Old Brands, New Tricks

In recent years, heritage has become part of the venture capital formula. It seems that the sight of a few venerable brands reinventing themselves has stimulated investors' appetites for other old names with glorious pasts. With the understandable optimism that comes with great wealth, they see themselves as Prince Charmings to the historic brands' Sleeping Beauties. Appoint a creative director, open a few flagship stores, develop some "icon" products, talk about "brand DNA" and—voilà!—Sleeping Beauty has been transformed into a fully functioning retail princess.

Burberry may be the paradigm and its comeback is indeed a thing of wonder. Yet it has used its history carefully. While looking into Burberry's past, I discovered that its eponymous founder was an antialcohol crusader; according to his 1926 obituary in the Daily News, "Mr. Burberry cared for little outside his business except temperance, religion and agriculture, and he never read novels." He died at 91 after catching a chill while preaching at a Salvation Army meeting— hardly the model of fun-loving fashionista that today's Burberry would seem to appeal to. What this suggests is that to thrive in the manner that Burberry has—as a cool, edgy fashion brand—heritage must be used judiciously. Too much and you remain stuck in the past (temperance is not the great marketing tool it once was); too little and you might as well save yourself the bother of reviving an old brand and just start a new one.

It was exactly this conundrum that sprang to mind when I bumped into John Rigas, the new owner of the luxury British jeweler Asprey. Asprey was the first great Bond Street shop most people of my generation were familiar with. I have often kept a keen, sometimes critical, eye on developments there. That is the problem for someone buying Asprey: thanks to the residual effect of all that heritage, people who have no part in the business and may not have bought anything there for years still feel they have a stake in the place because a long dead great-grandparent used to shop there.

Tongue firmly in cheek, I suggested to Rigas that the best thing he could do was turn Asprey into a shop where nothing costs more than a pound. He was commendably polite and told me he was going to restore faith in a much-loved brand. He was in the company of his creative director, a youngish man in a snappy suit, which tuned out to be Asprey-branded. It was nicely put together and had a flower loop on the back of the lapel—a touch that even some bespoke tailors omit these days. But should Asprey really be trying to break into the apparel market? Or would it be better off staying in its traditional areas of expertise, like cocktail shakers and jewelry?

Selling garments can be a lucrative business, but maybe it shouldn't be Asprey's business. Heritage can be a useful tool for divining what to do. Asprey did flirt with clothes between the two world wars, but the experiment was unsuccessful. This is not to say that a heritage brand operating in one sector cannot move into another. Beretta, the gunmaker, has been family-owned since the Renaissance. It recently and successfully moved into clothing, but its clothes are linked in performance, style or both to the world of guns—what the businessman would call Beretta's core competence.

That's more than can be said for another brand making a comeback: Fabergé. Depending on how romantic you are, the name is either associated with the flowering of the decorative arts in the final years of the Romanovs, or Brut, the eau de toilette, which advocated that users "splash it all over." I am only guessing, but I imagine that the new owners would prefer the former—even though Peter Carl Fabergé has been dead 80 or 90 years and the Romanovs ceased trading in 1917, when Russia came under new management.

Olga Berluti, the Parisian bottierde luxe, once explained to me another important way of looking at heritage: not only should a business survive for generations, but so should its customers. And the tradition of repeat business bequeathed by father to son or mother to daughter is more effective than any amount of heritage-based marketing. Fabergé and the Romanovs were fortunate to come together in the first place; it will be interesting to see if today's superrich and ancient brands repeat the pattern.