July 2013

The Nation Reviewed

RM Williams and haute couture

By Karen de Perthuis
The iconic Australian brand has a new co-owner

For years the iconic Australian bush brand, RM Williams, looked ripe for a fashion makeover. With its signature handcrafted boot leading the way, something along the lines of what Burberry had managed on the back of its trench coat seemed likely. Hardly an original idea, and somewhat redundant given that couturier Jonathan Ward had been the company’s executive designer since 2001. But with the recent sale of 49.9% of the company to L Capital Asia, a private-equity firm backed by the French luxury giant LVMH Group, the transformation of RM Williams into a major fashion label now appears inevitable.

The symbolic value of the sale was far greater than the rumoured $53 million price tag. In the media, it was presented as a ray of hope for a local industry more used to stories of designer labels going into voluntary liquidation, and retail centres turned into ghost towns by online competitors. In fashion circles, LVMH is best known for its stable of couture brands, so there was a sense of pride in predictions that the iconic RM boot would soon be following the likes of Dior, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton down the catwalks of Paris.

But from the first whisperings that owner Ken Cowley was looking for an international investor, the company’s core outback and rural customers were nervous. A “Keep RM Williams Australian” campaign was launched on Facebook, aimed at preventing a “great national icon” being “sold into foreign ownership”. Close on the heels of the RM Williams deal came Ford’s announcement of plans to close facilities at Broadmeadows and Geelong, so concern about a restructured RM Williams taking its production offshore was understandable. Throughout its history, being “wholly Australian-owned” has been integral to the company’s image, with the high quality, authenticity and durability of its products embodying the spirit of the company and the fabric of the nation. At stake were not only Australian jobs but also Australian identity.

Media reporting tended to downplay these fears, repeating the company line that RM Williams would “continue to manufacture quality product in Australia”. Many seemed seduced by the glamour attached to LVMH, invoking the famous initials (which stand for Louis Vuitton – Moët Hennessy) to conjure up a reassuring message of respect for tradition, quality craftsmanship and commitment to local production. The headline in the BRW, for example, announced “Why RM Williams got the right partner in French luxury giant LVMH”. But with so much at stake for the Australian brand, had they? Well, yes. And no.

The knack of LVMH boss Bernard Arnault to turn every-thing he touches to gold has made him the richest man in France and probably the single most powerful presence on the fashion and luxury leather goods scene. A ruthless and unrelenting shopper himself – his commercial acquisitions have been known to leave blood on the floor – he plucked the Christian Dior brand from duty-free purgatory back in the 1980s and made the designer logo chic. With names like Loewe, Fendi, Berluti and Louis Vuitton to protect, Arnault knows the importance of respect for the heritage of local production.

The acquisition of RM Williams, however, was made not by LVMH, but its affiliate L Capital. There is a difference. Whereas LVMH deals in “Fashion and Leather Goods”, L Capital keeps its fashion brands in a sector called “Personal Equipment”. Instead of seeking out luxury and exclusivity, it shops for brands that are “Aspirational, Affordable and Alternative”. Its investment strategy, as outlined on its website, is “Brand Building and Distribution”, achieved through “Value Creation” and, if past records are any indication, this translates to buying brands, building them up and selling them on.

None of this is to suggest that the legendary RM Williams boot, worn by celebrities, politicians, sports stars and drovers alike, is about to go the way of the Ford Falcon. Even at one remove, links to LVMH have to count for something. In the case of RM Williams, the obvious starting point of “Value Creation” for an expanded international market is the company’s “Australianness”, a concept that stirs up yearnings for a mythical outback of dusty plains, poetic stoicism and rugged individuality – even in those who should know better. It’s a myth woven into the legend of the founder of the company, Reginald Murray Williams. Born on a farm in 1908, as a teenager he worked the goldfields and trekked the deserts of Western Australia. When the Great Depression hit, he was reduced to supporting his young family by digging wells until a saddler called Dollar Mick taught him the art of working leather. He sold his first pair of boots to a wealthy pastoralist and went on to build a brand that, by the time of his death in 2003, was sold in more than 900 outlets throughout the world.

But fashion is a notoriously fickle business and myths and legends only get you so far. What makes the RM Williams story relevant, and no doubt what attracted its new co-owners in the first place, has nothing to do with sentimental notions of the brand as an Australian icon. Rather, it has everything to do with the RM Williams boot as a classic – one of those timeless objects that manage to defy fashionable whim. Handcrafted from cowhide, kangaroo, crocodile, emu or ostrich, stitched with waxen thread onto soles constructed with brass screws and forged steel shanks, and at once functional, hard-wearing and elegant, in an era of mass-production, the RM Williams boot has an appeal that is both moral and aesthetic, and will remain resolutely à la mode.

Karen de Perthuis

Karen de Perthuis is a writer and fashion scholar. She teaches fashion and design at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Western Sydney.

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