It’s the end of an era for well-known luxury brand Links of London in Canada as the company shutters its five Canadian stores amid company turmoil. After an exit from Holt Renfrew in 2016, the company had planned to open standalone stores in major markets across Canada.
The standalone store expansion saw four standalone stores open in the Greater Toronto Area as well as one boutique location open in Vancouver. Other major Canadian markets including Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, and possibly Ottawa were all in line for new Links of London stores as part of an expansion that kicked off in 2016.
Links of London’s first standalone Canadian store opened in June of 2016 at the CF Toronto Eaton Centre, which was followed by two other Toronto stores. That included its largest Canadian store located at CF Sherway Gardens in the summer of 2016 as well as a small boutique at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre about a year later.
In the spring of 2018, Links of London opened a standalone storefront at CF Pacific Centre in Vancouver and that summer, a location at Square One in Mississauga opened as well. Square One was the final location to open in Canada amid a grander expansion plan in other major cities.
In an interview last year, the President of parent company FF Group North America, Leela Petrakis, said that plans were in the works to open Links of London stores in other major markets. Calgary’s CF Chinook Centre was a target, and West Edmonton Mall was also under investigation. A store on Rue de la Montagne in Montreal was also a possibility, as was CF Rideau Centre in Ottawa — the goal was to open in markets that had a Holt Renfrew store after a partnership with the multi-brand retailer went sour.
Links of London had concessions in Holt Renfrew stores for years and at one time was considered to be an important accessory brand for the Holt Renfrew chain. At one time, Holt Renfrew stores in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal all had Links of London shop-in-stores.
In 2016, Holt Renfrew announced that it was shifting its strategy which included dedicating large spaces for luxury brand concessions and as part of the process, the Holt Renfrew partnership with Links of London dissolved. That resulted in a strategy where Links of London would operate in the same markets as Holt Renfrew, though not within the Holt Renfrew stores themselves.
In an interview last year, Ms. Petrakis explained that the Canadian market was a strong one for Links of London, as Canadians were still shopping in physical stores. That led to more standalone Links of London stores opening in Canada than in the United States — a market almost 10 times the size of Canada in terms of population and with a larger luxury consumer spend per capita at the time.
The new Links of London stores featured made-to-order bespoke services that allowed consumers to personalize products. Included were ‘Sweetie Stylists’ who helped customers customize bracelets with a selection of diamond and gemstone rondelles as well as with precious metals and keepsake charms.
Links of London’s Canadian store closures are part of a bigger story that involved a parent company which misreported its revenues and was fined heavily. At the same time, the Links of London brand failed to gain traction after a turnaround effort after the chain lost money amid a significant expansion.
In October of 2019, Links of London began liquidating its stores in the US and in the UK. That included plans to shutter all of Link’s stores in the UK, where the brand was founded in 1989. That’s when jewellery designer Annoushka Ducas began selling a line of cufflinks to iconic London-based multi-brand retailer Harvey Nichols — in 1992 she opened her first standalone store in Broadgate.
In 2006, Ms. Doucas and her husband sold Links of London to Greek jewellery retail conglomerate Folli Follie for a reported £50 million. She left the company in 2007 when Andrew Marshall, formerly with Gucci and Alfred Dunhill, took on the leadership role as CEO. She left in 2011 and was replaced with a former merchandising director of Selfridges Group.
Links of London continued to expand by opening standalone stores, while operating concessions in multi-brand stores globally as well as wholesale stockists in upscale retailers. In 2018, Links launched a turnaround plan under new CEO Annia Spiliopoulos — in early 2019 Links of London’s global revenue was said to be £85 million annually.
In March of 2019, Links of London appointed advisers from Deloitte amid financial struggles — more than 500 jobs were said to be at risk and the company was losing money. On May 30, Dominic Jones was appointed as a new creative director in an effort to turn the brand around.
Things took a turn for the worst in July of 2019 when Links of London’s partner company Folli Follie was found to have overestimated its 2017 revenue by more than €1 billion. Shares in Folli Follie were suspended on the Athens Stock Exchange and the company’s founder Dimitris Koutsolioutsos resigned from the conglomerate. The company was fined €20 million for overstating its revenue.
