Next year, Neil Flatley and his team at the Blackburn-based LJ Group will be toasting the company’s 25th anniversary and its journey from small-time accessories supplier to major player across the sectors. Jill Eckersley went visiting
In 1995, Neil Flatley set up his business, Linzi Jay. His background was in accountancy and he was originally employed by the Cupid bridal company, which later swallowed up the big names, Pronuptia and Youngs.
“We started with accessories because I felt that was a less competitive market than dresses,” he says. “We employed a salesgirl and a merchandiser from Cupid so we had the contacts right from the start. We were also aware of the demand for communion dresses in Catholic areas such as Liverpool and Northern Ireland, so that, too, was an obvious market for us.”
Some five years later, and by now a well-established name, Linzi Jay launched Arianna accessories. “We wanted to design and manufacture ourselves and produce something different from the standard accessories which were coming in from China. It seemed a natural development for us and we found we could provide what our customers wanted. Our main showroom is here in Blackburn but we have a smaller operation across the country in Lincolnshire where Debbie, our Arianna designer, can customise her work to suit particular stockists.
Tiaras can, of course, be expensive to manufacture, but less so than dresses. Today we are seeing a lot more detail on the backs of wedding dresses and we have followed that trend with some of our accessories. Back jewellery has really taken off for us in the past 18 months or so.”
Today, the Arianna brand incorporates not only back jewellery, tiaras and combs but also half halos, hair vines and draped jewellery. There is real choice and that is what has contributed to the LJ Group’s success.
Maid the decision
The company’s expansion into bridal gowns was a cautious one, with Neil feeling that there was too much competition, especially with the Chinese-made dresses then flooding into the market. His next move was to create his bridesmaids’ collection.
“I felt that was a better route at the time with maids being more of a niche market,” he says.
The Linzi Jay Bridesmaids brand offers something for everyone, be they mature bridesmaids or tiny flower girls. There is a palette of 36 colours and featured fabrics include chiffon, satin, taffeta, lace and tulle; dresses come in both full length and short styles including tea-length and ballerina, two-pieces and co-ordinating sets for both bridesmaids and flower girls, and adult sizes ranging from 4 to 40.
The Group’s latest brand, Georgia Bridal, launched this year – confirms a success story that has continued to grow and branch out over the years, with the support of strategic planning. The takeover of the already-established Amanda Wyatt and Charlotte Balbier brands in 2017 signalled growing confidence and an upward spiral.
The LJ Group, as it is known today, is almost all-female, apart from Neil himself and one sales rep.
“We employ 20 people including two designers, two sales reps and two production staff plus warehouse and office workers,” Neil explains. “I have the final say but I don’t get involved in the design aspects of the business. I make a point of speaking to our retailers about any problems they may have and the styles and trends they are looking for. It’s vitally important for me to be informed about what works and doesn’t work for them.
“We source fabrics and trimmings from all over the world and work with overseas manufacturers who we have learned over the years are both reliable and produce excellent quality products.”
The right names
The LJ group has kept the Charlotte Balbier name although Charlotte herself is no longer designing for them. “Charlotte Balbier was always associated with a unique boho look and an original use of colour and we have tried to maintain that,” Neil says. “The Charlotte Balbier label is exhibited at White Gallery and is stocked by high-end boutiques. The label appeals to brides who are looking for different fabrics as well as boho styles.”
The latest addition to the portfolio is Georgia Bridal – named for Neil’s daughter – which is something of a new concept, not just in design terms, but also in the relationship that the company will have with its stockists, whom Neil prefers to think of as partners.
“We will be selling in a different way and partnerships with our retailers is the key to that,” he says. “There is no ‘heavy sell’ from us and we will definitely be working with them. Our job is to listen, first of all, ask about any problems they might be encountering, and then help to solve them. Whether they need advice on social media sites such as Instagram, or financial advice, we will be there to offer our expertise.”
So what trends has the LJ Group identifed for 2020?
“There will be some movement away from lace and beaded gowns and towards more straight cuts,” says Neil. “We also have to be aware that what sells well in, say, Sheffield, may not be so popular in central London. We have been planning our ranges since January 2019. The Georgia dresses themselves have a young, fresh and fun look and a retail price point between £900 and £1,500.
“We also hear from our retail partners that size can be an issue. It’s sometimes difficult for curvy women to find exactly the right dress. We will always try to encourage samples in different sizes, and we also explain that a particular style or a dress structured in a particular way may be more suitable for a size 18-plus bride. This is the sort of discussion which benefits both us and our retail partners because if their business works, so does ours.”
Accessories continue to play a big part in the company’s success. Arianna jewellery and headpieces made with Swarovski crystal in the UK retail between £30 and £180, and the Linzi Jay veils can cost anything up to £360, depending on length and the complexity of design. The company is also considering an expansion into the ever-popular prom market.
“We are following the US, as trends so often do,” says Neil. “The prom market is rather like communion wear, in that it has a short season in the shops. At the moment, though, Georgia Bridal is taking up most of our energies, as it’s new this year. And yes, we are looking for more retailers as partners, especially in the south of England as we are Northern-based ourselves. Many of our existing stockists have been with us right from the start, and new retailers are approaching us all the time.
“As for what we can offer them – we have always given our partners what they wanted which is excellent customer service, and products they can sell! I always say to them ‘You pick the styles you think will sell in your boutique.’ As for minimum orders, retailers would probably need to purchase about six. Once they receive the samples we will help them to sell. Whether this includes a presence on Instagram or other social media, we will be there for them. Our retailers are people who appreciate marketing, 2020 style.
“Retailing is definitely changing, especially on the marketing side. We use social media to back up our customer service. We want a bride’s journey, from her very first visit to the shop to the day she picks up the gown she has chosen, to be totally seamless, a never-to-be-forgotten delight.”
“Bricks-and-mortar retailers these days must build on service to provide an experience that brides just don’t get if they buy online. For women getting married, choosing their dream dress is a huge emotional experience. It’s not like buying a pint of milk in the local Tesco! Of course, the retail world is changing but those of us working in bridal can offer something special to customers so that our businesses cannot only survive, but can do well. Bridal is one area where shops can compete because the whole experience is so personal. With many online clothes sales you can more-or-less see what you’re getting on the screen. With bridalwear, you can’t – and bridal has a lot of potential because of that.”
Alongside the development of Georgia Bridal, the LJ Group has taken on a new Creative Director, Helen Lord, from the award-winning Lulu Brown’s Bridal Boutique in nearby Whalley, whom the team have known for some time.
“As well as running her own, highly-successful business, Helen is responsible for all the marketing for Georgia Bridal. The concept of partnership with our retailers came from our joint discussions,” says Neil. “I always knew she was right for us because she knows the market so well and, being a retailer, can see everything from the other perspective.”
The LJ Group will be showing at Harrogate this year and with its new marketing concepts and strong social media presence it will continue to go from strength to strength.