SADDLE UP AS R.M. WILLIAMS TAKES ITS QUINTESSENTIALLY AUSTRALIAN TALE OF SUCCESS TO THE WORLD.
RM Williams is taking on the world and winning.
Storytelling. It’s the intangible, unassailable selling point that elevates a brand. It speaks of romanticism and heritage, of craftsmanship, a commitment to quality and the passion hand-sewn into a piece. It’s attractive, and central, to the lofty positioning of luxury labels – think Louis Vuitton and Gucci, Hermès and Dior, Saint Laurent and beyond. Also, think R.M. Williams. While it’s a name that may at first clunk against that of those storied, European masters, the dusty tale of the Australian bush outfitter is equally important. Especially given its desire to sell this fabled yarn, and its wares, to the world. Come September, R.M. Williams will again open its doors in New York, eight years after it packed up and left. That the new site sits on Spring Street, Soho, speaks of a certain repositioning, of the innovation underway. America is viewed as a key international market – a further six stores to open across the US in the coming two years. It’s a dramatic and focused rollout, matched by the opening of seven stores in the UK and Scandinavia across the same period. The global focus is firmly built on the brand’s 2014 acquisition by Singapore-
based private equity firm L Capital Asia, the LVMH subset securing the company for a reported $100m. Still, CEO Raju Vuppalapati claims such expansionist visions were a desire of the late Reginald Murray Williams – the cattleman and camel handler who found leather, and eventual success, after starting the company 84 years ago. “R.M. always wanted this company and this brand to be a bigger part of the world,” the softly spoken Vuppalapati, who joined the company in 2014 after years at Levi Strauss, tells GQ. “Because this can’t be the best-kept secret in Australia – it has to be a secret we share with the world.” In discussing the new phase – one mirrored by a strong focus on the local retail sector and an increased number of Australian stores – Vuppalapati swats away the word ‘reinvention’, arguing it suggests a sense of exclusion or alienation in regard to the traditional customer base. “It’s really about drawing heavily into where we come from and bringing a contemporary innovation around the core; it’s about being sure that we offer a compelling story about what we do, and let the consumers decide. And we believe this brand has a story that’s true and can transcend generations... What we’re doing is taking elements from our archives, to be true to who we are, and then interpreting for the [current markets]. Like any other brand, we have to be in touch with current trends, but we still need be in touch with our heritage.” It’s a path that’s been trodden by Burberry and Barbour, each a heritage offering that has melded tradition and storytelling to a new, contemporary outlook. “Exactly,” says 53-year-old Vuppalapati. “They come from a different pedigree, ours is born in the Australian outback, but you can bring it to life in a contemporary, cool way. Whether the person is in Sydney, New York or Tokyo, people can pick it up and feel that it has a style and aesthetic that’s modern, but grown from its past.” Vuppalapati is speaking from the boardroom of R.M. Williams’ head office in Sydney – an enviable outlook across the harbour and over the city sitting over his right shoulder. The scent of leather hangs, heavily, in the room, the walls adorned by Tom Roberts-esque paintings of Reginald, at home in a recognisable bush setting. Pushed on where the brand’s been positioned to this point, Vuppalapati accepts that things had become a little staid. “My thoughts are these – we should have done this 20 years ago. Not to look in the rear-view mirror but, in my mind, this brand could have been [central] to that moment when the world became more open – most companies in Europe embraced that [at that stage] and you saw a big jump. Whether we like it or not, we want to do it now and the circumstances seem right – authentic brands are becoming fewer and fewer, we are one of the few left, and Australian brands deserve to be in a better place than where we are.” Shareholders and company owners, he adds, are excited about the enormous future potential of the brand. Indeed, the expanded international footprint has lofty projections – to double production of boots alone over the next five years, from the 200,000 currently created locally each year. As it stands, 80 per cent of R.M. Williams’ offerings still come from the outerAdelaide factory at Salisbury, as it’s been since 1973. The site – also doubling as a museum and store – sees workers knocking out about 700 boots each day.