In August of 2019, Links of London sought a new buyer amid turmoil with the parent company — a buyer was unfortunately not secured for Links, which led to the announcement that its US and UK stores would shutter. In September of 2019, Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct was among the final bidders for Links of London — the company would have moved its headquarters back to London amid a brand turnaround. In October, however, the company went into administration which coincided with plans for store closures. Finding investors may have been challenging after Folli Follie’s financial irregularities, which may have led to issues around credibility — quality of Links of London products was also said to be questionable when compared to years past.
Links of London’s store expansion, which was rapid, put a strain on the company’s finances. The company’s most recent filing was in December of 2017 where it was revealed that Links had seen a sales decline of £42.9 million with a £20.5 million pre-tax loss. Despite this, the company continued to sign expensive leases and build attractive boutique retail spaces in global markets. Many of the new stores were said to be losing money.
Over the past couple of years in particular, global retail has seen a shift which has created challenges for many brands. At the same time, some experts suggested that Links of London had not expanded its product range broadly enough, nor did the company have a clear target demographic. At the same time, competitors such as Pandora and Swarovski continued to roll-out unique and original designs that resonated with an expansive consumer base.
As consumer spending shifts online, as well, Links of London may have been better served to operate fewer standalone units in major markets as brand showrooms, while encouraging online sales as well as expanding its wholesale distribution.
It’s a challenging time for landlords in Canada as retailers shutter stores. In late 2019, fast-fashion chain Forever 21 shuttered all of its Canadian stores — the 44 units spanned a total of 900,000 square feet. Other retail chains shuttered stores over the course of the year as well, including Gymboree, Crabtree & Evelyn, Town Shoes and HBC-owned Home Outfitters. Other retailers such as Bentley Leathers also announced store closures — Bentley will close nearly 90 locations across the country amid a restructuring which was recently reported in Retail Insider.
Filling Links of London’s Canadian spaces won’t likely be as challenging as with some vacancies, however. The Links of London stores occupied prime spots in major Canadian malls, and aren’t overly large.
The CF Toronto Eaton Centre links of London location, spanning nearly 900 square feet, is located on the prime ‘Level 3’ near other leading brands such as Hugo Boss, AllSaints, and Aesop. At CF Sherway Gardens, Links of London occupies a prime 1,200-square-foot spot in the mall near other upscale brands including Tiffany & Co., Tory Burch, and De Beers — the latter is said to be closing in the mall as well. At Yorkdale, Links of London operates a 615 square foot boutique across from luxury brands including Saint Laurent, Mr. and Mrs. Italy and Chloé and is next to Ladurée, and will likely secure a new tenant quickly. At Square One, Links of London’s triangular-shaped 800-square-foot boutique space, with a 30-foot frontage, is in an upscale wing anchored by Holt Renfrew and Harry Rosen, and is near several upscale brands such as Ferragamo. At CF Pacific Centre, Links occupies a coveted spot across from Harry Rosen and is near other upscale brands such as Zegna and Max Mara — Max Mara is relocating in the Vancouver mall as retailers shuffle ahead of the closure and redevelopment of the on-site Four Seasons Hotel property.
Canada is seeing unprecedented competition amongst luxury brands that are opening standalone stores. That includes a substantial number of jewellery and watch brands that have opened direct-to-consumer retail locations in major markets. Richemont Group leased thousands of square feet of retail space in Toronto and Vancouver to open boutique locations for brands including Van Cleef & Arpels, Piaget, Panerai, Vacheron Constantin IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and a new Cartier flagship to open this year in Vancouver. At the same time, Holt Renfrew has significantly expanded its own jewellery offerings to include big name brands such as Boucheron. Canadian jeweller Maison Birks has grown its roster of luxury brands — lasts year, Birks opened standalone locations for jewellery brand Graff and watch brand Patek Philippe in Vancouver, while also securing brands such as Chaumet and Messika as exclusives in Canada.