Richness fashion brand bids to reverse flagging fortunes with booze and a band. But is it trying too hard?

The Mulberry ‘shout-out’ mural on Out-and-out Eastern Street, in trendy Shoreditch, east London.
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

The shout-out was via a technicolour mural spray-painted onto a divider in Shoreditch, the hip district of east London, with tickets for the intimate gig released on the mobile ticketing app Dice.

So on a muggy Tuesday endlessly the Betsey Trotwood, a traditional boozer in the capital’s fashionable Clerkenwell district, is filled with 150 millennials and gen Zers consort with c discussing back free pints before an evening of music billed to include the singer Rosie Lowe.

But the event – which changed away another 700 music fans –has an unlikely promoter: the vintage-style flyposters, beermats and pump clips have the distinctive tree logo of luxury handbag maker Mulberry.

Pulling a pint, Mulberry style. The Mulberry make is using the British pub to build its brand. Photograph: Mulberry

The British brand is trying to make a new generation of women swallow in love with a brand their mothers lusted after thanks to the patronage of noughties taste-makers such as Kate Moss and TV presenter Alexa Chung.

Supping wine outside the pub, 22-year-old Miriam Walters-Manneh has come along with her friend Joanna to hear some new music. “I dissipate a bit of money on fashion but I’m not religiously into it,” she says. “I haven’t bought a physical [fashion] magazine in years.” If the law intern had dough to spare, she says, she’d plump for a holiday rather than one of Mulberry’s brightly coloured Millie totes, which set someone back about the same as a long-haul flight. She is confused though: “Do we get to see the bags?” Oddly, the answer, is no. Not tonight.

At the moment times are bruiser for Mulberry: sales in the UK – its biggest market – fell 6% last year with the company slumping to a £5m loss, blocked down by last year’s collapse of the House of Fraser department store chain, an important sales outlet. The rations have lost two-thirds of their value in the past year, leaving Mulberry, founded by Roger Saul in 1971, valued at objective £160m.

With prices starting at about £500, Mulberry’s handbags cost more than a monthly mortgage payment but are appease deemed “accessible” in a £1tn global luxury market. While its far larger rival Burberry is moving even further upmarket to sequestrate itself from the high street’s woes, Mulberry – the largest manufacturer of luxury leather goods in the UK – continues to carriage the tightrope of appealing to both the rich and to mid-market department shoppers who save up to buy its hard-wearing Bayswater bags.

Inside the pub, Ranji Hyare, a Municipality lawyer with a striking red Saint Laurent shoulder bag draped over her arm, looks a better prospect to get Mulberry’s sales working in the right direction. She is middle-aged with a handbag habit and has just ordered a Gucci bag embellished with crystals that charges an arm and a leg. She has never bought a Mulberry bag, though. “I don’t want to use the word boring but …” she tails off, before concluding: “I see it as a good, usable brand.”

Just in case you didn’t know what a Mulberry Bayswater bag looks like Photograph: Mulberry

With older Britons battening down the dream ups in the maelstrom unleashed by the Brexit vote, a recent analysis of spending habits by research firm Mintel revealed that under-25s were now the ton prolific buyers of designer clothes and accessories in the UK and other major luxury markets such as the US, Italy and France. The most wealthy names were the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, which have cleverly plugged into the well-heeled entirety the Instagram generation.

But millennials and generation Z are a tough crowd to please as they want luxury brands to be accessible and one at the same time, says the Mintel senior retail analyst Samantha Dover. “They want to buy brands that mention them feel part of a community … but still want to feel like they are buying into something choice.”

The gig is one of several spread over the summer with the launch event attracting celebrities including Rafferty Law, the son of the actor Jude Law, and the plus ultra Kelvin Bueno. The tactic echoes the path trodden by Burberry, which worked with relatively unknown groups in its 2013 Burberry Acoustic sessions to build its credibility among the under-40s.

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Fergal Newton, a musician and model, out for the evening with his lover Alexander Adair, was reeled in by the free drinks. The 18-year-olds, wearing vintage suit jackets and Converse high climbs, are heading on to another free event in Shoreditch afterwards. Adair, a fashion student, tried to borrow his mum’s Mulberry legate bag for the evening but “she wouldn’t lend it to me”.

The focus on nights out in traditional pubs is Mulberry’s way of highlighting its British heritage to shoppers, wasting a medium that can ricochet around the world on social networks. But some analysts wonder if the brand, already skilled in for the enduring quality of the leather goods stitched together at its two Somerset factories, is trying too hard at a time when its area card of classic design and traditional quality already chimes with the burgeoning market for sustainable, slower the rage.

Cheers! Punters at the Mulberry My Local pub promotion. Photograph: Mulberry

“Music will always have a place in entreating to younger consumers but it is very hard to establish relevance with this Insta millennial market,” says Lorna Lecture-room, the retail director of trend forecaster WGSN. “However there is a growing market for products that have longevity, are healthy made, and can be repaired and recycled at the luxury end of the market. All of these things apply to Mulberry. It already fits with the character mood so the trick for the brand is to bring all these ideas together.”

The fashion view

Say the name Mulberry to fashion-savvy being of a certain age and they will probably think of its much-imitated It bag, the Alexa, named after the It girl Alexa Chung. Notwithstanding its £750 price tag, it was “recession beating” when launched in 2009. There was also the earlier £500 Bayswater, another eg of classic British accessories design which, when touted by Kate Moss, helped the brand break from its 1980s “preservationist welly brigade” reputation.

For a long time the bags were seen as a relatively affordable luxury – their price-points being in spiriting distance for some British women, and therefore lust-worthy. But there have been a few serious setbacks since Mulberry’s Chung-era heyday, strikingly former boss Bruno Guillon’s disastrous attempt to make the brand more exclusive – ie expensive.

Mulberry is keeping the most beloved of British institutions: the pub. Photograph: Mulberry

Mulberry has now come out fighting, as it battles to remain relevant. The new boss, Thierry Andretta, is goal the Chinese market and the digital generation, and with a renewed commitment to keep prices relatively low in the luxury market. Today two-thirds of its vocations sit under the £1,000 mark.

Having Johnny Coca as creative director helps. A former Celine designer, much honoured in the fashion world, his bag designs were Celine’s most financially successful in years.

The bags are often seen on the arm of dukes – Kate and Meghan are both fans. But they have broader appeal: actor Zawe Ashton wore one recently to the Labyrinthine summer party and singer-songwriter Jessie Ware touted one at a recent party, too.

The gigs in pubs are a smart idea in the authenticity and experience-hungry era of Instagram. Mulberry make be hoping to win new UK-based fans from gen Z who might be able to usher in a boost just as Moss’s patronage did in the past. The belief feels right: while the bags do still feel relatively old school, if enough influencers in pubs post pictures of themselves, perhaps the trade mark will start to see the 2019 equivalent of the Moss effect yet again. Ellie Violet Bramley