Interview special: William Morris London and DEG

Interview of the Month
March 09, 2023

Robert Morris, Founder of William Morris London and Lars Flyvholm, CEO, Design Eyewear Group - pictured together at 100% Optical 2023

At 100% Optical, William Morris London exhibited with Design Eyewear Group for the first time in the UK since the merger between the two companies in Autumn 2022. In an interview at the event aboard the familiar London Bus at their exhibition stand, Robert Morris, Founder, William Morris London and Lars Flyvholm, CEO, Design Eyewear Group talked to 20/20 EUROPE about working together and how they envisage evolving and developing the British company and its selection of brands going forward.

Q: The merger between Design Eyewear Group and William Morris London took place in Autumn 2022. What has it represented for DEG as regards the Group’s portfolio of eyewear brands? What are the key traits of the UK company that distinguished it as

A: Lars Flyvholm: Design Eyewear Group has been building a position in the market over the last years – which is really based around our design heritage, and up until this new merger, this was very much based on our Danish heritage and French design, like Prodesign, FACE A FACE and WOOW. We had a basis and structure which therefore allowed us to take on other brands and build further, and in this search for possible acquisitions we wanted to add something different. We wanted to find a way where there was another design story and heritage which we could add on to this. Britain has an inspiring design heritage and we were attracted by the idea of adding real, authentic British design to our portfolio. William Morris London is a perfect match in terms of adding to the story of being a company focused on design labels. If you look inside the William Morris London company and what Robert and his team have established I think it has a very strong, clear identity, built over many years.
From a product point of view and when we look at our portfolio, it was also filling a gap for us in terms of design and price point particularly. We have nine brands already within Design Eyewear Group, all with different targets and price points. Robert has established a very strong presence in the UK market in terms of direct sales. And this matches our organisation and our footprint worldwide – we have a strong presence in the US, and we feel there is a big opportunity over there to penetrate that market with the William Morris London Collections. The same goes for other export markets.

Q: What are the different advantages – now and going forward – for the WM collection – to be part of DEG?

A: LF: So to summarise the advantages, there were 4 key elements that made really good sense in this merger... We have added the British design heritage, via a brand that also has a very strong identity. We also added a product which fitted into our portfolio with the right price and target point. Finally, we identified a real growth opportunity in markets where Design Eyewear Group has already established a very strong presence.

Q: May we ask, do you plan to preserve the collection portfolio as it is?

A: LF: Yes, we will offer the core William Morris London collection and the luxury William Morris line - the Black Label. Alongside them, there is also the Gallery Collection, created in partnership with the William Morris Gallery. These are the three core collections with the strong British identity. Then there is also Charles Stone New York – which has a positioning that is young, fashionable and fresh and this we consider as a second brand. We have been working with Robert and his product team in the UK and our Danish team to look at where the opportunities are here for growth and expansion. Certainly, there are plans to expand the Gallery collection in the near future, with of course a sunglasses range, which has not yet been created within this brand. The Gallery collection will see a special mini launch in August as well as an additional launch for the collection in January 2024.

Q: William Morris London shows at 100% in London this year for the first time since the merger. What have your UK customers been talking with you about, as you welcome them under this new partnership?

A: Robert Morris: Yes, this is the first time that opticians here in the UK have had an opportunity to see the two companies side by side which I think is really great, it’s important – and it’s great to see that when people look at it they can really see it makes sense. There have been some really interesting conversations at 100% Optical. There are plenty of independent opticians who are buying William Morris London who might not be working with FACE A FACE or Prodesign, so they are interested to hear how Design Eyewear Group can channel that business into their stores. And vice versa. It’s important also for them to see how Design Eyewear Group have created a number of concepts to help and support independent opticians which William Morris can now offer on a broader scale. Design Eyewear Group is a real partner to the optician.
Lars: We have some programmes for example where we offer the opticians ways to dedicate a part of their shop to our brands within the store. We can do this with a mix of our brands. There is a financial incentive within this board programme which allows them a one to one exchange so for example if you have 60 frames from 3 of our brands you will have a rep visiting you 4 times a year – and they will be able to exchange what is not selling and optimise the board. This flexibility – and of course the financial incentive – is something that we’ve had since 2020 at Design Eyewear Group and people find it really flexible and they love the chance it gives them to try new brands. Of course, the William Morris and Charles Stone brands are now included in this programme. We also offer a loyalty programme – we call it the Ambassador programme – where if you buy more or work with more brands your benefits increase. I would also add that we are lucky that we have had no issues at all since Brexit, given our infrastructure. Everything is running very well for us. Our logistics for all brands are run out of Denmark.

Q: Robert, can you remind us about the history of the brand you set up I think in 1996. How did you start and how did the company evolve from that point?

A: RM: We started out as a distribution company in 1996 called William Morris Eyewear. It was from there, that we decided to create our own brand from scratch, and that was William Morris London. From there, we saw a further demand for a more luxurious product and so we created William Morris Black Label, with a more premium price point.
Traditionally, I would say around 80% of our customers have taken both William Morris London and Charles Stone New York, but this can vary from practice to practice. 90% now take William Morris London and Black Label as part of that offer.
LF: What we have seen working very well with all our brands – and we are seeing it now with William Morris and Charles Stone is the cross selling with all our brands. Obviously for the opticians – and for us – if you can work with one eyewear company it just makes life a little bit easier. The portfolio we are now able to offer is very wide. This is also how we work with our sales teams as well. So the Charles Stone Team in the UK now, for example are now selling INFACE from the Design Eyewear Group portfolio. We feel this is a great match. We have actually put a lot of effort into ensuring that our customers have great advantages through our offer of working with many different and distinctive brands. As important as the brands and product quality we offer is the customer service – the back office and logistics – really everything…as the stores are looking for a partner which offers a very smooth working relationship with all these elements in place. The customer service at William Morris London has a very good reputation in the UK and this is essentially “a perfect match” for us at DEG where customer service has always been strong.
Before this merger DEG had closed down its office five or six years ago in the UK. But now this investment has allowed us to build a stronger presence for the whole group in the UK through the William Morris HQ. The office over here is now already providing customer service, the financial support for all the brands at Design Eyewear Group. So the UK customers have now a closer service than they had in the past and we are closer to the market again.

Q: The British identity of the brand has always been carefully upheld through the style but also the campaigns of the brand. Why is this important for WM and how did you build this identity…?

A: RM: I think product is one thing, but what is so crucial to William Morris is everything around the frame, the whole “British world” in which the collection has grown up, and all the add-ons to that such as the carefully styled POS.. At the shows in particular, it has always been great that people were able to meet the designer, to recognise the London bus which forms the basis of the stand…so it’s really important to keep the whole package alive and moving forward.
LF: As we have our own team in America, we know that the story about great British eyewear will be a great success in the US moving forward. That positioning is extremely exciting. We like the fact that the branding is so strong, and that Robert is an ambassador for that. Of course, we realise also that we must ensure the brand can also standalone already, and we must find that balance…which I think comes through the design, the strength of the campaigns, which are always distinctive with colours and British details such as the Union Jack. William Morris London really has a strength here, and as Britain has this incredible recognition all over the world, we will continue to show this side of the brand’s British heritage.

Q: Please comment on the merger and what your hopes are for the brands you created?

A: RM: The brand has to stand on its own, and I know it can, it has established itself in the UK and globally as a brand. Of course, I hope that with Design Eyewear Group the brand can be taken to a place where I perhaps couldn’t take it. I think that with all the synergy we have this will happen sooner rather than later.
LF: Certainly, we have our sights set on growth in the US, but also in Europe and in markets like France and Germany.

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