary fashion brand – definitely in the luxurious, aspirational market, very on-trend. We deliberately concentrated on fashion for the first 18 months, even though the sports label is vital to the brand.
‘We’re currently working on a very fashionable sports label, launching in Selfridges’ sports hall in spring, which will take us back into sport in a very serious way. It’s going to be a green label,’ Winser reveals. ‘No one else knows that yet.’
There’s plenty in the pipeline it seems, and if recent developments are anything to go by it will probably happen very quickly.
If things go to plan the retail brief will be rolled out nationwide from new premises on New Bond Street that Winser is patiently waiting on. All eyes will be fixed on this flagship project. If Winser gets her way, which she is very used to doing, we might also be treated to an interesting collaboration of consultant designers for the project.
‘To open in retail you have to open at the top, with your flagship, she says. ‘We’re a British brand so we have to open in London first.’
Winser is realistic about her achievements and acknowledges she couldn’t be re-inventing a British brand at a better time, as there is currently such a penchant for all things ‘retro-heritage’.
‘This new century has made people love history a little and taken them back to a love of quality,’ says Winser.
Winser keeps a tight team. When the business was acquired, she says, there was a management team of eight.The old ruthlessness came into play and now it is a team of three, plus herself.
‘The pressure on each individual is enormous, but it does keep it very tight, very accessible, and my doors are always open. We have very open-planned offices and I think that makes things happen much quicker,’ she says of the London base housing the sales and design team. The majority of the company’s 300 staff are based at the factory in Scotland, on the production lines.
‘I’m a great believer in taking risks, employing a lot of young people. The pace that they work at, the energy levels that they’ve got, the determination to achieve, it’s fantastic,’ she says.
Pringle now straddles high fashion (grey label), sport (black label) and streetwear (red label). But the new green label perhaps gives us a glimpse of where Winser thinks the brand can do well longer term.
‘High fashion never necessarily makes the kind of revenue that a more stable business would have fashion is doing very well but it will probably never deliver stable revenue,’ Winser says pragmatically.
There is evidently more to do. But if anyone can do it, it is probably the woman who took the Alan Partridge out of sports casual.’
Kim Winser’s CV
Born: Helensburgh, Scotland
Boss: Kenneth Fang, founder of textile group SC Fang & Sons, Hong Kong
Career: Buyer at Marks & Spencer; then director of corporate marketing, M&S until 1998; then left to have her son, 1998; chief executive of Pringle, 2000