CATCHING UP WITH ROBERT ETTINGER

by Karen Alberg Grossman

With a growing global business in luxury leathergoods (and a Royal Warrant to HRH the Prince of Wales), Ettinger’s CEO Robert Ettinger has his finger on the pulse of business trends worldwide.

Can we start with a bit of background?

The company was founded in London in 1934 by my dad Gerry, who set aside a film career to launch a luxury leathergoods company. Adventurous, charismatic and multi-lingual, my dad travelled the world to establish Ettinger as a leading department store brand in countries from Japan to Canada.

Gerry Ettinger, January 1934

Prior to all that, my grandfather had built a clothing business in his native Prussia crafting military uniforms, (even for the Kaiser!) He also represented a German leathergoods company which is how my dad became interested in this category.

The original Ettinger factory was near the Smithfield meat market and the tanneries along the River Thames. But as central London grew more gentrified, the tanneries and factories disappeared. We ultimately acquired an upscale leathergoods factory (James Homer Ltd.) in Walsall (near Birmingham) that had been in continuous operation since 1890. We expanded and renovated as needed and retained their talented artisans. Everything we make is crafted there, with our central offices (sales, marketing, warehouse) now in Southwest London. We’re one of few factories left, as most production has moved to the Far East.

How has business changed in recent years?

In the beginning, my dad and I personally travelled the world. We’re both salesmen at heart and it was wonderful to travel together and get to know retailers across the globe. A good 95 percent of our business is now export: Japan, Korea and China are our biggest markets; we’re in most major cities in Australia, New Zealand and Europe, with offices worldwide.

A notable change in recent years is our focus on gifts. We make not just wallets, passport and business cases but all sorts of impulse items like flasks, luggage tags, watch rolls (that protect one to three watches), pill case covers (that hide those unsightly plastic holders), and beautiful cases for eyewear. These are luxury items but very practical gifts that are selling well.

Another change is our online direct-to-consumer component. We were for many years reluctant to add it for fear of upsetting our wholesale clients. But it’s proven to be a great way for us to get consumer feedback, and many wholesale accounts believe that our website serves as great PR for them, especially since we list our retail partners on the site.

What clearly hasn’t changed over the years is the craftsmanship that goes into our Ettinger product. It still takes five years to fully train our craftsmen on the 50+ stages involved in our production process. It is truly an art from.

What specifically differentiates Ettinger from other leathergoods brands?

First, our quality level is up there with the best, but that’s a given. Originally, our Walsall factory crafted saddles, but back in the 1890s, realizing that horses were becoming less useful, it switched gears. But we still use bridle leather, the natural color vegetable-tanned skins that were used for the underside of the saddle (so no chemicals would penetrate the horse’s back), for our wallets and other leather items. Aside from being virtually chemical-free, the bridle leather adds distinction and authenticity to the collection.

In addition to our trademark use of bridle leather, Ettinger is known for our bold use of color, often as trim, creating styles that are both classic and contemporary.

And aside from being beautiful, British leathergoods are somewhat sturdier than softer Italian product. We British are, after all, extremely practical and everything we make is built to last. We even offer a huge repair service, our way of being green and looking after the environment. Recently, we received an item so mangled that it couldn’t be fixed (it had gone through a wash cycle at the highest temperature setting), but usually, we’re able to repair anything!

Your crystal ball on business?

It’s still tough in London; we’re missing our overseas visitors. But the tailors are making lots of handmade suits these days and I do believe that dressing up will come back with a vengeance! People are fed up with sloppy clothes.

As a company, we see much opportunity in America even though the U.S. market is notoriously difficult to break into. Although we speak the same language, business is done so differently. I’m recalling a major U.K. supermarket chain that invested millions on a U.S. launch but after five or six years, had to shut it down. It doesn’t happen overnight in America but we’re okay with that. We’re already in many great stores (Wilkes Bashford, Stanley Korshak, Richards, The Armoury, MP3, H.Stockton, Sam Malouf, Mr. Sid, Garmany, M.S. McClellan, John Craig, and many more), and we’re definitely here for the long term.