Virgin dresses up for high street

Virgin rolls up its sleeves to take on the retailers again, but is there a gap in the market for the next clothing venture? Matthew Valentine investigates the conglomerate’s latest plans.

The extension of Richard Branson’s Virgin brand appears geared up to accelerate yet further as it emerges that another venture, in the form of standalone Virgin Clothing stores, is in the pipeline.

The company confirmed this week that established retail partners, approached as stockists of the wholesale Virgin Clothing brand, are interested in developing a more significant market presence. Giving over entire new stores to the Virgin range is under consideration.

The powers that be at Virgin are obviously taking the idea very seriously – design group Redjacket has been appointed to work on initial in-store environments, with a view to developing standalone units at a later stage.

The joint venture nature of the potential chain could see it operating much like the Virgin Vie cosmetics operation, launched to huge fanfare last year and still growing. Vie is another joint venture, allowing the Virgin brand to be used on stores run by a mostly ex-Body Shop management team.

But is Virgin in danger of pushing its luck, and its brand, too far? We already have Virgin-branded airlines, financial products, soft drinks, spirits and music stores as well as the toiletries chain.

According to industry sources the Virgin Clothing range contains around 300 items for men and women, ranging from casual and sportswear to “soft-tailored” formal-wear, and including footwear and accessories. This would make a Virgin fashion chain a natural enemy of Next and The Gap, two chains with strong brands and stronger performance records.

According to stores analyst Alexia Walker of broker Williams de Bre: “People don’t immediately associate Virgin with fashion.” She says that standalone stores would be difficult to launch in such a competitive retail market. “It’s a very difficult sector,” she adds.

It could be set to get tougher. High street spending has slowed for several months, according to figures from the British Retail Consortium, with only the January sales causing a blip in a declining line across the graph.

February saw retail sales rise by 3.4 per cent, compared to a growth of 6.1 per cent during January, giving a three-month growth figure of 4.8 per cent.

The message is clear – if a Virgin Clothing chain is to work in what macho shopkeepers often refer to as the “hairy-arsed world of retailing”, it will have to offer shoppers something different.

Fitch director Tim Greenhalgh says the argument that the Virgin brand is being stretched has been voiced before, “and it hasn’t snapped yet”. He feels the brand will be safe if it bears in mind its “young-minded” customer profile.

Virgin Clothing will at least have the benefit of experience before making the final decision about whether to go it alone on the high street. It will be launched in other people’s stores.

Selfridges, well regarded for its fashion departments, is expected to be first to stock the new range. That will provide some indication whether shoppers, in London’s Oxford Street at least, are growing tired of the wide variety of Virgin products on offer.

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